Batter Up! Baseball, Civil War Style

Author's Note: This article was originally written for a local publication in Centreville, VA. It was part of a series I wrote about the history or Centreville, VA and the people that have lived and worked there. It is no longer featured in that publication. Still, most of this is applicable to anyone that has an interest in baseball, the American Civil War, or both.

Elysian Fields. Hoboken, NJ
Elysian Fields. Hoboken, NJ

A.B..."After Babe"...the era of baseball history almost everyone knows about.

That day in 1914 when George Herman "Babe" Ruth laced up his spikes and took to the field at Fenway Park for the first time is, for most people I suspect, when baseball became America's pastime.

And I totally get why people think that...I mean let's face it...Babe Ruth is the George Washington of Baseball...

Or as some of us baseball people like to put it, George Washington is the Babe Ruth of our country (without the drinking, smoking, swearing, and constant hot dog consumption of course)!

But what about B.B...."Before Babe?" What would most people say about that?

Well I guess some folks might mention "Shoeless" Joe Jackson (of "if you build it he will come" fame), whose career started 5 years before Ruth's. Or Ty Cobb whose career started in 1905. Cy Young might get a mention. Some folks may know that baseball was somehow related to cricket.

What you might not hear though are mentions of Cap Anson, or the New York Knickerbockers, or the Elysian Fields, or rounders, or town ball. All of which describe aspects of baseball history before it became the game we know now (aka the greatest game ever invented by man)!

Baseball in the United States has its antecedents in various stick and ball games brought to North America as far back as the early 18th century. But the modern game can trace its lineage back to the 1840s when various games that might be recognizable now as baseball became popular. Besides "cricket," "rounders," "town ball" and "base" were all gaining in popularity.

By the late 1850s two versions of the game came to dominate.

In New England a version called "roundball," or "base" gained wide acceptance. It resembled baseball with some major differences including the shape of the field (square), number of players (8 to 15) , and rules (no foul ground). This form came to be known as the "Massachusetts game."

In 1857, a competitor to the "Massachusetts Game" began to gain in popularity. Created by the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club and its organizer Alexander J. Cartwright who codified its rules, this form most resembles the modern game in terms of its form and rules—known at the time as "New York rules."

A league was formed that played at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, NJ. Many believe this is the true founding of the modern game of baseball. Over the next 5 years the game began to spread in popularity outside of its northeastern home, with teams playing as far south as Louisiana.

With the outbreak of the Civil War then, these two forms of the game were being played widely in the country, both north and south, and had overtaken cricket as the most popular stick and ball game in the country. As soldiers marched to distant lands to fight, they brought baseball with them, with evidence suggesting it was one of the primary ways in which troops on both sides passed the time.

Ft. Pulaski, GA. Possibly the earliest photo of a baseball game in progress.
Ft. Pulaski, GA. Possibly the earliest photo of a baseball game in progress.
Union Prisoner engaged in a game of New York rules Baseball. Salisbury, NC. 1863
Union Prisoner engaged in a game of New York rules Baseball. Salisbury, NC. 1863

The photograph to the right may be the oldest ever taken of a baseball game in progress. In 1862, at Ft. Pulaski in Savannah, Ga, as the men of the 48th NY Infantry lined up for a photograph, soldiers in the background can be seen in the middle of a game of "New York rules" baseball.

Baseball was played by soldiers in camp, near the front, in prison camps—in fact, nearly anywhere a field could be marked off.

A group of confederate officers from Louisiana, imprisoned at Johnson's Island, Ohio, may have introduced baseball to that state, which had yet to be widely exposed to the game. Confederate prisoner John Dooley, in his diary entry of July 26, 1864 observed, "The prisoners nearly every evening are engaged in a game they call 'base-ball'...I don't understand the game, but those who play it get very much excited over it."

Conversely, Union soldiers held in confederate prison camps also played baseball when they could. A famous lithograph published in 1863, shows Union prisoners at Salisbury, NC playing a game of baseball using "New York rules."

Soldiers would even get games going from outside the relative safety of their camps. In one famous incident a game among Union troops in Alexandria, Texas was interrupted by a surprise enemy attack. As Union soldier George Putnam recalled, "Suddenly there was a scattering of fire, which three outfielders caught the brunt; the centerfield was hit and was captured, left and right field managed to get back to our lines. The attack...was repelled without serious difficulty, but we had lost not only our centerfield, but...the only baseball in Alexandria, Texas."

There are numerous soldier accounts of baseball playing in the vast army camps, of both sides, during the entire war.

Private Alpheris B. Parker of the 10th Massachusetts recalled, "The parade ground has been a busy place for a week or so past, ball-playing having become a mania in camp. Officer and men forget, for a time, the differences in rank and indulge in the invigorating sport with a schoolboy's ardor."

In a letter written home in 1862, one Ohio soldier stationed in Virginia recounted, "It is astonishing how indifferent a person can become to danger. The report of musketry is heard but a very little distance from us...yet over there on the other side of the road most of our company, playing bat ball and perhaps in less than half an hour, they may be called to play a Ball game of a more serious nature.

Civil War encampment. Centreville, VA
Civil War encampment. Centreville, VA

So...by now you are probably wondering, "what does any of this have to do with Centreville?"

Well, Centreville, because of its proximity to turnpike and railroad networks, and because of its elevated location between Manassas and points east, was a strategically advantageous location. At various times during the war, it was occupied by both sides.

Between October, 1861 and March, 1862, Centreville was the winter camp for Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston's army—40,000 strong. In order to build huts for that many soldiers nearly every tree in the area was felled, leaving Centreville almost completely denuded.

Camp life was tedious, with little diversion for the men beyond the endless drilling, and construction of forts and breastworks. So there is little doubt that one of the main ways soldiers passed their time, was by playing baseball.

In fact, there is evidence for this. In November of 1861, the Charleston Mercury reported that the heavy rain in Centreville, made it so muddy in and around camp that "even base ball players find the green sward in front of the camp, too boggy for their accustomed sport."

That little sentence says quite a bit. It implies soldiers playing baseball would do so in almost any condition, and that baseball had become their accustomed sport.

Combine that with the many references to baseball playing in army encampments throughout the country, and it doesn't take a great leap of imagination to conclude that baseball was being widely played, was played whenever and wherever possible, and had become, even by that early in the war, one of the main ways in which soldiers camped in Centreville, passed their time.

By the end of the war then, baseball had spread throughout the country, and as soldiers returned home, they continued their love of the game. Its popularity exploded.

In 1876, the National League was formed, and it remains the oldest continually operating sports league in the country.

Teams consisting of veterans from both sides of the war, began to tour the country, playing in the many new leagues that popped up after the war.

Barnstorming teams would play games in small towns and cities all over the country.

George B. Kirsch in Baseball in Blue and Grey, even goes so far as to argue baseball was one of the vehicles by which the country was able to heal its wounds after the war...although I imagine former African American slaves would probably disagree with that contention, as it took another 82 years before they were included.

In the movie Field of Dreams, James Earl Jones' character talks about baseball and its relationship to the history of our country. "The one constant through all the years...has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past...It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again."

I think that really does get at the heart of why baseball continues to be as popular as it is. It is inextricably tied to the history of our country. Baseball was (and is) played in every little town and village throughout the nation. And though it isn't as dramatic as football, or as attuned to modern culture as basketball, nearly everyone can think of baseball and relate it to a significant time in their life.

And for Civil War soldiers, it no doubt reminded them of the most significant time in their life.

© 2015 Jim Daniels

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