Ballplaying in Civil War Camps

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Ballplaying in Civil War Camps

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An Overview of an Enriched Data Base

by Larry McCray, July 2009


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Bsallardice

442 days ago
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The rise of recorded baseball playing in 1863 was due to the war situation, IMO. The regiments that came from the prime pre-CW baseball playing regions (mainly New England the Northeast) almost entirely served in the Army of the Potomac, the eastern/Virginia army. In early 1863, this army was in camp near Falmouth VA, separated from the Confederates by the Rappahannock River. In 1864, the same army was busy almost every day with the 24/7 actions of the Wilderness, Overland and Petersburg campaigns.

Plus while in camp in early 1863, reporters from newspapers (who liked to be based in DC, with its telegraph facilities and its fleshpots) had better access to the army, which was near DC. The war situation impacted the reporting of the play, as well as the soldier's chance to play.

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In the current decade, two books have appeared on the role of base ball in the Civil War (Millen 2001; Kirsch 2003). Neither author lists all the references inspected, but close reading suggests that fewer than 50 references were then known.

The current Protoball collection of references to Civil War ballplaying now includes 176 finds. This page is an initial attempt to abstract the evidence now in hand. Brief Protoball descriptions of these references (a 45-page Word document) are available from Larry McCray, and will be proofed and uploaded to the Protoball website in the coming months. We welcome suggestions as to how to enrich this short abstract, and suggest that you look for trends that we’ve missed.

The Northerners Played a Lot More

About 10% of the references to ballplaying involved Confederate troops, and this includes their play while held in northern prisons.

It is plausible that this underestimates ballplaying as a southern pastime. For one thing, rebel force levels were only about 2/3 of those in the north. It is also true that some very productive sources or data – celebratory regimental histories and newspaper stories – appeared less commonly in the south than in the victorious north.

The Northeasterners Played a Lot More: Teams from New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey Account for Two-Thirds of All Union Army References

Leaving aside about 25 accounts for which the ballplayers’ home state was not mentioned, we have about 150 accounts of play in Union Army units [some accounts mention play among two or more units]. Of these, 100 accounts involved units from New York [54 cases], Massachusetts [30 cases] and New Jersey [17 cases]. Ballplaying is reported in 9 Pennsylvania units and in 7 Maine units. Ten other northern states each account for 4 or fewer cases, and together account for about 30 cases.

Florida and Virginia units led the Confederate states with 3 reports of ballplaying. Five other southern states give us a total of 6 cases.

Note: NY, MA, and NJ were populous states, and had larger forces. It should be possible for us to convert these figures to a per capita basis.

Ballplaying May Have Peaked in April 1863

Reports of ballplaying are found as follows:

Year No. Cases
1861 18
1862 31
1863 82
1864 47
1865 14

New troops were avidly recruited in 1864, especially in the north, and it is notable that reports of ballplaying did not expand then. The apparent decline in 1864 seems unexpected, especially with troop levels rising.

If the War was a key to the spread of base ball throughout the US south, one might expect to see a steady growth of play through the war years. More generally, however, the spread of the Association game from northeastern cities to rural areas across the North may have been facilitated during the war – a large proportion of recruits were farmers, and they may have taken the big city game home with them following their service.

The Seasonality of CW Ballplaying is Clear: Many Games Occurred in the Winter Camps

While there are a handful of accounts of ballplaying near the heat of battle, the fighting months are conspicuously spare in reports of game. In fact, the number of games from May through September is under one-third of the games known in March and April during the war years.

Both sides quit fighting in about November of each year, and then they settled in at winter camps. Camps tended to break some time in April, which lagged the return of warm weather in the South; the impassibility of muddy roads and, possibly, the shortage of free-range forage for horses, may have been factors in the timing of the resumption of hostilities. One can imagine gatherings of young men growing tired of camp routines and turning to ballplaying to celebrate good weather. In the month of April 1863 alone, we find 31 accounts of ballplaying, predominantly in Union camps in northern Virginia. Baseball fever! [Note: this bulge may reflect, in part, the 20-odd new finds thoughtfully contributed by Michael Aubrecht from the collections of the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania National Military Park.]

Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Cases 11 9 25 61 23 12 6 3 6 5 10 11

While we have a handful of reports of ballplaying near the battle lines, note that overall incidence was low in the war-fighting months generally.

