NP: December 11, 1901 Anderson (SC) Intelligencer: Christmas in the Petersburg Trenches

   

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Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Jackie Martin. The names mentioned in this reminiscence do not seem to match up with the Confederate compiled service records.  Rather than attempting to link these men to uncertain matches, I did no linking at all.

 WAR STORIES.

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Christmas in the Petersburg Trenches.

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E. S. SANDERS, IN ATLANTA JOURNAL.

The field works erected in defense of Petersburg, Va., beginning at the Appomattox River’s southern bank and thence running southerly and westerly, were held during the winter of 1864-65 by General Bushrod Johnson’s division.  Four brigades constituted this division.  Ex-Governor Henry A. Wise, of Virginia, commanded one, Ex-Senator Matt W. Ransom, of North Carolina led a second, a third was from South Carolina and Gracie’s brigade from Alabama was the fourth.  Georgia was represented in this brigade by one company in the Twenty-fifth North Carolina regiment.  Bob Phinizy was captain of this company, and instead of feeling an alien he was probably better known and certainly as well liked as any officer in the brigade.  His high spirits never quailed before the miseries of the times.  During the winter he was appointed or elected a justice of the peace.  He bid us good-bye with tears in his eyes.  He informed us that he was a judge, and though it was hard to credit, it was believed that he would preside over one of the courts of record—a court of law and equity.

Strange to say, Wise’s brigade had seen but little warfare until the siege of Petersburg began.  The others were seasoned veterans.  During the autumn of 1864 two brigades were in the intrenchments and two were withdrawn for rest and recuperation every two weeks.  More or less fighting was going on daily and the stress and strain on the men in the trenches were terrible.  On one occasion the enemy made a heavy demonstration in Wise’s front and it was so formidable that part of the brigade were driven from the works.  Ransom’s brigade soon appeared and drove the Federals back and the former situation was re-established.

When the brigades alternated in the trenches their engenuity was taxed to make their condition less severe.  Planks and boards were highly prized to make bunks, and when one brigade left the trenches and did not carry with them all their belongings the incoming brigade, especially the Twenty-fifth North Carolina, appropriated to its use thenceforth and forever whatever was left behind.  Wise’s brigade, being nearer home, had more of these conveniences than any other.  On one occasion, when relieved by Ransom’s brigade a Virginian said as the soldiers passed each other:  “Don’t you fellows take the planks we are leaving here.  You can use them, but leave them when you go out.  Don’t take them away, like you did before.”

“We never took you-uns plank nor nothing you-uns ever left,” indignantly answered a tarheel mountainer.  “Yes you have; you take all we leave,” replied half a dozen Virginians.  “Yes we-uns did take one thing you’uns left ‘bout six weeks ago,” retorted one of the Carolinians.  “One thing!  You own up to one do you?  We’d like to know what it was we left that you say you took.”  “These lines,” was the silencing answer.

It is difficult to realize the life the soldier led in the intrenchments east of Petersburg.  The lines of the contending armies were less than a quarter of a mile apart, and about a mile from the river at the point the Confederate line presented a salient angle they were opposed by a re-entrant of the Federals on Hare’s Hill, crowned by a fort of twenty-four guns and mortars, some of the latter throwing a two hundred pound shell.  Not a day or night passed but what more or less firing was going on and the Southern soldiers gave the place on Hare’s Hill the appropriate name of Fort Hell.  More than a year before Ransom’s brigade had been encamped on Major Hare’s place and then an incident occurred which I will here relate, as it will explain something further on.

Colored women visited the brigade often bringing cooked food of various kinds, which they disposed of to the soldiers.  A member of the 49th North Carolina bought a meat pie one day and when eating it his suspicions were aroused.  He carried it to the regimental surgeons, who examined it and pronounced it dog meat.  Each regiment of the brigade had a soubriquet and sometimes two, and henceforth the 49th was known as the dog-eaters.

To return, some men were killed and wounded daily.  Rains flooded the ditches and fuel was extremely scarce.  The men were furnished with a small supply of coal from the mines of Chesterfield county, which they tried to burn in the open air or on the fireplaces of their clay chimneys.  The daily ration was at the best about four ounces of meat, half a pound of flour, sometimes a little coffee brought through the blockade of Wilmington; tobacco and some salt.  Few had an overcoat or more than one blanket.  There were but few who in their secret hearts did not foresee the rapidly approaching end.

But the merciful author of our being has implanted in each soul a seed which germinates and flowers in defiance of every obstacle.  Men can bear up surprisingly when associated in misfortune, and we had faith in that leader who never had failed us.  We believed that General Lee would not permit us to be sacrificed when the struggle became hopeless and so long as he remained there were thousands who resolved to adhere to him.  But had a chance shot killed him any time during that winter it is uncertain whether any other general could have held the army together, so evident was the desperation of the situation and so great was their confidence in him.

Several weeks before Christmas some good hearted person, probably a woman, suggested that Virginia give a dinner—a real old-fashioned Christmas dinner to the army of Northern Virginia.  The few newspapers that remained gave a hearty support to the proposal, and it was a theme in many bomb-proofs and picket holes.  It became resolved upon, and we were told that we should have an old time, “before the war,” dinner, such as the high-bred, hospitable gentry of “ole Ferginy never tires,” used to set before their guests.

