Civil War Baseball

Playing with friend and foe in pastures, forts, and prison camps, Billy Yank and Johnny Reb could agree on one thing - they loved baseball. And once back home, Civil War veterans spread their enthusiasm for it throughout America. Read below on the beginnings of baseball!

Page updated on Oct 25, 2021 at 5:06 PM

Introduction: Battling on the Diamond

Ball Playing in Camp

In this brief chronicle of the origins of our national pastime, Fort Ward Museum explores the founders, heroes, rules and practices of the game.

"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 school boy's ardor."

Private Alpheris B. Parker
10th Massachusetts
April 21, 1863

Fielding the base baseball with bare hands

Scouts" who played in the early versions of baseball did not use gloves, but were expected to field the ball with their bare hands.

Disputed Origins

"Although sporting goods magnate Albert G. Spaulding fiercely promoted the patriotic image of veteran Civil War General Albert Doubleday as American baseball's founder, historians have determined that the national game had much earlier origins. From its varied forms, especially from Massachusetts and New York, it evolved, rather than was created. Many now believe that the father of modern, codified baseball was Alexander J. Cartwright, Jr., a descendent of British sea captains".

In 1842, at the age of 22, Cartwright was among a group of men from New York City's financial district who gathered at a vacant lot at 27th Street and 4th Avenue in Manhattan to play "baseball." In 1845, they organized themselves into the Knickerbockers Base Ball Club, restricting the membership to 40 males and assessed annual dues of $5. The following year, Cartwright devised new rules and regulations, instituting foul lines, nine players to a team, nine innings to a game and set up a square infield, known as the "diamond" with 90-foot baselines to a side, bases in each corner. He also drew up guidelines for punctuality, designated the use of an umpire, determined that three strikes constituted an out, and that there would be three outs per side each inning.

Cartwright also banned the practice of "soaking" or "plugging" players (throwing the ball directly at the player to retire him.) To offset the lengthy, high scoring matches that were common in his day, Cartwright's rules also stated that a game was over when one of the teams had scored 21 "aces" or runs.

Using Cartwright's rules, the Knickerbockers challenged any team willing to test them. Even the mode of dress changed. Instead of standard civil fashions, the Knickerbockers wore white flannel shirts, blue woolen pantaloons, and straw hats on the playing field. The first of such matches took place on an old cricket ground, Elysian Field in Hoboken, New Jersey. Instead of pitching for his team, star player Cartwright was the umpire during this game and saw the Knickerbockers pummeled by the New York Nine, 23-1.

Cartwright left the New York area in 1849 to travel. He was drawn by the Gold Rush and stories of adventures in the West. Along the way, he taught the game to Native Americans and mountain men he encountered, spreading interest in the fledgling sport west of the Mississippi. Cartwright died in Hawaii in July, 1892.

His grandson, Bruce Cartwright, had only moderate success in establishing his ancestor as the founder of modern baseball. Baseball promoter and sporting goods magnate Albert G. Spaulding's commission to document the origins of baseball had already anointed Union Gen. Abner Doubleday as its founder. Spaulding's propaganda machine had already expended too much money and effort in lauding Doubleday in time for a "Centennial" that it could not be deterred. The younger Cartwright had produced Alexander Cartwright's diary, news clippings and other documents, but was appeased with only an "Alexander Cartwright Day" amidst the celebrations.

What Alexander Cartwright did do, was to formalize the informal, or "pick up" games, of "townball," "goalball," "baste ball" and other bat and ball sports that were derived from the English sports of rounders and cricket. As Cartwright saw it, his version of baseball had strict rules of behavior for players and was considered to be a "gentleman's" sport. At first, the only spectators to attend baseball games were invited guests of the competing teams. Ladies were seated under tents, and tea, crackers and other refreshments were served.

The Pitcher's Mound

The pitcher is poised above "pitcher's point" and throws underhanded toward "striker's point." In the modern game, these positions on the field are known as the pitcher's mound and home plate.

The new rules established that the goal of the conflict was to hit the ball, therefore, the pitcher was to throw the ball where the batter instructed. Bunting was considered poor form and players who were caught off base were supposed to politely allow themselves to be tagged out. Fines were levied against players who disobeyed their captains, argued with the umpires or used profanity. After the game, the home team treated the visiting team to an elaborate dinner, and during the off seasons, wives and girlfriends were invited to social events sponsored by the teams. In Cartwright's world of baseball, only amateurs and members of the upper classes were allowed to play. Some players refused to play teams whose members included "social inferiors."

In 1858, the National Association of Baseball Players was established, attempting to retain some of the more genteel aspects of the game while modifying it for the masses. It barred professionals, but did not include any Cartwright representatives in its deliberations. Fifty teams were established. By 1860, the first road games were played and could draw as many as 3000 fans. Baseball had its first "star" pitcher - Jim Creighton - who mastered speed and control. Sadly, Creighton was also baseball's first tragic figure. He died at age 21 when he suffered internal injuries during a game.

