Beyond the ritual of exchange: The culture of alienation shared between soldiers along the Rappahannock during the winter of 1862--63

by Thompson, Lauren Kristin, M.A., WEST VIRGINIA UNIVERSITY, 2010, 58 pages; 1485771


Between December 1862 and April 1863, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and Union Army of the Potomac remained stalemated across from one another on the Rappahannock River. Following the victory at the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Confederate Army held the city while the Union forces remained across the river in Falmouth, Virginia. Soldiers on both sides had several reasons for discontent at this point in the war. The larger causes that drove these men to enlist and fight faded as larger political issues, incompetent commanders, and the difficulties of camp life intensified. Union and Confederate soldiers felt infringement on their independence and looked for other ways to regain their manhood. While soldiers on both sides took their turn on picket duty, they were only a stone’s throw away from their enemy. The permeability of the river and a truce against firing allowed for quite possibly the largest instance of fraternization throughout the Civil War.

While soldiers sat on picket duty across from their enemy, they sang songs, shared jokes, and shouted to one another. As this behavior became accepted, soldiers sent sailboats across with coffee in exchange for tobacco and vice versa. Newspapers were also a hot commodity for exchange. Despite ordinances by both General Lee and General Hooker, soldiers continued to trade items and even began to cross the river. Why would soldiers risk their lives for an enemy that weeks earlier they fought against at the Battle of Fredericksburg? The answer to this question lies in the analysis of the deeper meaning of fraternization, which is at the center of this study. Fraternization was not just an exchange of coffee and tobacco, but served as a larger purpose and had a very complex meaning. When soldiers met one another across enemy lines, they shared stories of home and combat, and talked of peace. These interactions were possible through a common soldier culture of alienation. Confederates were able to relate to disheartened Union soldiers through a common bond of sacrifice and honor. As seasoned veteran soldiers, Federals and Confederates felt that they had more in common with one another than the generals who led them and the politicians at home. This culture of alienation created a bond that was strong enough for these men to travel behind enemy lines, exchange commodities, and share emotions. Fraternization was a subtle form of dissent and did not deter men from staying and they continued to fight at Chancellorsville. The same unity and empathy that brought these men together on the Rappahannock, kept them in their ranks. Therefore, the unique culture developed through fraternization serves as a tool in the development of the synthesis of the Civil War soldier experience.

AdviserPeter S. Carmichael
Source TypeThesis
SubjectsAmerican history; Military history
Publication Number1485771

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