Making Friends with the Enemy

In the lulls between battles, enemy troops at times established temporary bonds of friendship. The rival forces shared a common language and culture, of course, and a certain spirit of brotherhood persisted amid the hostilities.

One form of fraternisation involved the trade of treasured items between the opposing ranks.Facing each other across a river, enemy pickets sometimes sent little hand-carved sailboats to the opposite shore, exchanging coffee that the Southern men craved for tobacco favoured by the Federals. One of Robert E Lee's men remembered a day in the spring of 1862 when the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, Virginia, was "dotted with such a fairy fleet".

Both sides frequently swapped insults, which they termed "smart talk" or "jawing". During the long siege of Vicksburg, a Confederate shouted across the lines, "When Is Grant going to march into Vicksburg?" and received the reply, "when you get your last mule and dog ate up".

Dealings between enemy soldiers were not confined to banter or barter. Foes meeting in the no man's land between the lines might act in a spirit of simple kindness. On one occasion, two unarmed Confederates of the 12th Georgia, carrying a wounded comrade to the hospital, stumbled upon a Federal picket. Instead of demanding their surrender, the Federal directed the men back towards their own lines. Sometimes, pickets of both sides met surreptitiously to drink and play cards. And after battles, burial details often found themselves rubbing shoulders with the enemy as they collected and buried their fallen comrades. One Southern detail lacked sufficient shovels and had to borrow some from Federals performing the same grim task. Once the men started talking on occasions such as these, they would often show each other family pictures and letters from their loved ones back home.

Soldiers found a common ground in music, and rival bands were known to serenade each other from opposing camps. At Fredericksburg, Federal musicians played a medley of northern tunes. "Now give us some of ours". Confederates hollered from across the river. Obligingly, the band swung into "Dixie", "My Maryland" and "Bonnie Blue Flag". The concert ended with both sides singing "Home Sweet Home" at the top of their lungs.

Such displays of comradeship were strictly against regulations, of course. But many officers winked at the infringements, taking the view that a little friendliness was harmless so long as the men did their duty when the battle call sounded.

Besides, the officers themselves were far from guiltless. A number of them had been on good terms in the pre-war Army and were quick to show their respect for their old companions. General Ulysses S Grant, on learning at Petersburg, Virginia, that the bonfires along the Confederate line were in celebration of General George Pickett's new-born son, ordered his own troops to light similar congratulatory fires and sent his old Mexican war comrade a child's silver service through the lines. In occupied Williamsburg, Virginia, during the spring of 1862, Union cavalry officer George Armstrong Custer served as best man at the wedding of a West Point classmate, a prisoner of the Federals. Custer wore the blue dress uniform of a Federal Army captain; the bridegroom appeared in the grey dress uniform of a Confederate Army captain.

Many men in both Armies would have heartily agreed with the Confederate soldier who, after a long talk with a Federal between the lines, wrote home wistfully, "we could have settled the war in 30 minutes had it been left to us".

Sgt. Martin Cross, 1st Virginia Artillery

The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, April 1998