‘We became quite friendly with the enemy’s pickets’

I’ve run across more than one Civil War account of soldiers on opposite sides getting friendly with one another between battles. It seems a strange thing to me, but humans are humans, and perhaps we are naturally drawn to one another even in the worst of situations.

Berry Benson. Photographic History of the Civil War, 1911. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In the winter of 1862-1863 after the battle of Fredericksburg, the 1st SC regiment of the Army of Northern Virginia was in winter camp several miles downstream of Fredericksburg along the Rappahannock River. Cpl. (later Sgt.) Berry G. Benson of Co. H wrote of that winter in his memoirs:

We picketed the Rappahannock at Moss Neck Church, one’s turn to picket coming every few days, 24 hours being the term. We became quite friendly with the enemy’s pickets posted on the opposite side, and used to talk with them and exchange newspapers. The exchange was made by taking a piece of board or bark, fixing a stick upright in it as a mast, with the paper attached to this as a sail. By setting the sail properly, the wind would carry it across from one side to the other, as it was wanted to go. Once a Federal band came down the river and played “Dixie.” We cheered them vociferously, of course. Then it played “Yankee Doodle,” and the enemy cheered. Then “Home, Sweet Home,” and the cheer went up loud and long from both sides of the river.

Berry G. Benson; Susan Williams Benson, ed. Berry Benson’s Civil War Book: Memoirs of a Confederate Scout and Sharpshooter. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press. 1991. Page 35.

When will Papa come back?

So I walked on, looking at one and another, each lying in a different attitude, each attitude seeming to show the last thought and feeling which was in the mind of the poor fellow as he died. To us, these men are only rebels; but each of them had a home, mother, wife, children. They look out of their cabin-window, like the mother of Sisera, and say, “When will he come back?” The little children say, “When will papa come back? and what will he bring me?” The mother says, “He has gone into Pennsylvania with Gen. Lee, and he will bring back something for us.” “Have they not sped? have they not divided the prey?” Poor desolated homes, South as well as North! Long will they look, and look in vain, for the return of those, dear to them as ours to us, who lie undistinguished, cumbering the bloody field.

Clarke, James Freeman. After the Battle: A Visit to Gettysburg. Monthly Journal of the American Unitarian Association, Vol. 4, 1863. Page 402.
Child holding a photo of a Confederate soldier. 1861-1865. Subjects unknown, photographer unknown. Source: Library of Congress

ARB — 11 Nov 2020

Captured Union Surgeon: “I have never been treated better by strangers anywhere.”

From time to time, I come across examples of consideration and fellow feeling shown between combatants from opposite sides during the American Civil War.

On 7 January 1863, Union Surgeon William T. Mendenhall, of the 57th Indiana, wrote a letter home to his father. Surgeon Mendenhall was captured while attending wounded soldiers during the Battle of Stones River (or Murfreesboro), fought in Middle Tennessee, 31 December 1862 to 2 January 1863. Here’s an excerpt from the letter, which appeared in the Richmond (Indiana) Palladium of 16 January 1863, written from Murfreesboro, Tenn.:

“On the second day of the battle, (Dec. 31st), I was ordered to the hospital in the rear of the left wing, where our wounded were being sent, where myself and three other Surgeons, with near a hundred wounded were surrounded by Rebel Cavalry and taken to Murfreesboro as prisoners. We have been here ever since, working day and night with the wounded. We have had five or six hundred wounded to attend to. They do not pretend to hold Medical officers as prisoners; but kept us to attend to wounded prisoners. I have always had a desire to talk with rebel officers, where they dared to express their feelings, and have very unexpectedly had an opportunity, and must say that although they are rebels they are human beings; in fact I have never been treated better by strangers anywhere, especially the C.S.A. Surgeons, who were willing to divide their supplies with us — loan us instruments, and assist us in every way in their power.”

Union field hospital, Savage Station, Virginia, June 1862.
A Union field hospital, Savage Station, Virginia, June 1862. By James F. Gibson. Source: Library of Congress.

ARB — 30 Nov. 2020

Gen. Sherman changes his opinion of Pres. Lincoln

Engraving of General William T. Sherman
Gen. William T. Sherman, engraving by J.C. Buttre. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Recently I read William Tecumseh Sherman’s account of his meeting with Abraham Lincoln on March 28, 1865, not long before the surrender of the Confederate armies and Lincoln’s assassination. I found myself touched by the account.

While on a brief visit to army headquarters, Gen. Sherman met with President Lincoln along with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Adm. David Dixon Porter aboard the steamship River Queen at City Point, Virginia, to discuss the apparently imminent conclusion of the Civil War.

