Fraternizing with the Enemy

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Fraternizing with the Enemy

Fraternization is a term defined as "to become like brothers" and undermines the goals and objectives of war. Providing covert aid or even extending cordiality to the enemy is usually prohibited in most military codes of conduct and is subject to harsh punitive measures. During the American Civil War, an unusually high degree of fraternization occurred but often went unpunished.

Shared Values

Incidents of fraternization were rarely reported during the war years, but many came to light afterward in the personal recollections of soldiers on both sides. Historians note that in addition to speaking the same language, Union and Confederate participants in the war shared even stronger bonds, including a Judeo-Christian religious upbringing and an essentially identical value system—with the exception of slavery—that made perception of the other as a deadly enemy more difficult to justify. Furthermore, soldiers on both sides had signed up to fight with the belief that the war would be over within a few short months—but as those months dragged into years, soldiers and officers alike came to realize they were, as most soldiers in history before them, pawns in a much larger political and ideological struggle. As one officer noted in 1864, "If the settlement of this thing were left to our armies there would be peace and good fellowship established in two hours" (Rolph 2002, p. 3).

Incidents of fraternization were reported at nearly every major engagement between Union and Confederate forces. During the First Battle of Manassas in July 1861, Confederate soldiers gave water to fallen Union soldiers. A year and a month later, during what became known as the Second Battle of Manassas or the Battle of Bull Run, a Union eyewitness to its aftermath watched as Confederate soldiers walked around the body-strewn battlefield and bayoneted the Union casualties. As these"Rebs" approached a fallen member of the Second Wisconsin Infantry Regiment, one Union soldier saw that "his enemy hesitated… and finally raised him carefully up, and gave him water from his canteen. He was afterwards removed to the hospitals of Richmond, where he received careful treatment, and at last was exchanged and allowed to return home" (Rolph 2002, p. 29).

Such poignant acts occurred on both sides. In East Tennessee a Union soldier was stationed on picket duty, or holding ground already taken, during a particularly cold stretch of weather. A poorly dressed Confederate soldier approached him and told him there were neither overcoats nor blankets to be had on his side. The following night, the man returned, and the Union soldier had six blankets to give him. At this, the Confederate "fell down on his knees… and I never heard anybody pray such a prayer as the Southern soldier prayed for me, kneeling there in the snow in his ragged old uniform. I took off my hat and stood still till he was through, and then he faded away in the darkness" (Rolph 2002, p. 49).

The Freemasons, also known as the Masonic Order, played a role in the relatively high degree of fraterniza-on during the war. Captured or wounded soldiers might identify themselves as members of the organization and provide one of the secret words, grips, handshakes, or other signs of membership, such as placing the thumb on the tip of the nose and waving the fingers of that hand. Although Union soldiers occasionally set fire to homes and crops as Confederate territory was taken, soldiers who entered one mansion in Maury County, Tennessee, saw the portrait of its owner wearing a Masonic ring. The Union commanding officer, himself a Mason, ordered his men to let the house stand.

Belle Boyd

Civilians also fraternized with the enemy, with locals providing medical care to soldiers from the other side, but accusations of espionage inevitably arose. One of the most notorious cases of fraternization was that of Belle Boyd, the teenage daughter of a hotel-keeper in Martinsburg, West Virginia. When her town was seized by Union troops who went on a Fourth of July drinking binge and then went from house to house to seize Confederate memorabilia and install Union flags above each, Boyd and her mother resisted, and after insults were exchanged, Boyd shot and killed one of the Union men. A board of inquiry cleared her of criminal charges, but sentries were posted at the family-run inn to keep watch over her. An attractive young woman, Boyd became friendly with her guards, and managed to glean useful information on troop movements and plans. She would then send her slave, Eliza, to Confederate camps to deliver the messages. Eventually, after several more arrests and escapes, Boyd convinced her Union guard to marry her and switch sides, but soon divorced him when she learned he was penniless. Enormously famous in her day, Boyd was even awarded the Southern Cross of Honor, the highest civilian honor of the Confederate States of America, and after the war worked as an actress on the London and New York stages.

There were also instances of fraternization between Northerners who supported the Confederate side. These were derisively called Copperheads, after the copper Liberty-head coins they sported as badges, and were usually Democratic Party members who advocated an end to the war via an immediate peace settlement. They issued venomous propaganda against the North's abolitionists, whom they blamed for starting the war, and even against Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), who was sometimes caricatured in Copperhead pamphlets as an African. Their counterpart in the Confederacy was a more loosely knit group called the Red Strings, or Heroes of America, who also hoped for a cessation of hostilities and the return of the Southern states to the Union. Many of them were Quakers and identified their houses by means of a red string hung from a window.

The Southern Claims Commission, a congressional body established to validate and reimburse Southerners for property damage inflicted by Union troops during the war, operated between 1871 until 1880. In some cases, however, the Commission heard claims from those who stated they had willingly provided food, medical care, shelter, or other prohibited acts of fraternization during the war because they supported the Union side. Many of the claims reimbursed involved the taking of horses, but in the case of a black couple, Thomas and Nancy Jefferson of Waynesboro, Virginia, who filed claim No. 15385, they requested reimbursement for one hog, three barrels of flour, and seven weeks of nursing care provided by Nancy to one adjutant assistant general named Fry from Sherman's army. The documents relating to their claim quote the Jeffersons as asserting,

Our Loyalty is indisputable, as we are colored persons, and only suffered our House to be used as a Hospital, and furnished sustainance and the attendance upon the sick soldier, because he was wouned at our door, and the Confederates would have striped and murdered him… had he not been cared for by us. It would only be an act of Justice to pay us. ("Two Communities in the American Civil War")

Newspapers on both sides of the conflict rarely reported incidents of fraternization, but in the postwar era reunions of former enemies were a staple of every major battle anniversary. Regiments that had once fought one another organized meetings to hand over captured flags, and newly created veterans' organizations tended to and decorated graves of fallen soldiers from the other side of the battle. In a famous photograph from 1913, taken at the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, two elderly men are shown with their hands clasped in friendship: They reconnected at the reunion as each was telling their story to comrades about the infamous Pickett's Charge. A. C. Smith, a member of the Fifty-sixth Virginia Infantry, was wounded in the charge, and a Union soldier gave him water, then took him to the field hospital. As Smith was recounting his tale, at the same wall was Albert Hamilton of the Seventy-second Pennsylvania Infantry, who was saying "it was right here that a Johnny [Reb, a nickname for Confederate soldiers] fell into my arms. I lifted him up and gave him a swig of water, then got him on my shoulders and carried him off" (Rolph 2002, pp. 115–116). At this point, the two men overheard each other's recollections and jubilantly embraced.


Lowell Daily Citizen and News (Lowell, MA), September 8, 1864.

Power, J. Tracy. Lee's Miserables: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Rolph, Daniel N. My Brother's Keeper: Union and Confederate Soldiers' Acts of Mercy during the Civil War. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002.

Sutherland, Daniel E. The Expansion of Everyday Life, 1860-1876. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

"Two Communities in the American Civil War." The Valley of the Shadow. Available from

Carol Brennan