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The Rebels

SKETCHES FROM THE SEAT OF WAR
by A Jewish Soldier
IX.

The proximity of two hostile armies, which on the Potomac alone, cover fifty miles, and in some instances, but one or two miles distant from each other, leads frequently to interesting intercourse and collision on the part of the pickets, scouts and foraging parties. As both armies speak the same language, understand each other's prejudices, and, in fact, are as well informed in regard to their habits as citizens of the same country can be, it is not surprising that this war should present among its many peculiarities also in this respect, a singular relationship between friend and foe, a sort of private animosity in the midst of sectional animosities. During the Crimean war, the pickets of the contending forces were, frequently, within speaking distance, and exchanged canteens, that is to say, their contents, the English giving to the Russians brandy or gin, in return for a wretched beverage called raki; but, beyond that, all intercourse was impossible, as their habits and language were a mystery on both sides. Here, however, the case is different. Secesh knows what a Yankee means when he talks of a "chew", a "smile", and a "bite," equally well does the other party understand the idiosyncrasies of the former, which, under different terms, amount to the same thing.

In these localities, when the opposing armies are encamped on the northern and southern banks of the Potomac, the pickets are, of course, nearest to each other, as the river itself is considered a sufficient line of demarcation for the two forces. Then, of course, the sentries stand right opposite each other, and it is not surprising that they should habitually have a little talk together in a lively discussion. They may have been old friends, who, before the outbreak of the rebellion, passed most of their evenings together, perhaps two brothers, differing in their political sympathies, and having espoused opposite sides, meet one another after a long interval for the first time, in the character of hostile pickets. Of course, all the family affairs are then talked of, how times have changed, how different things were when last they met, they inquire after their friends at home, and the lady loves they left behind. These accidental meetings are, of course, of very rare occurrence, but nearly every day some piquant conversation takes place between the sentries, mostly turning on the events of the day.

Secesh pickets have, for the last six months, bragged about Bull Run, and now came the turn of the Yankee to brag about the late victories. These sly dig, are introduced in every possible shade and color. Secesh says that it is very cold, and he receives for a reply that after the recent firing, he ought to feel quite warm; he complains that the roads are wretchedly dirty, and the retort is, that after the recent licking, everything in the South ought to be mighty clean; he may simply state, that they have an abundance of oysters, and he will at once be told, that it is no wonder, after the many shells we have thrown into Dixie. Poor Secesh, in despair, looks at the sky, and talks about the sun, moon and stars, when he is cruelly told that, that place is about the only safe retreat for them. A worm will tread against you if you tread upon it, and can it then be expected, that "the chivalry" should listen to these insinuations without indignation? No! He raises his hand, puts the thumb-nail to the tip of his nose, and with characteristic gesticulations, exclaims: "Bull Run!" The Yankee replies: "We GRANT it," in allusion to General Grant, the hero of Fort Donelson. Poor Secesh looks to the future, and foretells confidently, that their front lines will soon be advanced miles and miles further, when he is coolly told, that there can be no doubt of that after we had kicked their rear with our Foote. He, at last, taunts his opponent with the successful escape of Floyd, but with no crushing effect does this boast reach the Yankee, for he positively expresses his perfect delight at his flight, as Floyd would have been a troublesome prisoner, knowing, as we do, his thieving propensities. The chivalry is, however, not always to tame as to submit to these broad hints, on the part of such a despicable being as the Yankee seems in his eyes, and, therefore, as a general rule, he will take up his rifle and hurl forth his indignation in the shape of a bullet, which is generally the signal for a lively interchange of compliments.

