Fraternization at the front

After the February 1865 peace talks failed to end the U.S. Civil War, Union soldiers at Bermuda Hundred, Va. — where my ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull was stationed — did what they could to move things along.

May 2014: Confederate reenactors' encampment, Spotslyvania Court House, Va. Toward the end of the Civil War, battlefield banter with Union troops encouraged Confederate soldiers to desert. Photo by Molly Charboneau
May 2014: Confederate reenactors’ encampment, Spotslyvania Court House, Va. Toward the end of the Civil War, enchanging battlefield banter with Union troops encouraged Confederate soldiers to desert. Photo by Molly Charboneau

The Union Army was marching irrevocably toward securing the Union and — together with the African American population and the valiant U.S. Colored Troops — destroying the brutal slave system.

With the war’s end in sight and longing for peace, soldiers from North and South began to fraternize across the battle lines.

My great, great grandfather’s 6th New York Heavy Artillery regiment arrived at Bermuda Hundred in January 1865. They were promptly heckled by Confederate soldiers who had opposed them at Cedar Creek in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Sgt. William Thistleton of the 6th NYHA recorded one such incident in his diary and described the effect of this battlefield banter on Confederate troops:

January 1st, 1865: …as our lines were only about 150 yards conversation was easy as soon as they discovered that the 6th N.Y.H. Artillery was in front of them one of the rebs jumped up and sang out, ‘I say boys here is the Big Six come all the way from Cedar Creek for their knapsacks you had better get ready to hand them over,’ then turning towards us he inquired, ‘Say Yanks aint you been cold this winter without your over-coats and blankets?’

As may be imagined they had the laugh on us until one of our men replied, ‘ “No Johnny” we haven’t been cold we kept warm by drilling on those eighty pieces of artillery you left in the valley.’

Chaffing was the order of the day on both sides yet quite friendly relations were kept up. Our men would go out  half way between the lines and invite the rebs to dine with them the result of this intercourse tended to swell the number of deserters but at last the rebel officers smelt a mice and would not let their men to talk with us.”

My ancestor Arthur Bull fell ill at Cedar Creek in November 1864 and was admitted to hospital at Bermuda Hundred on 3 Jan. 1865. In poor health, he may not have been on the barricades with the 6th NYHA when this exchange took place. But records in his pension file indicate he returned to his regiment from hospital on 30 Jan. 1865.

Which leaves me wondering: As more and more Confederate soldiers crossed over to federal lines during February 1865 — steadily weakening the South’s army — was Arthur among the Union soldiers who encouraged them?

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