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CVBT History Wire, Cordial Combatants: Fraternization on the Rappahannock

"Christmas Day on the Rappahannock in 1862." By Gilbert Gaul.

(Harper's Weekly, December 11, 1886) 

Note the small sailboat used for trading goods.

 

Cordial Combatants - Introduction


Captain A. C. Jones of the 3rd Arkansas Infantry (Hood’s Brigade) remembered years later an incident that became fairly common between the belligerents following the Battle of Fredericksburg. After the Federals crossed the Rappahannock River back into Stafford County, both sides placed pickets along the stream’s banks to watch each other and ensure that no surprise attacks occurred. Jones recalled what happened while he was stationed near Mannsfield, the Arthur Bernard House: “On reaching the edge of the bluff [of the river bank], I had a plain view of everything beyond and soon discovered a Yankee sentinel about eighty yards distant (the river being about seventy-five yards wide) trying to conceal himself behind a fringe of bushes on the river bank.” After taking a few seconds to think about what he should do, Jones cried out, “Hello there, Mr. Yank,” to which he quickly responded, “Hello, yourself.” Jones yelled back, “I want to know if it is peace or war.” Back came the reply, “If you won’t shoot, I won’t.” The captain then sought to strike a deal. He said, “I wish to make a bargain with you. I intend to place a line of pickets on this side of the river. If you will not fire upon them, we will agree to keep the peace.” “All right,” the Federal answered, and included a “thank you.” Jones then “moved the men up and proceeded to place the pickets about two hundred yards apart on a half-mile front.”

 

Over the next few months, opportunities arose for men who were so recently such bitter enemies on the battlefield to find some humanity in each other. Breaking conventions (and often regulations) they reached out to one another for a few fleeting moments of peaceful existence, and occasionally friendly interaction.

 

In this CVBT History Wire, we will examine a number of these exchanges that soldiers recorded either at the time or remembered later. In doing so, it helps remind us that the soldiers fighting and seeking to survive on central Virginia’s battlefields and in their camps were not just calloused machines following orders but were in fact human beings who also had needs that the enemy could sometimes meet and a commonness that war could not completely erase.

 

Observing the Enemy

"Pickets - Near Fredericksburg." Sketched by Alfred Waud. (Library of Congress)


The day after Christmas, 1862, Pvt. Alva Merrill of the 154th New York Infantry wrote home to his mother noting how seeing the Confederate pickets on the other side reminded him of home: "I went over onto the river bank & sat and looked at the rebel pickets. I was just a good rifle shot from them. It looked just like little boys play. I sat and thought of home and those I left behind me. But I suppose they are enjoying themselves. At any rate, I hope so. I tell you I thought of a good many things in the course of two hours but I can tell it to you better when I get home than I can write it."

 

Pvt. Alva Merrill’s father, Barzilla Merrill, also served in the 154th New York. He, too, wrote to Mrs. Merrill in early January 1863 about observing the enemy across the Rappahannock. "We hain't drilled much since we have been here. Our business has been picket duty, guard duty, a little drilling and the like. We picket one side of the Rappahannock and the rebs the other,” Barzilla jotted. “I have had one 48 hour tour of picketing and saw plenty of rebs. I think if it wasn't for the big toads, we and the rebs---I means the reb soldiers---would not quarrel or fight much. I have not spoke with any of them but some of our men have. They say if we will lay down our arms, they will, and both go home. We are in speaking distance when on picket in some places," he explained.

 

Unfortunately, neither Merrill would return to their home in New York to re-live old memories. Both were struck down in the fighting at Chancellorsville.

 

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The Rappahannock River banks near Chatham, the J. Horace Lacy House in Falmouth, was the scene of numerous non-combat interactions between Federals and Confederates.

(Terry Rensel)


Being in such close proximity, and with much of the timber along the river removed for fuel and winter quarters construction, unobstructed views provided what were unusual and sometimes humorous sites. Pvt. Roland Bowen, 15th Massachusetts, who was stationed near Chatham, wrote home explaining, “It is cleared land on both sides of the river here and it is only a few rods wide. The Rebs are just on the other bank and we often talk and joke together. Two of them are trying to milk a cow just now but they can’t catch her, and so I am laughing at them.”

 

Charles Ely of the 27th Connecticut also wrote about viewing the enemy across the river. “Our station on picket duty was on the bank of the Rappahannock opposite the famous little city, Fredericksburg. We could see the rebels on the other side of the river distinctly, not only pickets but others, playing ball, etc.,” Ely noted. Both sides, always on the lookout for poking a little fun, sought opportunities for laughs. Ely explained that, “They seem quite lively & talkative, but we are not allowed to talk to them; otherwise we should keep up quite a conversation as we can easily hear them across the river. They frequently sing out, as we are marching in squads to relieve posts, ‘close up.’”

