This is one of the most oft' repeated stories of good will between friendly pickets during the Civil War. Using toy boats for the exchange of coffee for tobacco across the Rappahannock was reported many times - by soldiers of both sides. This version, by Private John R. Paxton, of Company G, 140th Pennsylvania, was originally published in Harper's Weekly but it was reprinted in newspapers all over the country. After the war, Paxton became a Presbyterian minister.
The snow still fell; the keen wind, raw and fierce cut to the bone. It was God's worst weather in God's forlornest, bleakest spot of ground, that Christmas day of '62 on the Rappahannock, a mile below the town of Fredericksburg. But come, pick up your prostrate pluck, you shivering private. Surely there is enough dampness around without adding to it your tears.
"Let's laugh, boys."
"Hello yourself, Yank!"
"Merry Christmas, Johnny!"
"Same to you, Yank!"
"Say Johnny, got anything to trade?"
"Parched corn and tobacco - the size of our Christmas, Yank."
"All right. You shall have some of our coffee and sugar and pork. Boys, find the boats."
Such boats! I see the children sailing them on the small lakes in our Central Park. Some Yankee, desperately hungry for tobacco, invented them for trading with the Johnnies. They were hid away under the banks of the river for successive relays of pickets.
We got out the boats. An old handkerchief answered for a sail. We loaded them with coffee, sugar, pork, and set the sail, and watched them slowly creep to the other shore. And the Johnnies! To see them crowd the bank, and push and scramble to be the first to seize the boats, going into the water, and stretching out their long arms! Then when they pulled the boats ashore, and stood in a group over the cargo, and to hear their exclamations: "Hurrah for hog!" "Sat, that's not roasted rye, but genuine coffee. Smell it, you uns." "And sugar, too." Then they divided the consignment. They laughed and shouted, "Reckon you uns been good to we uns this Christmas Day, Yanks." Then they put parched corn, tobacco, and ripe persimmons into the boats, and sent them back to us. And we chewed the parched corn, smoked real Virginia leaf, ate persimmons, which if they weren't very filling, at least contracted our stomachs to the size of our Christmas dinner. And so the day passed.
We shouted, "Merry Christmas, Johnny." They shouted, "Same to you, Yank." And we forgot the biting wind, the chilling cold; we forgot those men over there were our enemies, whom it might be our duty to shoot before evening.
We had bridged the river - spanned the bloody chasm. We were brothers, not foes, waving salutations of good will in the name of the Babe of Bethlehem, on Christmas Day, in '62. At the very front of the opposing armies the Christ Child struck a truce for us -- broke down the wall of partition, became our peace. We exchanged gifts. We shouted greetings back and forth. We kept Christmas, and our hearts were lighted for it and our shivering bodies were not quite so cold.