After the Carnage of the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Picket Lines on the Rappahannock River Were Remarkably Cordial
After losing the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, the Army of the Potomac withdrew across the Rappahannock River to its camps at and around Falmouth, Virginia, and went into winter quarters. Except for Major General Ambrose Burnside’s failed attempt at a new campaign in the January rain known as the Mud March, the two sides remained across the river from each other in a generally peaceful mode.
The soldiers in the picket lines on both sides of the Rappahannock quickly established generally friendly relations with each other, perhaps surprisingly due to the horrible fighting and thousands of casualties at Fredericksburg. The two sides had an unofficial truce with each other, and although officially prohibited, soldiers traded with each other. “While each army posted a picket along the river they never fired a shot” recalled James G.B. Adams of the 19th Massachusetts Infantry. “Our men and theirs met in the river and exchanged papers, tobacco and coffee and were on the best of terms. As the spring months came they fished the river for shad, and as they drew their seines would come so near our shore that they could and often did throw fish to our boys.” The regimental historian of the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry wrote “In front of the Second were generally posted the Louisiana ‘Tigers’, and friendly missives were interchanged, and a trade in coffee, sugar, tobacco and newspapers was carried on between the two”.
The regimental historian of the 1st Maine Cavalry wrote about his unit’s experience on the picket lines that winter:
The time spent on picket duty was, on the whole, the pleasantest part of the winter. The pickets were posted on the banks of the river below Falmouth, in plain sight of the enemy’s pickets. Just after the battle of Fredericksburg the pickets on both sides of the river fraternized, and became quite social. There was the best of good feeling between them. They talked, laughed, chafed each other about various battles, threatened in a good humored way, and altogether acted in such a manner that one not acquainted with real war would never have suspected them to be enemies. A favorite mode of chafing was a salute, say, from the southern side, “How are you, Yank?” to which, “How are you , Johnny ?” would fly back instantly. “How are you, Bull Run?” would come next, and “How are you, Antietam?” be sent back; and so it would go, each side taunting the other with this or that defeat, till the list was exhausted, or the other let his passion get the best of him and showed it by his reply, when the other would make the air ring with laughter. and it would not be strange if some of the “accidental” picket shots arose from this cause. And the pickets did not keep on their own side of the river at all, but went across at will. They supplied each other with the latest newspapers from either side, traded knives or any other commodity, and, what did both sides the most good, the boys furnished the rebel pickets with plenty of coffee, salt, etc., and got in exchange plenty of tobacco, articles very much needed by the men of the respective armies. Picketing in good weather was real pleasure during this state of affairs, but matters got to such a pass that it was found necessary to order all communication between the pickets stopped. The order was pretty well obeyed, but occasionally the temptation was too strong to be resisted, and trade was carried on in a small way on the sly. One method of sustaining commercial relations was to build a raft a foot or so square, generally of corn stalks, fix in a mast with a late newspaper for a sail, load the raft with tobacco, and so set the sail that the wind would carry the raft across the river. The recipient would reciprocate in coffee, if he could do so; and it was quite common, on asking a man where he got his tobacco, to receive the reply, “I had a ship come in.” Of course this was without the knowledge of the officers.
While things were generally all quiet on the Rappahannock, there were exceptions; after all, the war was still going on. The regimental historian of the 11th New Hampshire Infantry recorded this incident:
Plumer E. Carter, Company D, was detailed as one of the pickets near Falmouth, just after the Fredericksburg battle, and upon the post at which he was stationed two men had been shot in a mysterious manner. Comrade Carter, knowing this, kept a sharp lookout for the enemy. A short time after he had been posted he observed at some distance in his front a small scrub pine, and it seemed to move. He called the attention of the picket on the first post at his right, and each saw the bush advance towards them. Although under strict orders not to fire on the post, Carter watched his opportunity and fired. The bush fell, and nothing more was seen until the pickets were relieved, when Carter and several of his comrades went to the bush. Under it they found a dead rebel, who had evidently crossed the river at some point, and was watching his chance to kill another Union picket when he was himself killed.
No more Union pickets were killed.
The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock by Francis Augustin O’Reilly
History of the Eleventh New Hampshire Regiment Volunteer Infantry in the Rebellion War 1861-1865 by Leander W. Cogswell
History of the First Maine Cavalry 1861-1865 by Edward P. Tobie
Reminiscences of the Nineteenth Massachusetts Regiment by John G.B. Adams
The Second Rhode Island Regiment: A Narrative of Military Operations in Which the Regiment was Engaged From the Beginning to the End of the War for the Union by Augustus Woodbury
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