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A war hallowed and human

December 9, 2012 12:11 am

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Re-enactors exchange a 'handshake across the wall.' Prior to battle, the soldiers had declared an informal 'truce.' edschu09a.jpg

Artist Alfred Waud depicted Union Gen. Andrew A. Humphrey's forces charging Marye's Heights during the Battle of Fredericksburg. edschu09b.jpg

The Army of the Potomac crosses the Rappahannock on Dec. 13, 1862, facing heavy artillery fire from Marye's Heights. It was one of the bloodiest days of the war.

CLEARWATER, Fla.

--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.

MONITOR AND MERRIMAC

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."

Before long, dozens of little boats were making the crossing. Some were given names; "Monitor" and "Merrimac" were popular choices. Hundreds of soldiers gathered on the shore to greet each new shipment. And not a shot was ever fired. This contact was officially forbidden, of course, and officers issued strict orders and delivered threats, but these were ignored.

One group of Northern and Southern cavalrymen even met for breakfast upstream from Fredericksburg on the morning of the big battle. They were eating, drinking coffee, and joking among themselves while only a few miles away the killing went on.

On another occasion, the Southerners listened in silence while the Union band across the river played patriotic music including "Hail Columbia" and "The Star Spangled Banner." When the musicians began playing "Dixie," the Rebels broke into rousing cheers. Union soldiers joined in singing and the men had a high old time.

Once, when Union solders heard Confederates on the other side cheering, they yelled over to ask what was going on. A Rebel soldier yelled back that Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was inspecting his troops. When the Yankees heard that, they shouted back, "Hurrah for Stonewall Jackson!"

Despite the rules and orders against fraternizing with the enemy, the men started to visit back and forth. They began to think of one another not as enemies, but as people very much like themselves. All the soldiers were far from home, afraid, lonely, bored with the routine of everyday army life, and sick of the endless war.

Some built crude rafts; others paddled across the icy water clinging to logs. A few hearty souls plunged in and swam quickly across the river. All were greeted warmly, ushered to bonfires, and given hot drinks. They talked openly about themselves and their families, exchanging stories about life back home, about "this damned war." Wouldn't it ever end?

MUCH IN COMMON

They complained about their officers and griped about the politicians back home who made ringing, stirring patriotic speeches while the young ones like themselves did the suffering and the fighting and the dying. They came to know a lot more about the people they had been trained to kill, how much they had in common, and how much of what they had been told was nothing but lies and propaganda.

Above all, they grumbled about how tired they were of everything connected with the war. They couldn't hate men they sat around the campfire with, smoking their tobacco, drinking their coffee, wishing they could all see their families one more time. Was that so much to ask? If they had a choice, they would all go back to their normal lives and let the politicians who talked about glory and victory and noble causes settle it for once and for all.

"Let's just pick up and go," they said to each other. But they knew it was just talk. They realized they would never have any say in what happened to them; that many would never go home or see their families again. They would die trying to cross an open field, storm a stone wall, or fall in some place like Cemetery Ridge or Cold Harbor. The war would go on tomorrow and the next day and the week and month after that, and maybe even for years.

But for those fleeting moments around Fredericksburg, they could smile and joke and tell tall tales like buddies gathered around the campfire. For a brief time, they came together in peace and goodwill. Not a shot was fired, no man feared for his life, and no officer ordered them to charge up some hill against impossible odds.

Tomorrow, however, would be another day. Tomorrow they would be enemies again on opposite sides of a stone wall overlooking an open field. Tomorrow was Saturday, Dec. 13, 1862.




THE KILLING WOULD GO ON, 'TOMORROW'

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).




Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.