I may here remark, that this firing on pickets is the most barbarous practice of the rebels, with the exception, perhaps, of their repeated attempts at poisoning our troops. It is customary among civilized nations, to allow the pickets of opposing forces, within speaking distance, to remain unmolested, as the killing of individual soldiers can have no marked effect on the fortunes of the war, and the chances of injuring are equal on both sides. It is, in fact, the same principle that has led in modern times to the humane and kind treatment of prisoners of war, for however great the cruelties afflicted on them, the issue of the war is not in the least affected thereby, and the danger would thereby be incurred of retaliation on the prisoners captured by the enemy. The same principle of self-interest, if not humanity, has induced modern nations to abstain from picket-shooting, except where a great advantage is to be attained by a surprise on an exposed position, and, in these cases, it is more advisable to capture the sentries than to fire, so as not to give the alarm to the enemy. The rebels, however, were the first to introduce it in this war. The "Jackson avengers" was the name of a set of rebels, personal friends of Ellsworth's murderer, and these fellows vowed to kill, each of them, a certain number of Ellsworth's Zouaves, I forget how many. As they had not the courage to meet them in open daylight, they watched their opportunity in the night, when the soldiers were on picket duty, and posting themselves in the woods, behind a tree, they would take aim, fire, and immediately run away. The rebel government not only sanctioned that barbarous mode of warfare, but even organized bands of guerrillas, expecting that this would frighten away the invaders of the sacred soil. That institution has, however, cost them more than they anticipated, for the desperadoes who composed those bands, preyed alike on friend or foe, and became a terror to secessionists themselves, without having the desired effect on "the ruthless invaders." Our pickets, in self-defense, were obliged to fire in return, and it was thus night after night, that murders were committed inexcusable as a system of modern warfare. Sometimes, the opposing pickets would enter into agreements not to fire on each other for a certain number of days or weeks, but the chivalry did not always keep their promise, so that even those mutual assurances became unreliable. General McClellan, on assuming command of the army, made it the object of one of his earliest efforts to remedy this evil, by prohibiting our soldiers from firing except in self-defense, and I believe that an understanding on the subject was arrived at between the rebels and ourselves, since which time, the exchange of shots has been a rare instead of a nightly occurrence. In fact, the pickets have of late, been so distant from each other in Virginia, that there was no danger of similar collisions.

One of the most interesting sports for a scouting party, consists in capturing the rebel pickets. Such excursions start before daylight, so as to reach their destination about sunrise, with sufficient light to detect friend from foe, and choose a favorable position. If they succeed in surrounding the rebels, they are made prisoners and taken to the camp. Notwithstanding the sympathy due to prisoners of war, it is hardly possible to abstain from laughing at the wretched appearance of these cavaliers, who consider themselves the aristocracy of the human race.

The engravings that have recently appeared in the illustrated papers of "specimens of chivalry" taken at Roanoke and Fort Donelson, are by no means exaggerated when compared with the living reality that is seen in these quarters. We may find something sublime in the fact, that they use ropes instead of bridles and stirrups, carpets instead of overcoats, garments of all colors instead of military uniform; all this may be viewed as an evidence of self-denial, but no romantic aspect can be given to the dirty and neglected appearance of those men, as there is at present plenty of water in Virginia; nor can I find anything to admire in the ignorance of secesh soldiers. In our army, it is a rarity to find a man who cannot read or write; in the rebel army, perhaps not five per cent of the men are able to sign their names. The Mississippi and Texan soldiers, are not better than barbarians in intelligence and appearance. The arrival of captured pickets produces a stir in the camps, and soldiers flock around them to hear the latest news from Dixie. The information obtained, depends of course, on the temper of the prisoners, some of whom are morose and defiant, others talkative and indifferent. In every instance, however, I have ascertained that the populace of the South has been thoroughly impregnated with the idea that the Yankees wanted to steal their property, incite their slaves to insurrection, and turn their masters into slaves. It was through those prisoners, that I first was privileged to see Confederate Treasury Notes, some of which, printed in the early and palmy days of the rebellion, are in close imitation of our own Treasury note, but the last issued are terrible specimens of paper money, being printed on all kinds of note paper, from old pamphlets, down to bits of New York papers. They promise to pay the amount specified six months after the ratification of a treaty of peace, and are payable for all dues except export duties. In the middle of the note there are four ladies and one behind them, emblematical of something, I don't know what, with bales of cotton, mountains of dollars, steamboats, factories and anchors in the rear. One of the ladies holds a cross in her hand, evidently to symbolize the Christian religion, and this very figure indicates, that in Secessia, Church and State are to be united.

Besides these confederate notes, they have private shin plasters, varying from five cents to twenty-five cents, issued by tradesmen, and returnable in merchandise. "Good for a shave," "Good for a quart of milk," "Good for a basket of sweet potatoes," --such is the present currency of the South. If the government were to ask my advice, how to punish the secessionists of the North, I would tell them to send all those sympathizers into Secessia, where they can enjoy the fruits of their theories to their heart's content. One week's experience would suffice to make them pray for a speedy return to the blessed North.
 

Sketches from the Seat of War