Lauren Thompson is Assistant Professor of History at McKendree University. This interview is based on her new book, Friendly Enemies: Soldier Fraternization throughout the American Civil War (University of Nebraska Press, 2020).
JF: What led you to write Friendly Enemies?
LT: In the Summer of 2009, I was a Seasonal Park Ranger at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Military Park. At the end of each day, I would make my rounds in the visitor centers before locking up. One evening, I was drawn to an exhibit in the Chancellorsville Visitor Center, entitled “Friendly Enemies.” The exhibit, which has since been replaced when the visitor center received an upgrade, depicted Union and Confederate soldiers trading coffee and tobacco along the Rappahannock River during the Winter of 1863. I kept trying to wrap my head around such strange interactions. The daily tours I gave were all about the bloodshed and carnage. How were men able to brush off those horrors and fraternize with the enemy?
I wanted to see if I could understand, from the soldiers’ themselves, why they traded with their enemy. Initially, I had hoped I could find a soldier or two who could explain it to me. Little did I know, I found dozens of soldiers’ depictions of fraternization across the Rappahannock. While working on my doctorate, I could not help but wonder if fraternization happened elsewhere–at different campaigns and between men in different armies. I visited archives in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia. Their accounts revealed that anytime soldiers opposed one another for extended periods of time, they fraternized. Their interactions went beyond the trade of coffee and tobacco, too. Many times, it was in the form of newspaper exchanges, and, most importantly, the negotiation of ceasefires to limit bloodshed. It was at this point I realized these interactions meant something much greater to these soldiers than I had originally thought. I set out to answer where, why, and how fraternization happened.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Friendly Enemies?
LT: When citizen soldiers experienced unthinkable hardships, they coped with warfare by carving out spaces of fraternity, reprieve, and survival. Fraternization highlights soldiers’ ability to shed sectional differences and identify with one another’s mutual circumstances.
JF: Why do we need to read Friendly Enemies?
LT: An in-depth analysis of fraternization demonstrates how Union and Confederate soldiers worked together to limit bloodshed amidst the bloodiest war in American History. It is incredible that enemies traded during the siege of Chattanooga on the slopes of Missionary Ridge and had “swimming parties” in the Chattahoochee after the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. Fraternization, thus, demonstrates a critical nuance in scholarship on the common soldier. We tend to classify soldiers into dichotomies i.e. volunteer v. conscript, courageous v. coward, steadfast v. deserter, etc. At first, I thought, perhaps the men who fraternized were just “bad” soldiers–men who did not want to be there and would do anything and everything to express their dissatisfaction. However, as I read about the men who fraternized, they were anything but cowards–-in fact, many of them received promotions and a handful were Medal of Honor awardees. The overwhelming majority of them were volunteer soldiers, who wrote openly about fraternization (and the benefits it provided) while simultaneously expressing their anger for cowards and shirkers. They also recorded their loyalty to their service and efforts to remain enlisted until the war’s end.
This study also helps us understand postwar race relations. While fraternizing, men did not discuss slavery, sectional strife, or, most importantly, over what terms they would end the war. Thus, common soldiers began a trend that we would see on a national scale after the guns fell silent in April 1865. Fraternization was the prototype for sectional reunion after the war–one that avoided debates over causation, honored soldiers’ shared sacrifice, and promoted white male supremacy.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
LT: I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. My mom loved history and took my brother and I to historical sites in the region–Gettysburg & Antietam–when were in grade school. It was from that point on that I wanted to learn everything about the Civil War. We’d read books, watch documentaries, and go to reenactments. Upon majoring in History in college, I realized there was so much more to learn about the Civil War Era and US History as a whole. It was at that time my advisor encouraged me to pursue my PhD–I wanted to keep learning history and most of all, I wanted to teach it. For any event in history, there are multiple perspectives. I like to uncover and tell the stories we rarely hear about.
JF: What is your next project?
LT: My next project is going to shift gears and jump from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Era. I now live and teach in St. Louis, Missouri. I teach African-American History and have become involved in local social justice groups. And, I also really enjoy learning about Sports History. Sports and recreation can be a lens to investigate race, class, and gender. I am researching race relations and recreation in St. Louis, particularly in public parks, youth sports, and high school athletics during the Civil Rights Era.
JF: Thanks, Lauren!