The nature of baseball was changing. By the late 1850s, the sport was becoming more democratized. Fans were called "cranks" and were less than gentlemanly in their behavior - heckling players and umpires. American tastes preferred the faster game over its rival, cricket, and it had another advantage - it was portable and could be played on any open field with minimal equipment. By 1861, free blacks in the northern cities had established their own leagues.

Playing Bat Ball

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."

Ohio private, writing home from Virginia, 1862

The National Game

Political pundits loved the game of baseball too, and used its imagery to score hits of their own.

Battling on the Diamond

Although baseball was popular in Northern and Southern communities prior to the war, the game was an ideal breeding ground for spreading baseball socially, economically and geographically. The high concentrations of young men in army camps and prisons converted the sport formerly reserved for "gentlemen" into a common pastime and an opportunity to forget the rigors and sorrows of war. Officers and enlisted men played side by side and soldiers earned their places on the team because of their athletic prowess, not their rank or social status. As such, it forever was linked with patriotism.

The soldier's version of baseball closely paralleled the civilian rules of the game. Localized versions of the game melded together or were dropped entirely in favor of the "New York" rules. Many New Yorkers were stationed within the Defenses of Washington and were among the best players of the sport, affording civilians and soldiers alike an opportunity to see the new leisure pursuit.

On July 2, 1861, the Washington Nationals baseball club was defeated by a team from the 71st New York Regiment in the "President's Backyard" (the Ellipse) by a score of 41 to 13. When the 71st New York returned to the Defenses of Washington in 1862, the teams played a rematch, which the Nationals won 28 to 13, mainly because some of the 71st's best athletes had been killed at Bull Run only weeks after their first game.

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. George Putnam, Union soldier

One of the best attended sporting events of the nineteenth century occurred on Christmas Day, 1862 when the 165th New York Volunteer Regiment (Duryea Zouaves) played at Hilton Head, South Carolina with more than 40,000 troops watching. The Zouaves' opponent was a team composed of men selected from other Union regiments. A.G. Mills, who would later become the president of the National League, played in the game.

Baseball was not unknown in the South - before the war many newspaper subscribers followed the exploits of Northern teams. The game was popular in New Orleans, and had been played in the Mexican War. Northern prisoners of war playing baseball in captivity to ease boredom, also heightened interest in the game. Eventually Southern prison guards evolved from interested spectators to baseball opponents as they organized to compete against their captives.

Some men took their baseball equipment to war with them, but when proper equipment was not available, soldiers improvised with fence posts, barrel staves or tree limbs for bats and yarn or rag-wrapped walnuts or lumps of cork for balls.

Base runners in early versions of the game

Base runners had to scurry in early versions of the game or they would be struck by the ball.

Playing by the Rules

Today's Little Leaguers would recognize the game of baseball as played by Civil War soldiers, but they would look to their coaches and the umpires to clarify some unfamiliar terms. Baseball words and phrases used to describe plays and positions have evolved over the years, and equipment and uniforms also have seen changes.

The name of the game itself varied from community to community - some teams played "round ball," while others played "town ball," "goal ball," "baste ball," "old cat," and "barn ball." Early versions of the sport required the pitcher to throw underhanded. Outfielders or "scouts" did not use gloves and the baseball itself was softer. Batters were called "strikers" who eagerly wished to hit "aces" or home runs. Outs were called "hands out." A pitcher stood on the "pitcher's point" and threw toward the "striker's point" where the striker (or batter) stood poised above the "plate" or what is now referred to as home plate. The plate itself was a white iron disk, tin plate turned upside down, or whatever could be found as a substitute.

Fielders could retire batters by either catching the ball in the air or on one bounce. The more controversial practice of actually aiming the ball at runners to get them out was eventually banned.

Team members were identified by badges or ribbon worn on their shirts or uniform jackets. A plan by baseball promoter Albert Spaulding to have each member of the team wear a different color or pattern to indicate which position he played was dropped when players objected to looking like a flock of colorful birds.

It is our game

"Well, it is our game; that the chief fact in connection with it; America's game; it has the snap, go fling of the American atmosphere; it belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly as our Constitution's laws; is just as important in the sum total of our historic life."

Play Ball!

Baseball playing was endorsed by Union and Confederate officers as a diversion and morale builder, as were several other physical contests played among soldiers. It also improved physical conditioning. After long details at camp, it eased the boredom and created team spirit. Because a runner was only called out when hit by a thrown or batted ball, high scores often resulted - a Massachusetts regiment once beat a New York unit 62-20.

Sometimes, however, enthusiasm for baseball went too far. The Texas Rangers played avidly for six months until other teams refused to compete with them any longer. Texas pitcher Frank Ezell was known for throwing hard at the batters, and for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Greater interest in winning fit into the competitive attitudes of the day, leading to keen rivalries and the rise of professionalism once the soldiers returned to civilian life.

