Life between the Picket Lines
"When a man is on picket at night he is monarch of all he surveys. No one living has more absolute power than he. His word is law."
—Corp. Lewis Bissell, 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery, USA
"I have seen veterans of three full years who have faced death incessantly who believe in the southern cause as sincerely as I do, finally be conquered by gnawing hunger and desert to the enemy. I hate the idea, but I won't criticize."
—Sgt. James E. Whitehorne, 12th Virginia Infantry, CSA
Daily freezing and thawing rendered the roads around Petersburg impassable during the winter of 1864-1865, bringing large-scale campaigning to a temporary halt. Both armies remained vigilant, however, and maintained a continuous line of pickets to provide early warning of any significant attacks and to prevent the enemy from gaining positions of observation. These pickets conducted their own brand of warfare for months, a routine that included periodic raids, unauthorized commerce, and desertion.
Here on the Jones Farm the opposing picket lines were in plain view, as soldiers from both armies systematically cut down the remaining trees to provide firewood for their camps. Duty on the picket line could be dangerous. Whenever officers desired to update their intelligence about enemy activities, they authorized nocturnal raids that netted prisoners from the picket force. Officers outlawed trading with the enemy, but the rank and file skirted such regulations as often as possible. Confederates often swapped tobacco for Union coffee. Desertion proved more problematical. Hundreds of Confederates, discouraged by inedaquate rations and pessimism from the home front, crossed to the Union picket line seeking a personal end to their war. Surprisingly, many northern soldiers deserted as well, having collected generous enlistment bounties with little intention of actually serving.
This contemporary drawing illustrates a typical vista across the opposing battle lines at Petersburg. Here the main lines were separated by nearly a mile of alternately muddy and dusty no-man's land guarded by opposing lines of pickets. — Courtesy Library of Congress
Less than half a mile from here, the Federals built this 125-foot-high signal tower behind their main lines. Soldiers with telescopes could see for miles from the top. Courtesy Library of Congress