Skip to content

Stephen Brunt Baseball Essay Topics

As hundreds of thousands of Billy Yanks and Johnny Rebs enlisted in the Union and Confederate Armies during 1861 and 1862, military and civilian officials and journalists from both sides recognized that soldiers who trained for deadly combat would need relief from their endless drills and chores. Among other activities, people on both sides urged soldiers to take up the relatively new sport of baseball.

The United States Sanitary Commission, a voluntary relief organization that raised funds and supplies for the Union Army, recommended that “when practicable, amusements, sports, and gymnastic exercises should be favored amongst the men.” It listed baseball among the approved pastimes. The New York Clipper, a weekly sporting newspaper, endorsed games in camps, noting the “beneficial effect they have on the spirits and health and how they tend to alleviate the monotony of camp life.” It added, “They also lead to a wholesome rivalry between companies and regiments, and augment the esprit du corps of the same, to an extent that to those who have not witnessed it, it would appear marvelous.”

Southerners agreed. Dr. Julian Chisolm, an author of a manual of surgery for the Confederate Army, suggested that while in camp “temporary gymnasia might be established, and gymnastic exercises should be encouraged as conducive to health, strength, agility, and address.” He listed “manly play of ball” as part of a soldier’s daily exercise schedule. In early April 1862 the Charleston Mercury observed that in camp, “There is waste time, which might be used advantageously at such manly exercises as cricket, baseball, foot ball, quoit pitching, etc.” It lamented the shortage of sporting goods and called for hardware dealers to supply cricket and baseball bats. “For want of such things,” it concluded, “the time of the soldier is mainly spent playing cards.”

Library of CongressAn 1860 political cartoon showing Abraham Lincoln beating his opponents John Bell, Stephen A. Douglas, and John C. Breckinridge at “the national game.” CLICK TO ENLARGE

Though the men pursued all manner of activities, from boxing to an early version of football, during the first year of the war, baseball emerged as the soldiers’ favorite team sport. Senior officers approved, and a few joined or watched the action. Charles E. Davis Jr. of the 13th Massachusetts Volunteers recalled that in early May 1862, while his regiment was playing baseball, Gen. George L. Hartsuff suddenly rode by their field. He dismounted and requested permission to catch behind the bat, “Informing us there was nothing he enjoyed so much.” Although he stayed only a few minutes, he impressed Davis “without in the least sacrificing his dignity or suggesting the lessening of his discipline, the cords of which we already noticed were tightening.”

Baseball games were supposed to divert the soldiers’ attention from the danger and possible death that awaited them, but on a few occasions hostilities disrupted their recreation. In the spring of 1862, Jacob Cole was lying on the ground watching a match between the 57th and 69th New York Regiments when he heard a “rumbling noise.” He and his friend stood up and heard nothing, but when they put their ears on the ground Cole told his friend, “Our boys are fighting.” He remembered: “Hardly had I spoken before orders came to report to our regiments as once. So the ball game came to a sudden stop never to resume.”

Generally, soldiers sported within the relative security of their encampments, though sometimes they violated Army regulations and competed outside the fortifications and beyond the line of pickets. George H. Putnam remembered a contest among Union troops in Texas that was aborted by a surprise enemy assault. “Suddenly there came a scattering fire of which the three fielders caught the brunt; the center field was hit and was captured; the left and right field managed to get into our lines,” he wrote. The Northern soldiers repulsed the Confederate attack, but “we had lost not only the center field,” but “the only baseball in Alexandria,” Texas.

Most of the ballplaying soldiers were natives of Northeastern states, and in particular those cities and towns where the baseball mania had been the most intense during the late 1850s. When New Englanders competed among themselves they generally played by the rules of the “Massachusetts Game.” John G. B. Adams of the 19th Massachusetts Regiment recalled that early in 1863, while he was encamped in Falmouth, Va., a “base ball fever broke out.” Enlisted men and officers played “the old-fashioned game, when a man running the bases must be hit by the ball to be declared out.”

Adams’s regiment challenged the Seventh Regiment of Michigan to play a game for $60 a side. The Massachusetts side prevailed, and the prize money went to a supper for players on both teams and their guests. “It was a grand time and all agreed that it was nicer to play base than minie ball,” Adams wrote. In June of that year the Massachusetts rules governed a game for $50 a side between Massachusetts’s 11th Regiment and Pennsylvania’s 26th.

While New Englanders naturally favored the Massachusetts rules, they were outnumbered by soldiers from Manhattan and Brooklyn, who preferred the “New York Game,” developed during the 1840s and 1850s by that city’s Knickerbocker club. In October 1861 a “bold Soldier boy” sent the Clipper newspaper an account of a baseball game played by prominent Brooklyn club members on the parade ground of the “Mozart Regiment, now in Secessia.” He was eager to report the sports news to civilians on the home front, since they “might imagine that the `sacred soil’ yields only to the tramp of the soldier, that its hills echo only the booming gun, and the dying shriek.” The men, he explained, were “engaged in their old familiar sports, totally erasing from their minds the all absorbing topic of the day.”

By 1863 the New York version of baseball had gained a decided advantage over cricket, the Massachusetts Game and a related game called townball. Nicholas E. Young, later president of the National League, was a cricketer from a town in upstate New York who played the English game in an army camp near White Oak Church, Va., in the early spring of 1863. That year he switched his allegiance to baseball after the 27th New York Regiment organized a club.

Mason Whiting Tyler recalled that by 1863 ball games “were all the rage now in the Army of the Potomac,” and his camp was “alive with ball players, almost every street having its game.” That year one soldier from the New York Volunteers reported that when he was in Falmouth, Va., “There were many excellent players in the different regiments, and it was common for the ball players of one regiment or brigade to challenge another regiment or brigade.” He added: “These matches were watched with intense interest.”

