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A war hallowed and human
Sesquicentennial of the Battle of Frederickburg: Coming Together: Fredericksburg, 1862

 Re-enactors exchange a 'handshake across the wall.' Prior to battle, the soldiers had declared an informal 'truce.'
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Date published: 12/9/2012


--The killing went on throughout the day without mercy or compassion, pity or remorse. The field below the stone wall was the scene of one of the bloodiest days in four years of war. But there were moments, in the days and weeks before and after the battle, when the opposing armies, Rebel and Yankee, Confederate and Union, came together in a kind of peace, even friendship.

It happened many times in places where the enemies were close enough to shout across the Rappahannock River. The pickets on duty did not fire, even though each side had a clear view of the other. The soldiers decided among themselves to declare an informal truce. At first it was just a few men waving, yelling a greeting or sharing a laugh, or shouting taunts with a lot of profanity and vulgarity slung back and forth.

Confederates would ask the Yankees why it was taking them so long to cross the river. And Yankees would ask why the Rebels wore such ratty old clothes. Confederates would respond that they didn't need to dress up to kill hogs! Some of the jibes were mean-spirited at first, but most of the men were just out to have some fun. They established a trade for goods their armies didn't have. The Yankees had lots of coffee--real coffee--and the Rebels had plenty of tobacco. Newspapers were in demand, because soldiers on the line rarely knew anything about the events on other fronts in the war.

The exchanges began with toy boats, each about 2 feet long and 6 inches wide, carved from small tree trunks and hollowed out in the center to carry cargo. The men fashioned tiny sails and rudders so the boats would go in the right direction.


The first boat was dispatched by a Mississippi outfit. They loaded it with tobacco and sent it across the Rappahannock where it was hauled in by some soldiers from New Jersey. A note with the cargo said:

"Gents, U.S. Army: We send you some tobacco by our packet. Send us some coffee in return. Also a deck of cards, if you have them, and we will send you more tobacco. Send us any late papers if you have them."

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Duane Schultz taught in the psychology department at Mary Washington College in the 1960s. Since then, he has written more than two dozen books in psychology and on World War II and the Civil War, including "The Fate of War: Fredericksburg, 1862" (Westholme Publishing, 2011).