From the Desk of Lauren K. Thompson: Fraternization on the Rappahannock River

Lauren K. Thompson is an assistant professor of history at McKendree University. Her work has been published in Civil War History and in the edited volume A Forgotten Front: Florida during the Civil War Era. Thompson is the author of Friendly Enemies: Soldier Fraternization throughout the American Civil War (Nebraska, 2020).

Fraternization on the Rappahannock River

In the Summer of 2009, I was a Seasonal Park Ranger at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Military Park. At the end of each day, I would make my rounds in the visitor centers before locking up. One evening, I was drawn to an exhibit in the Chancellorsville Visitor Center, entitled “Friendly Enemies.” The exhibit, which has since been replaced when the visitor center received an upgrade, depicted Union and Confederate soldiers trading coffee and tobacco along the Rappahannock River during the Winter of 1863. Like most visitors probably felt upon seeing this exhibit, I tried to wrap my head around such peculiar interactions. The daily tours I gave were all about the bloodshed and carnage. How were men able to brush off those horrors and be amicable with the enemy?

On my “weekends” at the park, which were usually Tuesday and Wednesday during the busy season, I would research soldier accounts in the park archives. I wanted to see if I could understand, from the soldiers’ themselves, why they traded with their enemy. Initially, I had hoped I could find a soldier or two who could explain it to me. Little did I know, I found dozens of soldiers’ depictions of fraternization across the Rappahannock. My research soon developed into a Master’s Thesis. I attributed the fraternization to the fact that men had orders against firing and were cold, bored, & curious about their enemy. I thought these occurrences were exclusive to the armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia, and to that winter of the war. My project, I assumed, ended at that and I would pursue a new topic when I started my PhD. And, boy was I wrong.

While working on my doctorate, I could not help but wonder if fraternization happened elsewhere—at different campaigns and between men in other armies. Before giving up on the topic completely, I wanted to broaden my scope and see what I could find. I visited archives in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia. What their accounts show is that anytime soldiers came together for an extended period and were near one another, they fraternized. Not only did I find soldier fraternization at several other major campaigns, but their interactions went beyond the trade of coffee and tobacco. Soldiers developed even more practical means of fraternization—newspaper exchanges and negotiations to ceasefire. It was at this point I realized these interactions served a greater purpose than I had originally thought.

I needed to dig deep into their world to understand why and how soldiers fraternized. I studied men as citizens before they became soldiers. In Antebellum society, men managed setbacks and coped with difficulties in two ways: small acts of resistance and comfort in homosocial relationships with other men. Fraternization exemplified both. Men came to war expecting to prove their worth, but, the horrors of warfare and strict military hierarchy limited their autonomy. To remain in control of their lot—soldiers leaned on their comrades and, occasionally their enemies, to replenish their spirit. In the most pragmatic sense, men used their environment ultimately to survive. This included working with the enemy to gain information and limiting bloodshed during sieges. When soldiers observed their enemy up close, they were able to shed sectional differences and identify with one another’s mutual circumstances.

I also had to contend with the existing scholarship on the common civil war soldier. How did my findings add to that conversation? An in-depth analysis of soldier fraternization demonstrates a critical nuance. We tend to classify soldiers into dichotomies i.e. volunteer v. conscript, courage v. cowardice, loyal v. deserter, etc. At first, I thought, perhaps the men who fraternized were just “bad” soldiers—men who did not want to be there and would do anything and everything to express their dissatisfaction. However, as I read more about the men who fraternized, they were anything but cowards—in fact, many of them went on to lead their regiments and a handful were Medal of Honor awardees. The overwhelming majority of them were volunteer soldiers, who wrote openly about fraternization (and the benefits it provided) while simultaneously expressing their anger for cowards and shirkers. They also recorded their loyalty to their service and efforts to remain enlisted until the war’s end. In fraternizing, did these men break orders? Yes. Were they at risk of a Court Martial or capture? Yes. Were they committed to finishing the job? Yes. After fraternizing did they return to their post? Yes. Therefore, fraternization gave men the space to occasionally test restrictions and use their environment to fight the war on their own terms.

Additionally, race is a factor of major significance. Most interactions between enemies included “talks of peace.” Men would denounce leadership and politicians to agree that if left up to the men in the ranks, the war would be over. Out of courtesy, men did not discuss slavery, sectional strife, or, most importantly, over what terms they would end the war. Thus, common soldiers began a trend that we would see on a national scale after the guns fell silent in April 1865. These interactions foreshadowed postwar race relations. Northern and southern men would come together to reunify the nation at the expense of people of color. Thus, fraternization was the prototype for sectional reunion after the war—one that avoided debates over causation, honored soldiers’ shared sacrifice, and downplayed systemic racism. Unfortunately, segregationists would romanticize accounts of fraternization to promote white supremacy. I wanted to make this point very clear in my book.

Overall, what began as a personal inquiry that summer in Fredericksburg developed into a full-scale analysis of fraternization throughout the entire war. When I talk to historians, students, and academics about this project, they say, “Oh, I’ve heard about this happening during the Civil War!” It is interesting that many of us heard about fraternization, but never really investigated it. I am very grateful to be that person. I am glad I could find and share these soldiers’ stories. We now know where, why, and how fraternization happened amidst the bloodiest war in American History.

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