 

Alabamian Edmund DeWitt Patterson scribbled in his journal on January 20, 1863, “We stand on our side of the river and look at the Yanks. They stand on their side and look at us. Sometimes we exchange papers, though in violation of orders, and sometimes the boys trade tobacco for coffee.” Posted near a dam, where the water was “not more than three feet deep,” they would “wade out to a little shoal of rocks in the middle of the stream and meet and take a drink together, make such trades as they wish, then each returns to his own side again.”


"Bank's Ford and Scott's Dam on the Rappahannock." Sketched by A. R. Waud.

(Library of Congress)


Sometimes the humor came from laughing at oneself. John Haley of the 17th Maine noted in his journal: “My first post on this day wasn’t far from the river, which at this point is exceedingly turbulent. On the opposite bank I spied a huge Confederate sitting grim and composed. I approached him for a chat, if our voices could be audible above the rushing Rappahannock, but a nearer view revealed that my Confederate was only a large grey boulder, so my social intentions came to naught.” The same day, Haley and his comrades provided a few laughs for their counterparts: “A little incident happened at the riverside this afternoon. As our Officer of the Day came down from camp to inspect the posts, the Rebel vedette opposite sang out, ‘Officer of the Day. Turn out the guard!’ The Rebels promptly turned out and presented arms. I presume this was a Confederate joke, and not a bad one either,” Haley penned.

 

On January 25, 1863, Capt. Charles Haydon, 2nd Michigan, noted in his journal that the weather was “warm and cloudy,” and that he was out on picket duty in charge of about 97 men from his regiment. In many instances, opposing picket and work details were only mere yards from one another. Haydon noted that “The Rebs are at work just opposite [the river] in considerable force.” What they were working on Haydon did not specifically say, but they were probably improving earthworks, artillery positions, or clearing timber. Soldiers were not supposed to speak to the enemy, fearing they might divulge important military information, but occasionally, when officers were not present, they met, chatted, and swapped items. It was also a common understanding not to shoot at an enemy picket unless seriously threatened. Capt. Haydon clearly knew the rules, as he wrote, “No communication is allowed & all the pickets can do to amuse themselves is throw stones at each other across the river.”


Banks' Ford (Tim Talbott)

 

Picket Trading

"Meeting of Union and Rebel Pickets in the Rappahannock."

Sketch by Johannes Adam Simon Oertel.

(Library of Congress) 


Despite some officers’ attempts to prevent communication and fraternization, the standing rule was virtually impossible to enforce all the time, as soldiers had some of their needs met by ignoring the regulation.

 

Although often frowned upon by officers as socializing with the enemy, Maj. Hilary Herbert, 8th Alabama, found it all rather harmless. He wrote, “A battery of two guns, not more than three-quarters of a mile off, could have fired a shell into my camp at any moment . . . so too the enemy’s pickets and ours, occupying as they did opposite banks of the narrow [Rappahannock] river, could at any time have killed each other. But we were now real soldiers on both sides and well knew that mere picket shooting helped neither side and was only murder; so by a sort of tacit consent we dropped everything of the kind. Pickets talked with and bantered each other across the river.”   

 

In February 1863, Pvt. Milton Barrett, 18th Georgia, wrote to family back in Pickens County, South Carolina, about interactions with Union pickets. Barrett noted that, “Our regiment has just come off picket. We stood close together [with the enemy] and could talk to each other, then when the officers were not present we exchanged papers and barter tobacco for coffee.” At places along the river where it was narrow and shallow, wading to meet each other for swapping was possible. Where the stream was wider and deeper it required other means. Barret explained: “The way we managed this is with a small boat,” but not for passengers, only for the cargo. Barret briefly described the watercraft and the process, “with sail set it will go over by itself then they send back in return the same way.” Still, he explained, “This correspondence has to be kept secret from the officers.”


"An Incident of the War." Sketch by Arthur Lumley.

(Library of Congress). 

