A new book by a McKendree University history professor provides an in-depth analysis of the fraternization that commonly took place among Union and Confederate soldiers during the bloodiest war in U.S. history. “Friendly Enemies: Soldier Fraternization Throughout the American Civil War” by Dr. Lauren K. Thompson has been published by the University of Nebraska Press.
The 240-page book represents a decade of research and writing by the assistant professor of history, and the director of ethnic and gender studies, at McKendree. She read more than 500 soldiers’ letters and diaries to understand why soldiers risked their standing in the military, and perhaps their lives, to interact with the enemy.
Through her research, Thompson observes that when men were surrounded by disease and death, some sought a warm cup of coffee or a pinch of tobacco during a sleepless shift on duty, or an enemy newspaper with information about the war. Most significantly, notes Thompson, they worked together to arrange ceasefires and truces to limit the relentless fire and bloodshed in the trenches.
She argues that these interactions represented soldiers’ efforts to fight the war on their own terms. Her study reveals that despite different commanders, terrain, and outcomes on the battlefield, a common thread emerges: soldiers constructed a space to lessen hostilities and make their daily lives more manageable.
“Fraternization allowed men to escape their situation briefly and did not carry the stigma of cowardice,” she said. “They coped by carving out spaces of fraternity, reprieve and survival.”
However, because it was exclusively between white soldiers, Thompson argues, 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.
The book is available in hardcover and electronically from the University of Nebraska Press and Amazon.
PHOTO: Dr. Lauren Thompson, assistant professor of history at McKendree University, is the author of “Friendly Enemies: Soldier Fraternization Throughout the American Civil War.”