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Did They Play Baseball In The Civil War?

US Civil War

Did They Play Baseball In The Civil War?

The lithograph by Currier and Ives was published just months before the 1860 election. It depicts Abraham Lincoln playing baseball against his rival candidates – John Bell, Stephen A. Douglas, and John C. Breckinridge. Lincoln has hit a home run using a bat representing his party’s platform, while the others have all been called out using much weaker bats.

One thing the lithograph suggests is that by 1860, enough of the American public was sufficiently aware of baseball for a political cartoon to capture the colloquialisms of the game and apply them to presidential politics. It tells us that by 1860, baseball was already part of American culture and a national sport.

The “New York Game” (or National Association Game, as it was known by then) had begun to assert its dominance over other variations of games played with a stick and a ball. The evolving Knickerbocker Code or rules had its origins in metropolitan New York in 1845. 

Invitation to the “1st Annual Ball of the Magnolia Ball Club” of New York, c. 1843. Depicting the Colonnade Hotel at the Elysian Fields and a group of men playing baseball. The earliest known image of grown men playing the game.

Baseball was most popular in northeastern cities such as New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Boston. Baseball’s story is closely related to the growth of the United States. Irish & German immigrants dominated the early years of the game.

During the war, baseball served an important role in American culture. On the home front in northern cities, it remained a popular leisure activity that entertained the masses. On the front lines, baseball became an important diversion.

Abner Doubleday
Gen. Abner Doubleday

Major General Abner Doubleday was NOT the inventor of baseball and why Major League Baseball nevertheless chose a myth of American creation of the game over truth.  July 1 at Gettysburg was his greatest contribution to the war, but unfortunately, he never received the acclaim for it that he should have. And bizarrely, he was instead credited for inventing baseball, which he didn’t and never claimed to do; this counterbalance for sure is an example of supernaturally mediated karma. And for a time held the patent for cable cars in San Francisco.

Doubleday was second in command to General Anderson at Ft Sumter and fired the first return shot. He later commanded at a division level at Second Manassas and Antietam. At Gettysburg, he was at the front as division commander of the second infantry division on the field. With Reynolds’ death, Doubleday found himself in command on the field at Gettysburg at 10:50 am. It is entirely unknown if Reynolds had told him what his orders were; if he was aware that he was supposed to fight a reconnaissance in force, he certainly never tried. For the next 5 hours he defended the ridges west of Gettysburg as increasing numbers of Confederate soldiers appeared, eventually outnumbering him by about 16,000 to 9,500. 

The official myth is that Doubleday invented baseball in 1839.

However, he was a cadet at West Point beginning in 1838. He had lived in Cooperstown to go to high school and to serve as surveyor for two years before then.  The person who testified to the Mills Commission that Doubleday invented the game was a man named Abner Graves, who a few years later shot his wife and was committed to a mental institution for the rest of his life. 

Even the more accurate idea that baseball was invented in Elihu Phinney’s cow pasture in Cooperstown, NY in 1839 isn’t the real story. In fact, a variation called the “Massachusetts Game” had different rules but was played with a bat and ball. Two major baseball conventions were held prior to the war with the formation of a “league”, basically men’s clubs who played competitively

A game from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, c. 1280, involving tossing a ball, hitting it with a stick and competing with others to catch it
Baseball in the Civil War

Although we “buffs” like to think of the battles and campaigns, the soldiers spent a good deal of their time doing nothing. Sitting in camp, it was necessary to maintain their physical condition and keep their minds occupied. 

When soldiers went off to war in 1861, they took their bats and balls with them, and took every opportunity in between fighting to organize baseball games. There were games in prison camps, the White House lawn, and games on battlefields that were often interrupted by gunfire and cannon. The United States and Military encouraged the game of baseball during the war because they believed it would help keep up the soldiers’ morale. Noted Civil War historian Bell Irvin Wiley has stated that baseball “appears to have been the most popular of all competitive sports” in the camps of both armies.

Union soldiers, more familiar with the game, introduced others, including Southerners and Westerners to baseball throughout the Civil War, resulting in thousands of soldiers learning the game. Upon returning home, the game spread to friends and neighbors and soon the sport was played in every region of the country, solidifying its title as “The National Pastime.”

Firsthand soldier accounts reveal that they most frequently played baseball in the winter and spring months, with games peaking during the months of March and April.

This served as an ideal time to play, as fair weather coincided with reduced army activity. Typically, the active campaigning season for Civil War armies began at some point in May and lasted through November. The armies stayed in winter quarters during the months of December, January and February, and many roads became impassable in March and April due to heavy rains. During these months, soldiers sought to keep themselves occupied, and whenever the weather cooperated, they organized ball games.

This photograph, from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, shows one of the earliest games in action. In the foreground, Company H of the 48th New York Regiment, poses for this 1863 formal portrait at Fort Pulaski, in Savannah, Ga. The Regiment seems oblivious to the more informal baseball game in progress behind them.