Written on the backside of the sketch is the following note: "One of the rebel Pickets (11th Ala) crossed over on rocks to the union pickets to Exchange Tobacco and a richmond paper for the N.Y. Herald there is a mutual understanding among the pickets of both sides that the[y] will not be arrested [crossed out] captured, for the[y] trust the honor of the enemy in such case, this would have been so in this case had not the Col Bailey (2nd Del) officer of the day) been going his rounds, concluded to put a stop to this traffic in the spy line, as the benefit was always on the side of the Rebels The young rebel picket was brought to general Hancock's H.Q. much to the disgust of our pickets who think he should have been let free. Major Throop 57th N.Y.V. Commanding pickets (Zooks brigade, Hancocks Division). The Southern Ill[ustrated] New[s] was found on the prisoner, and given to me by Major Throop=please acknownledge, its accepant[sic] from him in your paper."


While Barrett's and other accounts note using a tiny sailboat for trading others invented different methods. As Pvt. Thomas Mann of the 18th Massachusetts remembered: “The alertness and watchfulness of either picket force was not abated one iota while the Blue and the Gray found these opportunities to exchange coffee for tobacco. To facilitate these exchanges, [one or the other] tossed a stone with a twine attached across the river, thus establishing a rope ferry—very efficient for towing small packages from shore to shore.”  Pvt. John T. Goldsmith of the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry wrote in his diary on February 26, 1863: “Started for three days picket. Down to the [Rappahannock] river. The Rebs is trying to send a board across the river with some tobacco to our boys.”

 

Pvt. Henry Waters Berryman, 1st Texas Infantry, picketing near Mannsfield, concurred with Goldsmith about the board or plank boat method. He wrote his mother: “The river is about seventy five yards wide, the Yankee pickets on one side and we the other, before we had orders not to talk with them, we use to trade tobacco for coffee and [news]papers. They want to be friendly with us very much. They send over papers on planks, but we don’t say a word to them. It is against orders to shoot without a body of them attempting to cross while on picket.” When asked what regiment they were with, Berryman noted that his brother, a lieutenant, yelled across “the 24th Mexico.” The Federal soldier, apparently not in the mood for humor, “turned around and walked off.” However, one of Berryman’s comrades asked “them when they were going to give us another round [a try at battle], he said, ‘We don’t know, we are all privates,’ he hollered back and asked where Jackson was. He answered and said that they had better look out that he had heard Jackson say that he was going in their rear in a few days, if it kept warm. He had nothing more to say, but ask if we want a [news]paper.”


Mannsfield ruins. Located east of the Slaughter Pen Farm portion of the Fredericksburg battlefield, Mannsfield received many comments from both Federals and Confederates who were picketing that area of the Rappahannock River. It accidentally burned while occupied by Confederate pickets.

(Library of Congress)  


Private Mann explained that “Foggy weather along the river banks was the rule, and a conversation was easiest carried on when the fog shut down so thick as to hide one bank from the other. Then it became a good conductor of sound, and transmitted it across the water more readily than in any other direction." Mann provided an extended example of the banter:

"'Uncle Robert is kinder inquiring when you all are going to get ready to give we’uns another try.’ ‘Oh, new neow, don’t yer go ter borrowin no sort of trouble on that pint. If yer wants to take a turn come right over hier any day.’

‘Seems you’uns kinder pettered out, tired like, I recon, trying to flank Uncle Robert.’

‘Tired nothing,--tired of flanking yer d-----d mud!’

‘When you alls gwin to look roun Bull Run some more?’

‘Well, Johnnie, ‘bout the time yer Uncle Bob wants ter take ‘nother look at Baltimore.’

‘You alls Yanks talks too much; you’uns no fighters, nohow.’

‘I say, Greyback, why don’t yer drive us out’en yer front yard and give a feller a chance to get shook of yer sacred soil?’

‘Maybe Uncle Robert knows the lay of these plntashuns a heap sight better than you alls.’

‘How did yer Uncle Bob like Maryland?’

‘We’uns calculated to be a heap hungry and called round that thar country for raciness.’

‘Well, Johnnie, yer got yer ‘raciness.’ Ye going ter git hungery agin soon?'"

 

Another example of the exchanges to initiate trades comes by way of Pvt. John R. Paxton of the 140th Pennsylvania, who remembered bantering commonly went something like this:

"'Let's laugh, boys.'

'Hello, Johnny!'

'Hello yourself, Yank!'

'Merry Christmas, Johnny!'

'Same to you, Yank!'

'Say Johnny, got anything to trade?'

'Parched corn and tobacco - the size of our Christmas, Yank.'

'All right. You shall have some of our coffee and sugar and pork. Boys, find the boats.'"


"Examining passes/Union and Confederate Pickets - Fredericksburg, Va."

Sketch by Arthur Lumley.

