Ballplaying by Civil War Soldiers 1.0

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Nearly 400 Finds Let Us Understand the Frequency and Nature of Military Ballplaying During the War

by Bruce Allardice, September 2018

Proto Stats

In the current century, two books have appeared on the role of baseball in the Civil War (Millen 2001; Kirsch 2003)[1]. Neither author lists all the references inspected, but close reading suggests that fewer than 50 instances of ball-playing are referenced.

The current Protoball collection of references to Civil War ball-playing (listed in the Chronologies) now includes 362 entries. Those 362 entries contain 375 references to ball-playing. Some of these entries include multiple references to ball-playing, some that mention baseball in non-ballplaying context. This essay attempts to abstract the evidence now in hand, for the benefit of future scholars.

The Northerners Played a Lot More Than Southerners

There are 375 total references to ball-playing: 328 by Union troops, compared to 47 by Confederates. Thus, about 13% of the references to ball-playing involved Confederate troops, including their play while held in northern prisons.

It is plausible that this underestimates ball-playing 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

Leaving aside the accounts for which the ballplayers’ home state was not mentioned, we have 328 references of play in Union Army units [some accounts mention play among two or more units]. Of these, 81 accounts involved units from New York, 68 from Massachusetts and 22 from New Jersey.

Units from these three states (New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey) account for over one-half (52%) of all Union Army ball-play references. NY, MA, and NJ were populous states. On the basis of population, these three states contained 30% of the Free state population, and they furnished 24% of Union army soldiers. Units from the Northeast (NY, NJ, CT, RI, MA, NH, VT and ME) account for 63% of all Union army references, even though they furnished only 32% of Union soldiers and constituted 40% of the Free state population.

Since the Northeast led the nation in the development and growth of pre-Civil War baseball, it’s understandable that in the Northeast there were more prewar ball-players as a percentage of the population.[2]

South Carolina, Georgia and Texas units led the Confederate states with 4 reports each of ball-playing. The Confederate database isn’t large enough to give any valuable data on the spread by states.

Ball-playing By Army

The main Union army in the east, the Army of the Potomac, leads with 188 references of ball-playing. This makes sense, because most of the troops from the major ball-playing regions of the country (mainly the Northeast) served in that army. The other main Union armies trail far behind, with the Army of the Tennessee having 23 instances and the Army of the Cumberland 22.

On the Confederate side, the Army of the Potomac’s opposite number, the Army of Northern Virginia, leads with 26 references. The western Army of Tennessee trails with 11.

Other forces, and play in home-state camps, account for 10 further instances.

Ball-playing Peaked in 1863

Reports of ballplaying are found as follows:

Year No. Protoball Entries
1861 71
1862 75
1863 131
1864 65
1865 20

Which works out to 8 entries per wartime month[3] for 1861, 6.25 for 1862, 11.8 for 1863, 5.5 for 1864, and 4 for 1865. The 1863 peaking is apparent here. [4]

Year No. Protoball References
1861 51
1862 68
1863 153
1864 86
1865 21

Which works out to 6 references per wartime month for 1861, 6 for 1862, 13 for 1863, 7 for 1864, and 3 for 1865. The 1863 peaking is also apparent here.

The rise of recorded baseball playing in 1863 was due to the war situation, in my opinion. The regiments that came from the prime pre-Civil War baseball playing regions (mainly New England and 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. Similarly, the western armies spent more time campaigning and less time in camp during 1864-65 than during 1861-63.

The Northeast was also the prime baseball reporting region. Newspapers such as the New York Sunday Mercury and New York Clipper had regular sports columns that newspapers outside New York City didn’t have at this time. Plus while the Army of the Potomac was 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.

If the Civil 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. We don’t see that growth here. 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 Civil War Ball-playing is Clear: Many Games Occurred in the Spring Camps

While there are a handful of accounts of ball-playing 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 (the 5 summer months) is barely over one-half of the games known in March and April during the war years.

Both sides usually quit fighting in about November of each year, and then they settled in at winter camps. These camps tended to break in early May, which marked the return of warm weather in the South; the drying out of muddy roads; and the return of free-range forage for horses—all of which were factors in the timing of the resumption of hostilities.

One can imagine gatherings of young men growing tired of camp routines and turning to ball-playing to celebrate good weather. In the month of April 1863 alone, we find 37 references to ball-playing, predominantly in Union camps in northern Virginia. The wartime numbers are as follows:

Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Cases 16 26 53 91 42 16 8 6 12 19 23 16

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

Where were the Games Played?

Soldiers played baseball in every state where major armies were stationed. Every major army, and almost every state, has at least some mentions of soldiers playing baseball.

As for the actual game sites, 196 references were of games played in the Commonwealth of Virginia, almost all by the Union Army of the Potomac. Since this army usually guarded Washington D.C., the Maryland/DC/Virginia region should be treated as one whole theater or war. In this theatre 229 references are found. That is 10 times as many references as in Tennessee, the next most state. Of the 377 identifiable references to play, Virginia alone accounts for 52% of the total.

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 377 references 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, 377 references for a war lasting nearly 50 months is not an overwhelming data set.

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 ball-playing 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 base-running game. And in fact, many of our references were generic.

However, in at least 47 cases it seems clear that the game that was played was a related bat-ball game:

Game Cases
Wicket 11
Cricket 7
Town Ball 23
Other 6

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. My impression, however, is that the New York game very clearly dominated Civil War ball-playing; among other things, only one-third of all accounts come from New England sources, and of these only a handful explicitly denote their game as being played by Massachusetts Game rules.

Data on games played by Confederate soldiers is sparse. It appears they more often referred to playing “town ball” than their northern counterparts.

