Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Review - "Friendly Enemies: Soldier Fraternization throughout the American Civil War" by Lauren Thompson

[Friendly Enemies: Soldier Fraternization throughout the American Civil War by Lauren K. Thompson (University of Nebraska Press, 2020). Hardcover, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xviii,168/231. ISBN:978-1-4962-0245-1. $55]

The best documented and most commonly cited episode of Civil War fraternization with the enemy occurred around Fredericksburg, Virginia during the long winter months following the December 1862 battle. Though the practice was strongly disapproved of by officers of all ranks, common soldiers of both sides frequently engaged with each other along the picket lines to exchange both friendly conversation and various items of want or need. The first major standalone study of the topic, Lauren Thompson's Friendly Enemies: Soldier Fraternization throughout the American Civil War examines at length what fraternization consisted of, under what circumstances it occurred, and why it was so important to soldiers otherwise engaged in the grim business of killing each other on the battlefield.

To answer those questions Thompson broadly consulted the published literature of the Civil War common soldier (to include classic works from Bell Wiley, Gerald Linderman, and James McPherson, along with more recent ones by Earl Hess, Jason Phillips, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Joseph Glatthaar, Lorien Foote, and others) and delved into the archives to collect as many wartime participant accounts as possible. By her own count, the author was able to compile several hundred written examples from all theaters and time periods of this latter group of source material. This in-depth combination of primary and secondary sources has produced a solidly representative and richly detailed description and analysis of the practice.

Obviously white Union and Confederate soldiers fraternized for any number of individual reasons, but Thompson's study collectively organizes their motivations into two useful categories: fraternity and resistance. Off the battlefield, soldiers sought relief from danger and restoration of mind and body. According to Thompson, they often achieved this in camp through peer-group "recreational" activities. On both sides, complaints about the war itself and how common soldiers were treated in the army were often directed toward politicians and generals rather than the rifle-toting private across the way, so fraternal feeling among soldiers of the same side could be readily extended to an enemy speaking the same language and sharing similar social customs, religious beliefs, institutions of republican government, and national heritage. American society was then and still is the most individualistic among the great nations of the world, and Civil War soldiers also fraternized as a form of personal resistance against what they perceived to be the army's most obnoxious anti-democratic hierarchies and behavioral strictures. As has been abundantly documented in the literature, volunteer-soldier defiance of military discipline took many forms, including straggling and unauthorized foraging/plundering, and this study joins others in persuasively adding fraternization to that list.

As is made clear in the book, the primary requirement needed for widespread fraternization to occur was a lengthy period of close contact between enemy armies. Such conditions occurred during long winter encampments (such as the aforementioned 1862-63 Fredericksburg situation), sieges, and late-war campaigns of continuous close-quarter combat (ex. the 1864 Atlanta and 1864-65 Richmond-Petersburg campaigns). When opposing picket and battle lines remained in close proximity for extended periods of time, men became accustomed to the front-line routines of the enemy and could devise ways to meet in safety while also keeping out of sight of their officers. Though not specifically addressed, the increasingly wide application of "hard war" policies that magnified soldier and civilian suffering as the war progressed did not seem to have had much effect on either side's willingness to fraternize.

What was exchanged during fraternization varied from simple conversation and witty banter to any number of trade items. Most famously, there was the exchange of southern tobacco for northern coffee, but soldiers also traded for food, clothing, blankets, and other needs and wants. In recognition of how poorly off so many Confederates were, sometimes things like a bit of food were simply given away. Commiseration over homesickness, disliked officers, and prospects for peace was very common, but generally absent from these meetings was discussion or debate surrounding more divisive issues such as the causes of the war, emancipation, and the conditions under which actual peace could be either extended or accepted. Generally avoiding any conflict beyond playful ribbing, fraternization was a stress reliever that focused on commonalities of the soldier experience.

Due to the information contained inside, the exchange item that got fraternizers in the most trouble with their officers was newspapers. Given the closed bubbles both sides lived within, information written by the other side was eagerly sought and greedily consumed. Enemy newspaper articles were scoured for military news, political developments, and civilian attitudes toward the war. Soldiers could be severely punished for exchanging newspapers. One convicted Union soldier was even condemned to death, though his sentence was commuted to hard labor for the duration.

Ceasefires were another significant facet of the fraternization exchange. This was particularly noteworthy during sieges, with Vicksburg providing for the general literature many examples of soldiers agreeing not to fire at each other and to warn the other side when shooting was ordered to resume. Such agreements could be both formal (ex. officers agreeing to a specified period for burying the dead) and informal. As the work of Thompson and others have suggested, it was the localized, informal arrangements made between common soldiers that kept the incessant firing inherent to siege operations from becoming unbearable to those in the trenches. Thus, forms of fraternization such as this could also be appropriately regarded as acts of self-preservation.

Finally, the book offers a fruitful discussion of the role fraternization anecdotes (in veteran speeches, articles, and memoirs) played in fostering postwar reunion. As part of a war chronicle that emphasized common valor and sacrifice among white veterans over divisive issues such as causation, slavery, and black civil rights, Civil War fraternization stories and myths became an integral part of the popular reconciliationist narrative. In effectively weaving together the wartime history of fraternization with its significant role in remembrance, Friendly Enemies is a major contribution to the scholarly literature of the common Civil War soldier.

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