On the Battlefront, the New York Game Takes Hold, 1861-1865

The article below, by Patricia Millen, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball.  Ms. Millen is the author of From Pastime to Passion: Baseball and the Civil War (Heritage Books, 2001), the first book on baseball in the war camps. She has written dozens of articles on U.S. history, and is the Executive Director of the Roebling Museum in central New Jersey. Her article, like others from the special Protoball issue,  appears courtesy of the publisher, McFarland and Company. Each article is keyed to the larger chronology appearing at Early Baseball Milestones at mlb.com. For example, the article below, indexed as 1863.11, reflects that it is the eleventh entry for the year 1863. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.

Item 1863.11, On the Battlefront, the New York Game Takes Hold, 1861–1865

Patricia Millen

[In April 1863] the Third Corps and Sixth Corps baseball teams met near White Oak Church, Virginia, to play for the championship of the Army of the Potomac.[1]

The soldiers who marched off to fight the American Civil War did so knowing how to play base-running ball games. Whether from a northern city or a southern country plantation, the farmers, merchants, doctors, clerks, sons and grandfathers who enlisted in Union and Confederatearmies grew up with a sporting heritage. The rules of the ball games they played varied slightly by region, but by the 1840s—nearly twenty years before the Civil War began in 1861—they had taken shapes that a 21st century observer wouldrecognize. The game was not dramatically advanced by Northern soldiers moving south during the War, or by the rare exchanges between Union and Confederate soldiers. Instead, baseball during wartime provided respite, amusement and a taste of home to bored, scared, weary soldiers and POWs on both sides of the conflict. The war helped solidify the New York rules as the favorite form of baseball—a progression that began before the first shot of the war was ever fired. Two years after Fort Sumter, it appears, Union soldiers had even formed all-star teams for two of their Corps, and had crowned a championship nine for their entire Army.

We know of the baseball games played by Civil War soldiers from contemporary newspaper accounts, regimental histories, and from diaries and letters written by the soldiers themselves.Few accounts record the game as anything new—rather, most are presented as commonplace. Accounts salvaged are often similar in nature, reflecting the game as a favorite pastime during the War, but altogether ordinary. As E. F. Palmer of the Second Brigade from Montpelier, Vermont noted in his history of the regiment in 1864:

Since the ground has become dry, many are the amusements. After drilling is over, towards evening, the wide level space in front of the camp is crowded with soldiers. Many are playing ball. The most expert choose up, and one is to keep tally; now they strip off coats and sweating and eager as to the result, push on the lively game.[2]

Three hundred eighty-four major battles and campaigns took place during the American Civil War. We can follow the reports of ball games by soldiers in the regions of the country surrounding these principle operations. The majority of all known baseball games took place in the Confederate stronghold of Virginia—where a full third of all key military operations of the war took place. New York and Massachusetts regiments played the most baseball. Although New Jersey regiments represented a much smaller fighting force, the activity of baseball among the Jersey boys was brisk. Reports of ball play by Pennsylvania soldiers tallied fourth behind New Jersey in recorded accounts.[3]

Extant reports of ball play by Confederates are few in comparison to the writings of the victorious north (references to Confederate ball playing account for only 10 percent of recorded play);[4] but they do exist to tell part of the story of Civil War baseball. Virginia and Florida regiments reported the most ball play, although no southern regiment represented a clear majority in the compilation of histories of Confederate baseball. A typical account is that of William Harding, a corporal in theConfederate Army who wrote in 1863, when he was stationed in Georgia, that he “had a fine game of Town ball which gave me good exercise.” Also behind Confederate lines, James Hall of the 24th Alabama observed his men playing baseball “just like school boys” while waiting for General Sherman to advance his army.[5]  

For the most part, baseball and town ball were enthusiastically played between men from the same regiments, from the same part of the country and by commonly accepted rules. Baseball games were said to be “all the rage” and camps were “alive” with ball play during the War.[6] George Rolfe from the 134th New York recollected that while in Chattanooga he played men from the Massachusetts 33rd. Accounts show New York, Pennsylvania and other northern regiments played consistently each evening on their drill fields.[7]

The majority of all ball play took place in winter quarters when spring weather approached and soldiers, restless and bored, took to outdoor sport. Ball games were played with regularity while soldiers were sojourned in camp, and in times of rest between battles and marches. The citizen turned solider did not realize that, during his great adventure away from home, a principal enemy would be boredom. A soldier might spend several months at a time without ever firing a gun! A New Jersey soldier recorded in his diary in 1863, “The boredom became unbearable as the winter wore on. Mud everywhere, limiting outside activities . . . during the long days the men played chess, checkers, cards, and, when weather permitted, baseball and other athletic pursuits.”[8]

From November until spring, the grand armies sat idle waiting for passable roads and foraged food. Athletic games of all kinds—quoits, football, foot races—lifted spirits. The importance of sport and physical exercise to the morale of the men was emphasized by the US Sanitary Commission, physicians, and the press. As Julian Chisolm, a Confederate doctor published in 1864, “gymnastic exercise should be encouraged as conductive to health, strength, agility and address.” The “manly game of ball” was recommended as an important addition to a soldier’s physical fitness regime.[9]