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, cricket and town ball, which prior baseball-oriented researchers may not have been interested in].

My subjective impression is that ball-playing was reported more often than all other forms of athletic recreation. Quoits, foot-races, wrestling, and occasionally foot-ball [akin to modern rugby] were found too, but less frequently, and shinty/bandy even rarer. This agrees with the earlier conclusions of Professor Crockett.

Ball Playing in POW Camps

One of the most surprising results of this research is evidence of how frequently Prisoners of War (POWs) played baseball. Civil War POW facilities can be divided into 2 types—those that utilized existing forts, penitentiaries, and other confined spaces; and those more commonly called camps, newly built facilities enclosing central grounds that were spacious enough for prisoner ball-playing. In the former category were such facilities as Alton Prison, Gratiot St. Prison, Fort Warren, Fort Delaware, and Point Lookout (Union side), Libby, Belle Isle and Catawba (Confederate). But most Civil War POWs were sent to the more spacious camps; the Union Camp Douglas, Camp Butler, Rock Island, Camp Chase, Johnson’s Island, Camp Randall, Elmira, and the Confederate Salisbury, Andersonville, and Camp Ford. In ALL these camps, the prisoners (and often the guards) played baseball to pass the time.

Even in the POW camp generally considered the most horrible, Andersonville, there is a diary entry from a Union army prisoner, when the camp had been almost emptied, that he “played ball” outside the prison walls, while on special duty at the camp hospital.

No Navy Ball-Playing Found

We have not yet found any mentions of ball-playing by sailors in either navy. That may be because the tiny Confederate navy was usually blockaded in port, and because the Union navy (the “blue water” portion of it, at least) spent most of its time on the high seas. It should however be noted that the champion Eckford baseball team of Brooklyn had strong connections to the Brooklyn naval yards that constructed warships, and that Eckford players such as Thomas W. H. Patterson also served in the navy.[5]

We have one recorded instance of a Civil War “marine” playing baseball, along the Red River in Louisiana in 1864. The marine was not part of the US Marine Corps, but rather of a special unit, the Mississippi River Marine Brigade, a quasi-army unit which was attached to the “brown water” (inland rivers) naval forces cooperating with the land armies. During the Civil War the US Marine Corps marines were parceled out among navy ships and thus rarely operated as a formed unit.

The Soldiers Played Baseball After the War

Best estimates are that around 40, and perhaps more, Civil War soldiers played in the Major Leagues. A man age 21 in 1865 (when the war ended) would be age 27 in 1871 (the year baseball became openly professional) and 32 in 1876 (the year the National League was founded). Among the Civil War veterans are Hall of Famers Morgan Bulkeley and Al Reach, league president Nick Young, and many others. Two players on prewar St. Louis amateur teams, Fred Benteen and Basil Duke, rose to the rank of General during the war (one a Union army general, the other Confederate), and Union general George Hartsuff was seen playing baseball while in camp.

The Civil War and the Spread of Baseball

In his magisterial 1911 book, America’s National Game, baseball pioneer Albert G. Spalding asserted the the Civil War revolutionized, if not baseball, then the spread of baseball--that the war spread knowledge of the “New York game” far beyond its New York roots. “It was during the Civil War, then, that the game of Base Ball became our national game.”[6] Spalding himself was taught the game by a returning veteran. However, more recent scholars (George Kirsch is one) are less confident, arguing that the Civil War made no significant difference in baseball’s growth.

The number of references in the existing Protoball database are enough to confirm that the Civil War must have had an impact on the spread of baseball. The data also indicates that the impact of soldier ball-playing was not on civilians, but rather on their fellow soldiers. The overwhelming majority of instances of soldier play occurred in Union army camps, particularly those camps in the war zones of Virginia. As Spalding quotes in his book, “Whenever, in the summer or fall, the Federal armies rested for a week, someone was sure to take a Base Ball out of his haversack and start a game.”[7] Those camps were almost invariably located in areas such as Falmouth, Virginia that lacked a large civilian presence. In addition, being army camps, rebel civilians were, for obvious security reasons, rarely allowed to visit those camps. In the large southern cities which the Union army occupied early in the war, such as Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans, reported instances of soldier ball-playing are basically non-existent. By contrast, baseball games are shown to have been played in every northern and southern army, as well as among POWs. Many more soldiers than civilians witnessed those games, and they, not the civilians, took their memories of baseball back to their home towns.


It seems arguable that, with the widespread availability of digitized newspapers, we are entering a time in which the borders of uncertainty are about soldierly ballplaying are receding.

  1. George B. Kirsch, Baseball in Blue and Gray (Princeton U., 2003); Patricia Millen, From Pastime to Passion: Baseball and the Civil War (Heritage Books, 2001). On this topic, see more generally Bell Irvin Wiley, The Common Soldier in the Civil War (Grosset and Dunlap, 1952); Albert G. Spalding, America’s National Game (American Sports Pub. Co., 1911); D. S. Crockett, “Sports and Recreational Practices of Union and Confederate Soldiers,” Research Quarterly, vol. 32, p. 335-347 (1961).
  2. For the curious: of the 1216 clubs that the Protoball database lists that were formed prior to 1861, 982 (81%) were located in the three states of New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. New York alone accounted for over half (685) of the clubs. 84% of the prewar clubs were in the Northeast. Only 29 (2.4% of the total) were from the eleven seceding (Confederate) states.
  3. The wartime included 8 months of 1861, 6 months of 1865, and all 12 months of 1862-64.
  4. The per-month spike for 1861 is due to the fact that the early recruits trained in their home states, where reporters had easy access to them.
  5. Morris et al., Base Ball Founders (McFarland and Co., 2013).
  6. Spalding, p. 93.
  7. Spalding, p. 96.