(Library of Congress)


And then the trading began. As Pvt. Paxton recalled: “We got out the boats. An old handkerchief answered for a sail. We loaded them with coffee, sugar, pork, and set the sail, and watched them slowly creep to the other shore. And the Johnnies! To see them crowd the bank, and push and scramble to be the first to seize the boats, going into the water, and stretching out their long arms! Then when they pulled the boats ashore, and stood in a group over the cargo, and to hear their exclamations: ‘Hurrah for hog!’ ‘Sat, that's not roasted rye, but genuine coffee. Smell it, you uns.’ ‘And sugar, too.’ Then they divided the consignment. They laughed and shouted, ‘Reckon you uns been good to we uns this Christmas Day, Yanks.’ Then they put parched corn, tobacco, and ripe persimmons into the boats, and sent them back to us. And we chewed the parched corn, smoked real Virginia leaf, ate persimmons, which if they weren't very filling, at least contracted our stomachs to the size of our Christmas dinner. And so the day passed.” Perhaps with some nostalgia, Paxton explained years after the event: “We shouted, ‘Merry Christmas, Johnny.’ They shouted, ‘Same to you, Yank.’ And we forgot the biting wind, the chilling cold; we forgot those men over there were our enemies, whom it might be our duty to shoot before evening.”


January 21, 1863, edition of the Richmond Daily Dispatch.


Sometimes, when quiet needed kept, notes answered instead of spoken conversations. On January 21, 1863, the Richmond Daily Dispatch reprinted a small note recording one of these soldier interactions:

January 17th, 1863

“Gents on Confederate States duty:—

“We had the pleasure to receive your letter, and very glad to find you in good spirits. We are sorry not to have any newspapers on hand, but will get some as soon as possible. We send you coffee whenever the wind permits us to do so. Can’t one of you come over this evening in the little boat you have there? We will not keep you. In the hope that Jeff. Davis and Abe Lincoln will give us peace, we send our best respects.”

Co. A. 46th Reg. N. Y. S. V.”

 

Occasionally, trading efforts turned into trouble. Capt. George Clark of the 11th Alabama remembered that “Our boys made boats that could sail directly up and across the river, and give the Federals directions how to set the boat to come back to us. On one occasion one of my men was captured and taken into custody as a prisoner, but the next day he was released and brought back to us by way of Fredericksburg.”

 

However, most of the time, conversations and trades were less dramatic. John Weiser of the 130th Pennsylvania, on picket near Chatham, wrote in mid-February 1863: “We have some fun on picket duty now with the Rebs as we are only about one hundred yards apart at the farthest point on the line that we picket. They are constantly yelling at our men whilst on front all the witticism they can think of. Other times they are singing ‘Yankee Doodle’ or ‘Dixie Land, I’ll take my stand’ or some other National Air.” Weiser penned “Sometimes they bring their guns to a level and take deliberate aim at one of our men. Some [of our men] are soft enough to think [the Rebs] are going to shoot and fall down on the ground or dodge behind tree or bank so the Reb cant hit him. This is fun for the Reb or Rebs as it may be. They all throw their hats in the air, roll on the ground and tell the man that dodges he is a coward, no soldier or something else whilst our men all along the line are not allowed to communicate to them at all either by talking or through signals but some hold quite a conversation with them.”


 

Truces

"The Union and Rebel officers taking the last drink after signing the paroles

and Exchange of prisoners." Sketch by Arthur Lumley.

(Library of Congress)


Official truces called following the Battle of Fredericksburg also created opportunities for enemies to let down their guard and show their softer side.

 

In a letter three days after the Battle of Fredericksburg, Martin Haynes, 2nd New Hampshire Infantry, who was serving on the picket line, wrote about the brief truce that was called two days after the battle: “After this work [picket firing] had been going on nearly all day, there was a truce for some purpose or other, on that part of the line, the firing ceased and the two skirmish lines mingled together like the best of friends, comparing notes and joking and chaffing each other.” But soon, “After a time, the men leisurely meandered back to their hiding places, but there was very little shooting after that exchange of courtesies.”

 

Civil War battlefields presented some strange sites to those not used to seeing them. The portion of the Fredericksburg battlefield now known as the Slaughter Pen Farm, left a distinct impression on the 11th New Jersey’s Pvt. Alonzo Searing in the days following the battle. Pvt. Searing enlisted in mid-August 1862. Fredericksburg was his regiment’s first chance at battle. Fortunately for them, they received orders to guard the lower crossing pontoon bridge on December 13, 1862. However, he soon observed the results of the battle. Searing noted that “a suspension of hostilities was agreed upon in order that both armies could take care of their wounded . . . .” During which, “a strange site was witnessed, Union and Confederate soldiers met midway between the skirmish lines and exchanged coffee for tobacco and newspapers, and even played cards.” At the end of the brief truce the skirmishers “resumed firing at each other.”