Sunday, the 25th of December, 1864, was an ideal day to be the anniversary of the Nativity.  Clear, yet not cold, nature seemed in sympathy with the blessed time.  The sun came up and the first day for many months looked upon the armies who were not carrying on the work of death.  It seemed as though each had agreed to suspend their deadly efforts for one day.  A head could appear for a second or two above the parapet and in full sight of the enemy and not have a dozen minnie balls fired at it.  Both sides soon discovered that the orders to fire at an enemy whenever in sight were being disobeyed.  The men had suspended their work without being so ordered and in a few minutes they were passing in full sight of each other, shouting the compliments of the season, giving invitations to cross over and take a drink, to come to dinner, to come back into the Union, to come over and get a plug of tobacco and other amenities, which were a singular contrast to the asperities of war.  Several times a group of three or four from each side would dash out from the trenches in spite of the commands of the officers and meet midway, have a rapid exchange of drinks, tobacco and other objects.  To a visitor ignorant of war it would have appeared incredible that the men thus fraternizing had been trying to kill each other for years.  Some time after noon a Yankee who was very tipsy staggered up to the trenches occupied by the Thirty-fifth North Carolina regiment, and after trying in vain to climb over, begged to be helped.  He was pulled across and was soon asleep.  This seemed to be getting too strong, and upon its being reported to General Ransom, he ordered the man to be sent back as soon as possible and a rifle to be fired, but not at the enemy.  The Forty-ninth regiment was nearest the general’s bombproof, and accordingly a rifle was discharged upward from it.  This was the first shot that had broken the peacefulness of the day in the writer’s hearing.  I was in the trenches when it was fired, and instantly every man who had been exposing himself was out of sight of an enemy.  Perfect silence followed.  Everyone, not knowing the cause of the single discharge, expected something much more important to succeed.  But the quiet was profound until the explanation circulated through the Confederate lines.  When Bob Phifer, of Company D, Thirty-fifth North Carolina regiment, reared his burly form above the parapet and called out, “Say, Yank, let’s talk some more.  Bring a drink to the picket holes and I’ll carry some tobacco,” the answer came from a soldier in blue, who also showed himself, “No, some of you Johnnies fired at us.”

“Twas only one of them d___d Dog-eaters who shot in the air.  You won’t get hurt.  Come on,” repeated Bob, whose supply of liquor was exhausted and who wished for more.

By this time every man who had the means and desire to become drunk was in that condition.  Some had received supplies of food and drink from home, which, of course, were divided with the many who had not.

The shot before spoken of was the only one I remember to have heard during Christmas.  The calm was maintained until the following day.  There was much activity, frolic and fun in the trenches, but the day, compared with many which preceded and followed, was one of Sabbatical calm.  I attended church in the forenoon in the city and heard the Rev. Dr. Platt, who was esteemed by most to be the most eloquent preacher of Petersburg.  Besides my own rations I was a guest at three different dinners, and ate at each what would be a full meal to a sufficiently fed man.  I expected cholera morbus, but escaped.

It is a melancholy proof of the destitution to which the people of the grand commonwealth of Virginia had reached in 1864, with her armies, one hostile, tearing her bosom, that the dinner intended for General Lee’s army was a complete failure so far as I know.

The part for Johnson’s division reached us about the end of the first week in January.  I was directed by General Ransom to divide the dinner sent to his brigade among the five regiments which constituted it.  I suppose the brigade contained between twelve and fifteen hundred men.  My task was not difficult.  Each regiment was nearly equal in numbers, and the dinner was divided into five equal parts.  One man could carry easily the quantity distributed to one regiment and not be much weighted.  After all had been divided as nearly equal as possible, there was a jar containing about a quart of apple butter.  Despairing of dividing this, I took it for my share, and it was very good.

I have been informed by several of them who did it, that on the nights of Christmas eve and Christmas the soldiers from both sides fraternized in the picket holes and agreed not to shoot during Christmas and tried to reach an agreement by which they would not endeavor to kill each other when momentarily exposed above the parapet.  They could not succeed in the latter altogether, but one man has told me since that after that day he never tried to kill a soldier on the other side, except in the battles he participated in during the ensuing fifteen weeks.

Many visits were made on that day, and friends from the same community in distant States, who had been long separated saw each other, some for the last time.  To the entire army, as I was informed, it was a day of cheer, one bright spot in the gloom of present distress and impending defeat.

That Christmas day taught many of the soldiers of both armies that their enemies were such only in name—that in reality there was no hatred between them as human beings, and that they were all subjects of the same feelings and passions, when the star of the South sunk forever at Appomattox Court House, and these same men met for the last time without attempting to destroy each other.  If a harsh word passed from those of our army to any of the other during the days the paroles were being given, I never heard of it.

Thousands of good wishes were given by the soldiers in blue to us who were going to our homes, and they surely must have been the sincere speech of the heart; and some of the seeds may have been planted the previous Christmas.1

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Source:

  1. “War Stories. Christmas in the Petersburg Trenches.” Anderson (SC) Intelligencer. December 11, 1901, p. 2 col. 1-3

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