General Abner Doubleday

 General Abner Doubleday

General Abner Doubleday

Consider the legacy of General Abner Doubleday, better known (erroneously) as the founder of modern day baseball than for his Civil War military service. To his credit, Gen. Doubleday always demurred on assertions by others that he was the founder of the national game, but the legend has persisted.

Abner Doubleday was born in Ballston Spa, New York on June 26, 1819. He was a "middle of the class" 1842 graduate of West Point, graduating with A.P. Stewart, D.H. Hill, Earl Van Dorn and James Longstreet. Doubleday served in the Mexican and Seminole wars, and in the spring of 1861, was in garrison in Charleston Harbor. It is said that it was Doubleday, an artillery officer, who aimed the first Fort Sumter guns in response to the Confederate bombardment.

Doubleday served in the Shenandoah region, then was a brigadier of volunteers and was assigned to a brigade of Irwin McDowell's corps during the campaign of Second Manassas. He commanded a division of the I Corps at Sharpsburg and Fredericksburg, and at Gettysburg, assumed the command of I Corps after the fall of Gen. John F. Reynolds, helping to repel Pickett's Charge. Although he was praised for his performance at Gettysburg, Doubleday had already earned the nickname "48 Hours" for his alleged slowness to act. In particular, Gen. George Meade doubted his ability to move quickly. After Gettysburg, he returned to his division, had no further active command in the field, and served the rest of the war in Washington.

He was brevetted major general in 1865 and became colonel of the 35th Infantry in 1867. He retired in 1873 and lived in Mendham, New Jersey. Gen. Doubleday died January 26, 1893 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Serious baseball historians also reject the notion that Doubleday designed the first baseball diamond and drew up the modern rules of the game, supposedly as a military cadet in 1839. Nothing in his personal writings corroborates this story, put forward by an elderly Civil War veteran, Abner Graves, who served under him. The City of Cooperstown, NY dedicated Doubleday Field in 1920 as the birthplace of the game.

Albert Goodwill Spaulding

 Albert Goodwill Spaulding


Decades before fans were singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," boosters of the sport were singing its praises. By far, its most ardent promoter was Albert Goodwill Spaulding. Originally a pitching star, Spaulding became best known as a sports promoter and sporting equipment entrepreneur.

In 1877, Spaulding stopping pitching to entirely devote himself as a full-time promoter. He subsequently opened up a sporting goods business and began manufacturing baseballs, then gloves, hats and uniforms. Later, he branched out to produce equipment for other sports.

Spaulding's deepest mark on baseball, however, came from Spaulding's move in 1905 to appoint a commission to prove that baseball was a game invented by Americans for Americans. His boosterism was right for the times - it united areas still split with regionalism and dovetailed with patriotic sentiments. For two years, the commission produced no evidence to support Spaulding's assertion. Then, on the basis of an old man's claim that an old Cooperstown schoolmate, Abner Doubleday, was responsible for baseball's origin, the Commission reconsidered the question. At Spaulding's urging, the Commission conferred honor upon retired Union Gen. Abner Doubleday as the person responsible for drawing out the plan for the modern day sport. Coincidently, the declaration just happened to mesh with Spaulding's own plans to have a gala centennial celebration for baseball in 1939.

"I see great things in baseball. It's our game - the American game. It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses and be a blessing to us."

Walt Whitman

Sources of information and Illustrations

  • Archambault, Alan. Billy Yank. The Union Soldier in the Civil War. Santa Barbara. Bellerphon Books, 1997.
  • Boatner, Mark Mayo, III. The Civil War Dictionary. New York, David McKay Co., Inc., 1959.
  • Dyja, Thomas. "America's Rites of Passage," Civil War Times Illustrated, Harrisburg, PA. Vol. XXXVII, Number Two., May 1998.
  • Faust, Patricia L., ed. Historical Times Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York, Harper and Row Publishers, 1986.
  • Fort Ward Dispatch, Summer, 1992, Vol. VII, No. 2.
  • Frommer, Harvey. Primitive Baseball: The First Quarter Century of the National Pastime. (out of print)
  • Kirsh, George B. "Bats, Balls and Bullets: Baseball and the Civil War," Civil War Times Illustrated, Harrisburg, PA. Vol. XXXVII, Number Two., May 1998.
  • Marvel, William and Robertson, James I., Jr. The Civil War's Common Soldier. Eastern National Park and Monuments Association, 1994
  • New York Public Library, Spaulding Collection.
  • Ward, Geoffrey C. and Burns, Ken. Baseball: An Illustrated History. New York, Knopf, 1994.
  • Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue: The Lives of Union Commanders. Louisiana State University Press, 1964.
  • Webster's American Military Biographies, Springfield, MA. G&C Merriam Company, 1978

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