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In Their Own Words

September 26, 1861

Georgia Soldier Wrote of Picket Duty

From Centreville, Va. Tomlinson Fort wrote to his mother in Georgia about picket duty:

“And now let me give you some description of picketing. Imagine a field about 300 yards in width covered with a growth of buckwheat. On each side of this field within twenty or thirty steps of each other, as the nature of ground will admit, are dug rifle pits about three feet wide, three feet deep and eight or ten feet long. In front of each of these pits is erected a barricade of rails covered with earth. In each of these pits is stationed from two to six men who sit behind these barricades and fire at each other whenever they can either see or imagine they see the ‘inemy.’ …

“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… .

“Sometimes the scene changes. The pickets seem by mutual understanding to cease firing for a while and show white handkerchiefs on each side, when they come out of their pits and ‘stop fighting to begin cursing,’ as an old fellow told me. They then begin a conservation about in this wise:

Yankee: ‘Got any whiskey over your way?’ Southerner: ‘No. Have you got any?’ Yankee: ‘Yes. Don’t you want some?’ Southerner: ‘Yes. Come and meet me half way and bring your canteen!’

“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 toast to ‘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.