Sherman had met Lincoln previously in 1861, just before the outbreak of the war, when his brother John introduced him to the new president. Sherman admitted in his memoirs that he was little impressed:

John then turned to me, and said, “Mr. President, this is my brother, Colonel Sherman, who is just up from Louisiana, he may give you some information you want.” “Ah!” said Mr. Lincoln, “how are they getting along down there?” I said, “They think they are getting along swimmingly—they are preparing for war.” “Oh, well!” said he, “I guess we’ll manage to keep house.” I was silenced, said no more to him, and we soon left. I was sadly disappointed, and remember that I broke out on John, d—ning the politicians generally, saying, “You have got things in a hell of a fix, and you may get them out as you best can,” adding that the country was sleeping on a volcano that might burst forth at any minute, but that I was going to St. Louis to take care of my family, and would have no more to do with it.

(Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, 2nd ed., vol. 1. New York: D. Appleton, 1889. Page 196.)

“The Peacemakers.” Sherman, Grant, Lincoln, and Porter on the River Queen, March 1865. Painting by George Peter Alexander Healy, 1868. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By the time of the 1865 meeting on the River Queen, something had changed, whether it was Lincoln or Sherman himself or the world-shaking events of the past four years. Sherman came away from the meeting with a wholly different impression of America’s war president:

I know, when I left him, that I was more than ever impressed by his kindly nature, his deep and earnest sympathy with the afflictions of the whole people, resulting from the war, and by the march of hostile armies through the South; and that his earnest desire seemed to be to end the war speedily, without more bloodshed or devastation, and to restore all the men of both sections to their homes. In the language of his second inaugural address, he seemed to have “charity for all, malice toward none,” and, above all, an absolute faith in the courage, manliness, and integrity of the armies in the field. When at rest or listening, his legs and arms seemed to hang almost lifeless, and his face was care-worn and haggard; but, the moment he began to talk, his face lightened up, his tall form, as it were, unfolded, and he was the very impersonation of good-humor and fellowship. The last words I recall as addressed to me were that he would feel better when I was back at Goldsboro. We parted at the gangway of the River Queen, about noon of March 28th, and I never saw him again. Of all the men I ever met, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other.

(Ibid., vol 2. Pages 327-328.)

ARB — 20 Oct. 2020

‘Your obedient servant.’ Kilpatrick threatens to shoot Rebel prisoners, but observes the social niceties.

Some colleagues and I were recently musing over the formalisms often observed in military communications during the Civil War. Union Cavalry Gen. Judson Kilpatrick’s use of “your obedient servant” to conclude this note to his Confederate counterpart would be amusing if it weren’t for the content of his communique:

In the Field, S.C., February 22, 1865.

Major-General WHEELER,
Commanding C.S. Cavalry:

GENERAL: Yesterday a lieutenant and seven men and a sergeant of a battery were taken prisoners by one of you regiments — if I am correctly informed, a Texas regiment — armed with Spencer carbines and commanded by a lieutenant-colonel. This officer and his men, after surrendering and being disarmed, were inhumanly and cowardly murdered. Nine of my cavalrymen were also found murdered yesterday, five in a barn-yard, three in an open field, and one in the road. Two had their throats cut from ear to ear. This makes in all eighteen Federal soldiers murdered yesterday by your people. Unless some satisfactory explanation be made to me before sundown, February 23, I will cause eighteen of your soldiers, now my prisoners, to be shot at that hour, and if this cowardly act be repeated, if my people when taken are not treated in all cases as prisoners of war should be, I will not only retaliate as I have already mentioned, but there shall not be a house left standing within reach of my scouting parties along my line of march, nor will I be responsible for the conduct of my soldiers, who will not only be allowed but encouraged to take a fearful revenge. I know of no other way to intimidate cowards.

I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Brevet Major-General, Commanding Cavalry.

(Boldface mine.)

Good to know that Gen. Kilpatrick still knew how to observe the niceties in concluding a letter, in spite of the exigencies of the occasion.

(Source: The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Vol. 47, Chap. 59, Part 1, Reports. Page 860.)

General Kilpatrick and his staff, Brandy Station, Virginia.
Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick (on porch, 2nd from left) and 3rd Division staff, Union Cavalry Corps. At winter quarters, Brandy Station, Va., Dec. 1863-April 1864. Source: Library of Congress.

ARB — 18 Sept 2020

Did ‘Fighting Joe Hooker’s’ nickname come from a printer’s typo?

[Editorial note: Since I wrote this piece, I’ve seen a good refutation of the ‘printer’s typo’ hypothesis. Edward S. Alexander, a cartographer and public historian, recently wrote an article for Emerging Civil War that does a good job tracing the sobriquet “Fighting Joe Hooker” to Gen. Joseph Hooker’s performance during the Peninsula and Maryland campaigns. Alexander quotes sources that emphasize Hooker’s popularity among his soldiers.]