Confederate troops also joined in the fun. In November 1861 the Charleston Mercury of South Carolina reported that Confederates were stuck in soggy camps near Centreville, Va. Heavy rains created miserably wet conditions, so that “even the baseball players find the green sward in front of the camp too boggy for their accustomed sport.” The historian Bell Wiley, in his classic study “The Life of Johnny Reb,” cites one anecdote of ball-playing in the 24th Alabama Regiment, as Joe Johnston’s Southern soldiers watched for Gen. William T. Sherman’s movements. Wiley also states that games were common in practically every regiment of the Confederacy.

Because Southerners had a much harder time than their Northern counterparts in obtaining good bats and balls, they often had to make do with rudimentary home made equipment. Wiley explains, “The bat might be a board, a section of some farmer’s rail, or a slightly trimmed hickory limb; the pellet might be nothing better than a yarn-wrapped walnut.”

The frequency of baseball games in Army camps varied by seasons. Most matches took place when the soldiers were in winter quarters, from November through early spring, with participation peaking in March and April. A study of baseball in Civil War Army camps by members of the Society for American Baseball Research reports that for the entire war the number of games played during the major campaigns from May through September was less than a third of those played in March and April, when the weather was improving and just before the soldiers left their winter camps. The research project found that ballplaying in Army camps peaked in April 1863, when there were 31 accounts of baseball matches, predominantly played by Union troops encamped in Northern Virginia. Baseball in Army camps then declined over the final two years of the conflict, probably because of the increasingly desperate conditions of total war.

The weather in midwinter was generally not conducive to ballplaying, but there were exceptions. One of the more celebrated baseball matches among Union soldiers (and one that remains shrouded in mystery) is a contest between nine men from the 165th New York Volunteer Infantry and a team picked from soldiers of the 47th and 48th New York Infantry Regiments, held at Hilton Head, S.C., on Christmas Day 1862. According to Abraham Mills, former president of the National League, a crowd of 40,000 spectators watched the game. A Christmas Day report of the New South, a local Hilton Head newspaper, reported a baseball game that was probably this contest, describing it as a “ball match between the `Van Brunt’ and `Frazier’ base ball clubs, with the latter nine victorious (the score was not reported). The game probably wasn’t as grand as Mills made it out to seem. The historian Valerie Josephson found that 10 regiments, or about 10,000 soldiers, were stationed on Hilton Head Island at the time; even counting sailors from ships who docked at Hilton Head for rest and recreation, she concluded, “there is no way there could be 40,000 men on the island for the game.”

Did Union and Confederate nines ever compete in a grand baseball match? In his book “America’s National Game,” the baseball innovator Albert G. Spalding recounted a story that “in Virginia, in the long campaign before Richmond, at periods when active hostilities were in abeyance, a series of games was played between picked nines from Federal and Confederate forces.” Although Spalding reported no direct evidence of those contests, he did cite “cases where good-natured badinage had been exchanged between Union and Confederate soldiers on the outposts of opposing armies in the field.”

John G. B. Adams of the 19th Massachusetts recalled that early in 1863 several Union soldiers encamped in Falmouth played baseball and also watched Confederates play games across a river. “We would sit on the bank and watch their games,” he wrote, “and the distance was so short we could understand every movement and would applaud good plays.” He did not mention any Union-Confederate contests, but it’s not impossible they occurred: after all, he did observe Southerners fishing and throwing part of their catch to Northern boys and described meetings in the river to exchange papers, tobacco and coffee.

In a history of American sports Wells Twombly reported that members of Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Second Brigade were chasing a hare when they encountered a group of Yankees. After the Northern troops waved their hands to signify that they carried no weapons, the men from both sides engaged in a baseball game. Their match intrigued the Confederates, who then expressed a desire to learn the New York rules.

It is a nice tale, but Twombly did not cite any primary source to support it. So it seems that the Yankees and the Rebels never met on the diamond. Too bad. If they had, perhaps the final score might have settled their feud, and saved many lives in the process.

Join Disunion on Facebook »


George B. Kirsch is a professor of history at Manhattan College and the author of “Baseball and Cricket: The Creation of American Team Sports, 1838-72” and “Baseball in Blue and Gray: The National Pastime During the Civil War.” His latest book is “Six Guys From Hackensack: Coming of Age in the Real New Jersey.”

Disunion follows the Civil War as it unfolded.

Related
Civil War Timeline

An unfolding history of the Civil War with photos and articles from the Times archive and ongoing commentary from Disunion contributors.

Please confirm the information below before signing up.

{* #registrationForm_radio_2 *} {* traditionalRegistration_firstName *} {* traditionalRegistration_lastName *} {* traditionalRegistration_emailAddress *} {* traditionalRegistration_displayName *} {* traditionalRegistration_password *} {* traditionalRegistration_passwordConfirm *} {* traditionalRegistration_postalCode *} {* traditionalRegistration_gender *} {* traditionalRegistration_birthdate_required *}

Subscribe to Sportsnet.ca newsletters

    I understand that I can withdraw my consent at any time

    By checking this box, I agree to the terms of service and privacy policy of Rogers Media.

    {* backButton *} {* createAccountButton *}

    {* /registrationForm_radio_2 *}
    Check your email for a link to reset your password.
    We've sent an email with instructions to create a new password. Your existing password has not been changed.

    We didn't recognize that password reset code. Enter your email address to get a new one.

    {* #resetPasswordForm *} {* traditionalSignIn_emailAddress *} {* /resetPasswordForm *}
    Password has been successfully updated.