Tuesday, May 21, 2013
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.
There were moments, however, 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 two feet long and six 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."
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." But 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 soldiers 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.
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