For some time, I thought it was curious that Maj Gen Joseph Hooker, one-time commander of the Union Army of the Potomac was known as “Fighting Joe Hooker,” even though he was perhaps best known for his defeat and retreat from Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Chancellorsville. All the same, up to that time, Hooker had a reputation as an aggressive fighter. He has his defenders, some of whom have pointed out that he suffered a concussion at Chancellorsville and might have been disoriented, affecting his judgment.

However, I was interested to read in one account that his nickname “Fighting Joe” actually might have come about because of a typographical error, rather than any reputation for aggressiveness on the field.

In the 1910 book The Campaign of Chancellorsville: A Strategic and Tactical Study, retired U.S. Army Maj John Bigelow quotes Sidney V. Lowell, who was working as proofreader for the New York Courier and Enquirer at the time Hooker was appointed division commander during the Fredericksburg campaign. The typesetters had been working late into the night setting up dispatches from reporters with the Union Army. One report was already locked up and ready for printing, when Lowell noticed something:

It was a continuation of the report of the fighting in which General Hooker’s Corps had been so gravely involved. At the top was written “Fighting — Joe Hooker.” I knew that this was so written to indicate that it should be added to what we had had before. The compositor (typesetter) who had set it up (put it in type) had known nothing about the previous matter, however, and had set it out as a heading, “FIGHTING JOE HOOKER.”

I rapidly considered what to do; as if it were yesterday I can remember the responsibility I felt and how the thing struck me. Well, I said to myself, it makes a good heading — let it go. I fully realized that if a few other proof-readers beside myself acted as I did it would mean that Hooker would thenceforth live and die as “Fighting Joe Hooker.” Some did and some did not, but enough did as I did to do the business.

[Page 6]

Hooker himself was not altogether pleased with this sobriquet. Reportedly, he commented:

People will think I am a highwayman or a bandit.

[Battles and leaders of the Civil War, Vol 3. R.U. Johnson and C.C. Buel, 1884. Page 217]

Gen Joseph Hooker (front, second from right) and his staff, Falmouth, Va., June 1863. Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Library of Congress collection.

ARB — 11 Sept 2020

‘This is my brother, and I have been shooting at him.’

About the American Civil War, you often hear that ‘brother fought against brother.’ Maybe it wasn’t really an everyday occurrence, but here is one interesting experience from the life of Samuel Newitt Wood, Kansas politician and infantry and militia officer in Kansas and Missouri during the war:

Col. Wood’s battalion of the Sixth Missouri Cavalry was composed of Missourians whose homes were in the southwestern part of the State. They knew the enemy, and were familiar with the country through which they were riding as scouts, and often one or two of these men, disguised as citizens, received valuable information. Some of them had relatives in the Southern army.

One day when his command was fiercely pursuing a band of fleeing rebels, Col. Wood found one of his men upon his knees, with his arms around a wounded rebel and shedding bitter tears over him.

He looked up and said : ‘O, Colonel, I never expected to come to this.’

‘What is the trouble?’ asked Col. Wood.

’This is my brother, and I have been shooting at him.’

’Well, put him in the wagon and take care of him,’ said Col. Wood.

The poor fellow recovered from his wounds, to the great relief of his brother, and also of Col. Wood.

(Wood, Margaret Lyon. The Memorial of Samuel N. Wood (1891). pp 91-92)
Winslow Homer drawing of a soldier giving water to a wounded man
Not a ‘brother-against-brother’ picture, just added for effect! Winslow Homer, Soldier Giving Water to a Wounded Companion, 1864. Cooper Hewitt collection, Smithsonian Design Museum.

ARB — 9 Sept 2020

The Angel of Marye’s Heights: Confirmation of the story of Richard Kirkland

In the decades after the Civil War, a hopeful story spread abroad of a Confederate soldier who risked his life to bring water to suffering enemies on the battlefield of Fredericksburg, Va., on the night of 13 December 1862. The legend of the “Angel of Marye’s Heights” has generated skepticism over the years, in part because many researchers believed that the account of Richard Rowland Kirkland’s (Sgt, 2nd SC Infantry) act of mercy first appeared in 1880, many years after the event.

Statue of Richard Kirkland giving water to a wounded soldier
Felix de Weldon: Monument to Richard Kirkland, 1965, Fredericksburg, Va. Photo credit: Claire H. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

However, researcher Laura Elliott recently uncovered an earlier account of Kirkland’s heroism. This account, from 1874, was based on sources who would have witnessed Kirkland’s actions. Kirkland himself was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863.

Elliott published her analysis of this recently-discovered source in Blue and Gray Dispatch, 8 September 2020:

The Angel of Marye’s Heights

While I don’t doubt that many soldiers on both sides of the war willingly and even gleefully took the lives of others, stories like Kirkland’s suggest that expressions of compassion were possible as well.

A. Roy Bredenberg — 8 Sept. 2020