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George Washington Breaks Up a Snowball Fight at Harvard


A snowball fight among Continental Army soldiers threatened to get ugly during the Siege of Boston until George Washington intervened.


George Washington, 1776

It was the snowy December of 1775. Since the summer, Washington had been trying to mold a single army from the many raw militias camped on the hills above Boston.

A 10-year-old boy named Israel Trask from Gloucester, Mass., had joined his father and his Essex County regiment. They were quartered at Harvard College.

Glover’s Regiment had arrived in Cambridge from Marblehead, also in Essex County. They were interrupting supply ships for the redcoats bottled up in Boston. The regiment was comprised of fishermen and sailors of all colors – English Yankees, African-Americans and Indians. They dressed in short jackets and loose trousers.

Virginians vs. Yankees

One day a large group of newly arrived Virginia riflemen were strolling around Harvard Yard. Glover’s Regiment caught sight of them looking at the buildings. The Virginians’ outfits, so unlike anyone else’s, were too much for the Marbleheaders. The Virginians wore ‘white linen frocks, ruffled and fringed.’

The Marbleheaders, a jovial crew, began to make fun of the Virginians.

Colonial engraving, Harvard College

Colonial engraving, Harvard College

According to young Israel Trask, insults turned into a snowball fight, which escalated into a riot. It started out as ridicule and derision, and the riflemen bore it “with more patience than their wont.”

The Snowball Fight

Then, wrote Trask, resort was made to the snow that covered the ground.

These soft missives were interchanged but a few minutes before both parties closed, and a fierce struggle commenced with biting and gouging on the one part, and knockdown on the other part with as much apparent fury as the most deadly enmity could create.

In less than five minutes, more than a thousand combatants joined the fight.

And then George Washington showed up, whether intentionally or not, Trask wrote, he never knew.

I only saw him and his colored servant both mounted. With the spring of a deer, he leaped from his saddle, threw the reins of his bridle into the hands of his servant, and rushed into the thickest of the melee, with an iron grip seized two tall, brawny, athletic, savage-looking riflemen by the throat, keeping them at arm’s length, alternately shaking and talking to them.

In this position the eye of the belligerents caught sight of the general. Its effect on them was instantaneous flight at the top of their speed in all directions from the scene of the conflict. Less than fifteen minutes time had elapsed from the commencement of the row before the general and his two criminals were the only occupants of the field of action.

With thanks to Boston 1775. This story last updated in 2022.


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