Two variations of base ball were played during the War—town ball, and its cousin the Massachusetts game, and the New York game of baseball. Ora Harvey from the 46th Massachusetts wrote in a letter home in 1863: “We play ball pitch quoits the rest of the time. We play the New York ‘Gam’ [sic] most of the time. ‘Mass’ game some . . . .”[10]

Most often, however, the type of ball game was not specified in the writings left behind by northern or southern soldiers. In a recent compilation of more than150 historical accounts of ball play during the four-year war, the game called “base ball” was cited about 70 percent of the time in those records where the type of ball play could be determined. In the majority of accounts, the game played by Northern soldiers was by the New York or Massachusetts rules.[11] It is not surprising that the New York game appears to have been the most commonly played, because of the sheer number of soldiers from New York. When President Abraham Lincoln called for enlistments in 1861, the largest army of Union men—409 regiments—eventually answered the call to serve from the Empire State.

For their part, soldiers were not overly concerned with the rules of play and only a few occurrences call the rules of baseball into question during the war. One Union soldier remarked in his diary that he and the boys in his company from the 26th Pennsylvania regiment did learn to play baseball in a “new way” but that he had already forgotten the different rules.[12] A sergeant from the 62nd New York regiment wrote to the sporting paper The New York Clipper on May 30, 1863, to clarify the rules as he knew them:

That in making a home run in a game of baseball the runner is allowed to run 2′ either side of the bases without touching them. I claim that he is obligated to touch each base as he passes it . . . to play now in N.Y. is to touch the bases in all cases; so that the matter is settled, and the rules can now be interpreted correctly.[13]

A handful of accounts show baseball was played in Yankee and Confederate prison camps during the Civil War. Imprisoned on Johnson’s Island near Sandusky, Ohio, Confederate Lt. William Peel, a farmer, of the 11th Mississippi gave accounts of a head injury suffered by a fellow prisoner while a “party was engaged in a game of baseball” in the prison yard. He wrote of challenges between ball clubs in the prison that lasted for several weeks.[14]

The condition in many of the army prisons, especially for those soldiers held by the Confederate army, was not conducive to outside amusements. By mid-war, the Confederate government had little means to supply food, clothing or shelter to its own army, let alone its prisoners of war.

The most extensive accounts of prison ball play during the war come from Salisbury prison in North Carolina. An old cotton factory was transformed into a Confederate prison camp in 1861 and for a while, prisoners had free rein of the 16-acre yard and ball games were played almost daily. They were recorded in the diaries of several prisoners and in the writings of a Confederate chaplain who resided in Salisbury. “Took a little walk in the evening and watched some officers play ball,” wrote 23-year-old Union doctor Charles Grey, who was captured and sent to the prison in 1862.[15] Referring to some recently transferred prisoners from New Orleans and Alabama, a Rhode Island soldier wrote in 1863, “And to-day the great game of baseball came off between the Orleanists and the Tuscaloosans with apparently as much enjoyment to the Rebs as the Yanks. . . .”[16]

The pleasant memories of games at Salisbury, before conditions at the prison became as notoriously grim as Andersonville, were depicted in a color lithograph publishedin 1863by Sarony, Major and Knapp. The print shows a lively ball game in the park-like setting of the prison grounds at Salisbury, drawn by former prisoner Otto Boetticher, Captain, Company G of the 68th New York. Otto Boetticher was a commercial artist living in New York before the War and spent one summer in Salisbury before being exchanged in September of 1862.[17]

Baseball games were played by northern and southern soldiers when time and energy permitted in hundreds of places during the American Civil War. Baseball gave soldiers a much needed respite from the realities of the War. The majority of ball play took place in winter quarters as spring weather advanced and the New York game proved to be the favorite version of the game played during the war. It continued to progress as America’s favorite pastime as the country began to heal after four long years of hostilities.

      1. History. The First National Bank of Scranton, PA (Scranton, 1906), p. 37. This company history describes how the bank’s 1906 president, James A. Linen, had pitched for the winning side in the championship game.

      2. Madden, D. 2000. Beyond the Battlefield (p. 99).

      3. Ballplaying in Civil War Camps, database: retrosheet.org/Protoball/CW.htm

      4. Ibid.

      5. Millen, P. 2001. From Pastime to Passion, Baseball and the Civil War (p. 19).

      6. Protoball Chronology: retrosheet.org/Protoball/CivilWar.htm (p. 20).

      7. Rolfe, G. 1864. Diary.

      8. Protoball Chronology: retrosheet.org/Protoball/CivilWar.htm (p. 24).

      9. Chisolm, J. A Manual of Military Surgery, for Use of Surgeons in the Confederate Army (pp. 56–57).

     10. Protoball Chronology: retrosheet.org/Protoball/CivilWar.htm (p. 25).

     11. Ballplaying in Civil War Camps, database: retrosheet.org/Protoball/CWtrends.htm

     12. Crockett, D. 1962. “Sports and Recreational Practices of Union and Confederate Soldiers,” Research Quarterly 32.3, p. 342.

     13. New York Clipper: May 30, 1863.

     14. “The Games Endures: A Civil War Diary” Humanities 15.4 (1994), p. 18.

     15. Sumner, J. 1989. “Baseball at Salisbury Prison Camp,” Baseball History, p. 20.

     16. Ibid.

     17. An Album of Civil War Battle Art, 1988, p. 97.

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