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  • Escaping the MechanismSoldier Fraternization during the Siege at Petersburg
  • Lauren K. Thompson (bio)

On July 18, 1864, Gen. Robert E. Lee issued Special Orders No. 167 to the 1st Army Corps commander, Lt. Gen. R. H. Anderson. Lee ordered, "The practice of permitting communication between our pickets and skirmishers and those of the enemy, is highly injurious to the service and subversive of discipline. No intercourse or conversation with the enemy shall be allowed, and no officers or man will be permitted to go outside of our picket lines except by authority of the Corps commander or officer commanding detached troops."1 Lee's concern over rampant fraternization demonstrated the frequency with which soldiers risked their standing in the army, and ultimately their lives, to communicate with the enemy. As citizen soldiers, both northern and southern men went to war expecting to prove their worth but soon realized military life contradicted notions of individualism. For example, Union soldier Thomas Bell wrote, "A private has but little chance of knowing what movements are or what they are for. His only duty is to receive orders and obey them. I first launched out to gain a livelihood for myself and (as then I thought) to be independent but alas the folly that ambition often leads to."2 Bell's thoughts signified a gap between soldiers' expectations and [End Page 349] reality.3 To lessen this divide, soldiers seized opportunities to fight the war under military discipline while still maintaining some personal freedom. Aside from the more commonly studied forms of resistance—such as desertion, drinking, and brawling—Union and Confederate soldiers fraternized with one another despite strict prohibitions from the high command. Throughout the war, fraternization occurred during the Peninsula, Fredericksburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga campaigns; across the Rappahannock and Chattahoochee Rivers; and during burial truces from Manassas to Nashville. When the Army of the Potomac besieged the Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg in 1864, the resulting trench warfare led to one of the war's most widespread and longest-lasting incidents of fraternization. The development of fraternization between enemies provides insight to how loyal soldiers constructed ways to counter the limitations of trench warfare.

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Trading Coffee for Tobacco, from Edwin Forbes, Army Sketchbook (New York: Fords, Howard & Hulbert, 1890), shows pickets trading along the Rappahannock.

Certainly, this was no "Brothers' War." Bell Irvin Wiley cautioned against exaggerating the "significance of the fraternizing that dotted the war" in his scholarship more than seven decades ago.4 Kenneth Noe and Jason Phillips also [End Page 350] "warn against inflating the true degree of fraternization between Johnny Reb and Billy Yank."5 However, when one takes fraternization at face value or dismisses it as a form of cowardice, an opportunity to understand how soldiers withstood the harsh realities of army life is lost. Labeling soldiers as either committed or coward, with those who fraternized as the latter, overlooks the majority of men whose resistance actually reflected their commitment to fight the war.6 Fraternization did not result in an earthshattering experience that triggered soldiers to desert their ranks in massive droves, nor did it cause soldiers to abandon their motivations for fighting. Rather, it allowed them to replenish their spirits. In other words, for a soldier who fraternized, it was less about the enemy and more about himself. Because it was outlawed and a punishable offense, but happened so frequently, fraternization obviously carried considerable value for the soldiers. Whether it was a relief from the monotony of camp or the provision of a plug of tobacco or a newspaper, soldiers used fraternization to make their duties more manageable. Soldiers responded to war in a variety of ways. Some fraternized, some did not, and many witnessed it. For those who did, fraternization served as a means of handling challenges to their ideology and maintaining their individuality.7

Historians proved the majority of Civil War soldiers knew quite clearly why they enlisted and continued to fight: they fought and died for intrinsic and deep-seated notions of identity, nationalism, and independence. Confederate soldiers, slaveholders or not, fought for the protection and expansion of a slave labor society that...


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