On March 10, 1858 a convention was held in New York in which the National Association of BaseBall Players was formed and a committee to draft a constitution and by-laws was appointed. William H. Van Cott, the founder and president of the Gotham Club, became elected President. All 22 teams that attended were from New York.

The second annual National Association of BaseBall Players convention held in New York City in 1859 included teams from New Jersey. Membership grew to 49 clubs. In 1860 the annual N.A.B.B.P. convention held in New York City reported the membership at 62 clubs.

Abraham G Mills participated in a well-attended Christmas Day baseball game at Hilton Head Island, South Carolina in 1862 between the 165th New York Volunteer Infantry and nine other soldiers from other Union Army regiments. A reported 40,000 soldiers were in attendance. Mills later became president of the National League and cited this game as an example of the national pastime being played despite war.

A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744), included an illustration of base-ball, depicting a batter, a bowler, and three rounders posts. The rhyme refers to the ball being hit, the boy running to the next post, and then home to score. Updated to four bases by 1828, rounders has remained extremely popular among children in the UK.

There are many anecdotes about baseball games played by Union troops, Confederate troops, and even supposedly some between the two. A widely quoted, if not entirely believable, account of Captain John GB Adams of the 19th Massachusetts claimed that while in camp in Falmouth VA in 1863:

“… the 19th challenged the 7th Michigan to play for sixty dollars a side…The game was played and witnessed by nearly all of our division, and the 19th won. The $120 was spent for a supper, both clubs being present with our committee as guests. It was a grand time, and all agreed that it was nicer to play base than minie ball. What were the rebels doing all this time? Just the same as we were. While each army posted a picket along the river they never fired a shot. We would sit on the bank and watch their games, and the distance was so short that we could understand every movement and would applaud good plays.”

One of the ways the popularity of baseball continued to grow, and the rules enhanced, was that prisoners of war would play ball and their jail-keeper counterparts would see another way of playing the game

This illustration by Otto Boetticher entitled: Union prisoners at Salisbury North Carolina engage in a game of baseball. While the Civil War took its toll on baseball league membership, it helped popularize the game by spreading it throughout the southern parts of the United States. According to “Baseball in Blue and Gray” by George B. Kirsch, “Otto Boetticher was a commercial artist from New York City who enlisted in the 68th New York Volunteers in 1861 at the age of 45. He was captured in 1862 and wound up at Salisbury before being exchanged for a Confederate captain on September 30th. His illustration presents an idealized, pastoral view of a match in a setting that more closely resembled the Elysian Fields in Hoboken than a jail yard.”

Between December 9, 1861 and February 17, 1865, the prison housed 10,000-15,000 Union prisoners of war and other assorted detainees. The compound was designed to temporarily hold Union officers until they could be exchanged for Confederate troops. The facility was constructed around an empty 20 year-old brick three story cotton factory on 16 acres of land near a railroad line and the town of Salisbury. For the first couple of years of its existence, the prison had wells of sweet water, adequate medical facilities and sufficient food.

The first professional baseball teams formed after the Civil War, and formed a professional league in 1871.

Lastly ,the first professional baseball team was the Cincinnati Red Stockings, formed in 1869. Other teams quickly followed in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston. These teams formed a professional league known as the National Association (NA) in 1871. 

Written by Lloyd W Klein

Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein

Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein Dr. Lloyd W. Klein is Clinical Professor of Medicine in the Cardiology Division of the University of California, San Francisco. In addition, Dr. Klein is an accomplished consultant, author, lecturer and investigator. In addition, with over thirty-five years’ experience and expertise in managing myocardial infarction and tailoring coronary revascularization strategies. 

Moreover, Dr. Klein, a nationally recognized expert in individualizing coronary revascularization strategies. He has published extensively on analyzing operator quality and decision making.

Dr. Klein is also an amateur historian who has read extensively on the Civil War with a particular interest in political and military leadership and their economic ramifications. Furthermore, Dr. Klein has published numerous articles on the Civil War. Moreover, with a special concentration in why decisions became made and the people who made them. Lastly, using his professional experience in appraising leadership, he is especially insightful in evaluating the internal and external motivations which influenced decisions in battle and in the political hall.

Please see Dr. Klein’s Works:

Siege of Vicksburg

The Battle of Shiloh

The Hampton Roads Conference

Sherman’s March To The Sea

Why Did the North Win the Civil War (and, Alternatively, Why Did the South Lose?)

The Atlanta Campaign : The Conundrum of General Joseph E Johnston

The “Lost Order” Of General Lee

What caused the South to start the Civil War?

Was the Reconstruction of the Civil War successful?

Cubs Assistant General Manager Dr. Ehsan Bokhari


US Civil War

Did They Play Baseball In The Civil War?