"View at Fredericksburg, Va. - south end of the railroad bridge across Rappahannock River,

taken from north side of river."

(Library of Congress)


Pvt. Henry Robinson Berkeley, Amherst (Virginia) Artillery noted in his diary that “There was a flag of truce in our lines and we met a Yankee lieutenant and four men, in charge of a Georgia sergeant, looking for dead Yanks. We had a long pleasant chat with these Yankees, and told them where they would find four dead Yankees; but the Yankee lieutenant said, ‘Let the [dead] bury their dead and we will have a talk.’”

 

Col. John R. Brooke, 53rd Pennsylvania, headed a burial party that came across the Rappahannock on December 17. Welcomed by the Confederates, the detail spent the day performing their grisly work. Before they recrossed the river to their camps, apparently the enemies parted “in the most friendly manner,” and some traded items, leaving one Union soldier to write about the experience: “What a pity that we must fight.” A prisoner exchange, also on December 17, and another burial party on the 18th resulted in additional amicable interactions.


"Union soldiers exchanging salutations with Confederates at Fredericksburg, Va."

Sketch by Alfred R. Waud.

(Library of Congress)


A post-battle death created an unplanned and brief truce. Falling mortally wounded on the south end of the Fredericksburg battlefield, Capt. Edward Payson Lawton ended up captured and transported to a Union hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, where he died the day after Christmas 1862. Previously informed of her husband’s wounding, Evelina Lawton traveled by train from Savannah, Georgia, to Virginia, finding out at Fredericksburg that Capt. Lawton was within Union lines. Ms. Lawton secured a pass but arrived in Alexandria too late to nurse her husband. Despite her grief, she secured his body for transportation home.

 

The day following Ms. Lawton's arrival in Stafford County on January 7, 1863, Lt. Col. William Teall, the son-in-law of Maj. Gen. Edwin Sumner and a member of his staff, detailed soldiers from the 10th New York Infantry to escort Mrs. Lawton and the body to the Rappahannock River. Teall accompanied Ms. Lawton to the Fredericksburg side, crossing by boat where the upper pontoon bridge once spanned the river. Once across, Gen. Joseph Kershaw received them. Kershaw told Teall, “Col[onel], we feel grateful for y[ou]r kind attention. I thank you for it.” Eventually Mrs. Lawton and Capt. Lawton’s remains made their way by train back south where he was buried in nearby Robertville, South Carolina.

 

Conclusion

While some of these accounts come from soldiers’ memoirs, and thus perhaps express a sense of nostalgia in an effort to reconcile old differences, the majority are wartime sources that show just how complicated relationships can be between enemies at times. It is important to remember that humans are complex creatures and that conflicts can produce unique conditions that cause unusual behaviors, especially within a highly regulated environment. Curiosity likely played a large part in some of these interactions, but soldiers also often wanted something (coffee/tobacco/newspapers) that made their sometimes dangerous, sometimes monotonous, and sometimes homesick lives just a little bit more pleasurable.

 

Sources and Suggested Reading


Lauren K. Thompson. Friendly Enemies: Soldier Fraternization throughout the American Civil War. University of Nebraska Press, 2020.

 

Several of the accounts used above come from the collections of letters curated by William Griffing and located in his many Spared and Shared online archives.

 

Parting Shot


116th Pennsylvania Infantry flag. The 116th Pennsylvania was one of the regiments in the famous Irish Brigade.

(Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee)


"So they are saying that we are goint to Fortus Monrow but I gess it is playd out fore the Irish Brigade has to stay hear to keep the Jonney Rebes from comming over hear from Fredricksburg for we go on Picket down thier they [k]now whenthe Irish Brigade comes on Picket fore as soon as we get on poste they comence hollor over to us they wante to now wether we have got any thing to send over to them they have got little ships they send ofer some Tobacco to us and we send some sugar and Coffee to them and they write on paper and send them over to us thay are always sorry when we go off of Picket they are frade of the 9 mounths men feer they will shoote them the Rebes call them Harde Tacks for theywill sell their cattriges for Harde Tac they Relive us on Picket as soon as they com on poste our boys comense hollowing Hard Tacks and soon as the Rebes hearsthat it is Hard Tacks they wount say a worde to them for they are down onthem and they keep dosile."

 

 
 

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For additional past "CVBT History Wire" and informative articles, visit the blog section of the CVBT website.

 

 

Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Mine Run, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.

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