As for the actual game sites, nearly 70 accounts were of games played in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Nine were reported in GA, seven in TN, six in NC, and six in LA.

The General Importance of War-Camp Base Ball is Somewhat Strengthened

Spalding and others underscored the importance of ballplaying by soldiers during the war, but his accounts, and most later accounts too, argued the case by citing selected examples, and some doubted that the game actually played a large role. After all, there were millions of often-bored soldiers, and anecdotal accounts of many minor pastimes were to be expected.

With 150 accounts in hand, some of them reporting several games, the case for base ball as a major diversion is strengthened. It seems likely than many more accounts will surface as diverse writings become amenable to systematic search. Still, 176 accounts for a war lasting nearly 50 months is not an overwhelming count.

The Ballgame of Choice Was Base Ball, By a Large Margin

As is common in origins research, it is sometimes difficult to determine what game was being played in a diary or autobiographical account of ballplaying in the military during the War. In part, this is because the writer uses a general phrase like “playing ball,” or “a game of ball,” which give no clue to the playing rules employed, and little assurance that the game was not more like handball or football or field hockey than like a baserunning game. And in fact, over 40 or our references were generic.

However, in nearly 100 cases it seems clear that the game that was played was a safe haven game:

Game Cases
Base Ball [incl. MA game] 70
Wicket 9
Cricket 7
Town Ball 5
“Base” 1
Bat-ball 1
Cat 1
Longball 1

Because New Englanders called their round-ball-based game “base ball,” we cannot easily distinguish their wartime games from those that followed the New York game rules as codified by the National Association. Our impression, however, is that the New York game very clearly dominated Civil War ballplaying; among other things, only one-third of all accounts come from New England sources, and of these only 3 [re-check this] explicitly denote their game as being played by Massachusetts Game rules.

Games of wicket were reported for men from MA, WI, IL, and the Rochester area of NYS.

Cricket was played by a Pennsylvania regiment, two NY regiments, and by rebel soldiers held in an Ohio prison camp. The reference to long ball is ambiguous.

Data on games played by Confederate soldiers are sparse. “Base ball” [outside Union prison camps] is mentioned in only three accounts, but only one is contemporary [and 1861 newspaper article]. The others are retrospective accounts, one by a chaplain writing in 1887 and one by a LA soldier who had also played base ball in New Orleans before the war. Four writers wrote of playing “town ball” in their diaries or letters home. One letter mentioned playing “base,” and another wrote of playing “a game of ball called cat.” We have no evidence of southern play of other games – cricket, wicket, round cat, or chermany.

Town ball was played by soldiers from Texas, Florida, and Georgia.

Base Ball Appears to Have Been a Leading Camp Diversion

The advent of electronic searches allows us to form impressions of how base ball stacked up against other pastimes. Many regimental histories are now available electronically, as are long-forgotten diaries and journals.

Thus, searches for “play,” “played,” “playing,” and “games” gives some idea of the relative frequency of assorted diversions [they also help us to establish the relative popularity of wicket and cricket and town ball, which prior baseball-oriented researchers may not have been interested in].

My subjective impression is that ballplaying was reported more often than all other forms of recreation. Second was card-playing, often for monetary stakes. Quoits, foot-races, and occasionally football were found too, but less frequently, and shinty/bandy even rarer. [Singing, emphasized in one well-loved account of soldiers’ lives, was rarely encountered, but such pastimes may not be caught by our “play” and “game” searches.]

Diaries and Regimental Histories Are Giving Us the Best Yield

It seems arguable that, after a lengthy period of stasis, we may now be entering a time in which the borders of uncertainty about soldierly ballplaying may recede as more sources are digitized.


For our current data base:

Type of Source Finds
Diary 38
Regimental History 33
Newspaper 28
Letter 20
Book 17
Drawing/Photo 3
Military Report 1
Trophy Ball 1

Recent Finds

We are especially indebted to Michael Aubrecht [23 refs], Jeff Kittel [10 refs], the Giamatti Center at the HOF [6 refs] and John Zinn [4 refs] for new finds and/or documentation of new finds. About 65 of the listed finds came from lazy web searches by Protoball in mid-2009.

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