I had heard of the Great Snowball Battle in Dalton during the Civil War. It is probably the largest snowball battle in history. The Southern Army was camped here for the winter when it came a late snow in spring on March 22, 1864. Just about the whole army came out, and the units formed up and had at it, unit versus unit, regiment versus regiment and so on.
Some soldiers got carried away and put rocks or bullets in their snowballs to really bang up the opposition. And yes, somebody did get their eye put out. It was a thousand laughs and cheers on that snowy day, with all sides declaring victory.
A spectacular show
But what I had not heard of was the great “Sham Battle” that was fought here during the stay of the Confederate Army. On April 7, 1864, Gen. Hardee’s Corps put on a show that was pretty spectacular. I learned about this Sham Battle in the “Dalton in the Civil War” 150th anniversary book of essays. The essay was by local history expert Marvin Sowder and the book can be purchased at the Huff House. Marvin got some of his information from the first-person account of participant Lt. Robert D. Smith of Cleburne’s Division. His unit fought on the side of the “enemy.”
During the winter of 1863-64 stay of the Confederate Army in Whitfield County, part of the task at hand was to rebuild the army after its series of defeats at Chattanooga. Men were given passes to go home and visit family, there was a great religious revival in the camps, there was the snowball battle which was an unexpected boost to morale and there was a grand review as units of the army marched in order past the command staff. And then there was the Sham Battle.
The battle itself took place south of town. The units that would take part were notified the day before. Part of the effort was to make a demonstration for the locals, and part was to rehearse a big operation, just like the war games that the U.S. military puts on these days. The men were given about four blanks each, and there was artillery and cavalry as well. A line about a mile long was formed parallel to Dug Gap Road for the “Southern” forces and the “enemy” lined up facing them parallel to the railroad tracks, with the main battlefield being about where Lakeshore Park is today.
The lieutenant noted that all types of locals came out to watch, especially the well-dressed ladies who looked so good you wouldn’t know there was a blockade. They had probably been waiting for an event for them to be able to get out their nice clothes again.
It was rumored that Miss Belle Boyd, the famous spy for the South, was in attendance. Also described was the fact that the ladies were even climbing on the roofs of the houses to watch the goings on. I’d hate to have to climb anywhere with an ankle-length hoop skirt.
As far as viewing the Sham Battle, keep in mind that with all the farming and the fact that people heated their houses and cooked with wood and that homes were made of wood, there were fewer trees back then than there are now. With the trees cut, most of the action was easily viewed.
Part of the purpose of the battle was for the units to try out the maneuvers they had been training for. The moves included a marching column swinging into a battle line, or for a battle line to move forward or drop back to keep the line straight when advancing, or a line to wheel about if the enemy comes from a different direction. All these moves as well as cavalry charges were carried out. When cavalry attacks, the infantry will form squares so they are all facing outward in every direction with no “rear” for the horses to charge against. Lt. Smith noted that this formation was made without a hitch.
Counting the cavalry and artillery, it was estimated 100,000 “shots” were fired. This must have given the spectators a pretty good approximation of what real combat was like. They even had the signal flags going and the stretcher bearers active. For the second half of the battle, the lines were changed 90 degrees so now they were charging on a north/south axis. With a final grand charge the “enemy” broke and ran. And, as they say, a good time was had by all.
The good thing is we still have sham battles that we can go and see. It’s called living history or reenacting. And we’re lucky enough to have some in our area. I went to one for the Battle of Resaca some years ago. Entire families take part, with fathers and sons playing the part of soldiers and the wives and daughters doing their behind-the-lines duties just like the women did then, as nurses and cooks and preparing supplies. I have also noted a few women playing the roles of men so they could take part in the battle action. The first one I ever saw was riding a horse in the cavalry. Her hair was up and her horse skills outshone the men riding with her.
The reenactors will spend a lot of time and money to get everything about themselves and their gear authentic. There are several sutlers (suppliers) around the country that make everything from uniforms to cooking utensils to tents based on designs from the 1860s. Occasionally a reenactor may even have an original item he uses, like a rifle or musket that is 150 years old. The reenactors become quite the experts on the gear and who manufactured what and what year a certain hat or uniform jacket came out. If there’s a battle that took place early in the war some reenactors will have an “early war” uniform and then another, much-more ragged, "late war” uniform.
The events usually take place over a weekend, perhaps on the nearest dates to the actual battle. No reenactments are held in national battlefield parks like Chickamauga, so for many battle redos, a farm or some type of property nearby has to be found with hopefully similar terrain to the battle.
The organizers will usually try and reenact a certain portion of the battle, frequently its most famous fight. I went to a large reenactment of Shiloh in Western Tennessee not far from the battlefield park. They were reenacting the “Hornet’s Nest,” which was a particularly brutal fight during the original battle, taking its name from the fact that the bullets were flying through the air like hornets.
I’ve been to the reenactment in Tunnel Hill that they put on every September several times. Usually during the weekend they open the camps up for spectators to investigate. This is when you find out how much these folks know about history. They know the history of units, the battles and the personalities involved, especially the officers. They are happy to show people what the day-to-day camp life was like for a soldier, even recreating recipes from those days so they can eat like they did back then. Hardtack and Rebel Cush anyone? At Tunnel Hill I’ve even seen a “surgeon” with a setup full of authentic, original medical instruments. Remind me not to have my appendix taken out circa 1864.
One of the things the “soldiers” learn by living history like this is exactly how it feels to march along a dusty road or across a field in the summer sun wearing a wool uniform and carrying 40 pounds or more of gear. The reports from the war about the men crying out for water makes total sense. And by the way, once the wool gets wet from sweat it actually has a bit of a cooling effect. They also learn how hard it is to keep a straight line while attacking forward a quarter of a mile across a field. And they learn that no matter how fast they can reload their single-shot rifles, it would never seem fast enough in a real battle.
Because most of the battles took place in the South it’s easier to get Southern troops for the reenactments than to get Northern troops to drive all day to get down here. Therefore, many of the Southern units also take on the guise of a Northern unit so if more Yankees are needed they can change uniforms and "galvanize.” This helps keep things more fair looking on the battlefield.
Because of the poverty of the Southern troops, a person can have a much more personalized uniform if marching with the South, with a mix-match bunch of uniform bits and a hat that may not match anyone else’s.
Keep an eye out for a Sham Battle in the area and try and get there. It will give you a view of history that is as real as it gets.
Mark Hannah, a Dalton native, works in video and film production.