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This Day in Georgia Civil War History

September 26, 1861

Soldier Described Picket Duty

A Georgia soldier in Virginia wrote home to his mother; he was stationed in sight of Washington, D.C. He also told her about the perils, and sometimes the humor, of picket duty.

“…From the top of Munson’s Hill we could plainly see the city of Washington. And the lofty dome of the Federal capitol in its present half-finished [state] and [its] apparently decaying condition reminded one forcibly of the present condition of the old United States government. … The picket lines are also so near that bold, daring scouts sometimes creep up from either side and shoot down the pickets at night. For this reason no picket can sleep, as it might be the sleep of death. One night, when on picket duty, one of my sentinels reported the advance of a scout who had crawled up to within 80 yards of one of my pits and had then laid down in the clover. The moon shone brightly. …Two of my men also saw him, but I was too quick to give them a chance to shoot. I shot after him a load of buck and ball…and I regret to be compelled to record it that I think from what I could see on an observation by daylight the next morning that I did not kill him. But I will venture the suggestion that I scared the scamp out of a year’s growth. … Sometimes the scene changes. The pickets seem by mutual understanding to cease firing for a while and show white handkercheifs on each side, when they come out of their pits and ‘stop fighting to begin cursing,’ as on old fellow told me. … They then meet in the center of the field, each without arms, and no one fires on them. They often talk for fifteen minutes, take drinks, swap canteens and drink toasts to the ‘Sweetheart they’ve left behind us.’ The Yankee always wants to make a trade of some sort, swap knives, &c. This is all done in the best humor imaginable. …” Source: Mills Lane (ed.), “Dear Mother: Don’t grieve about me. If I get killed, I’ll only be dead.”: Letters from Georgia Soldiers in the Civil War (Savannah: Beehive Press, 1990), pp. 67-68.