Five Questions: Baseball in the 'Burg
An interview with local historian Michael Aubrecht
Conducted by Michael Zitz for The Free Lance-Star (DAMN YANKEES FEATURE)

1. How widely was the game played during downtime during the war?

"Throughout my research, I haven't been able to find a definitive figure in regards to how often baseball was played during the Civil War, but I am sure for every game that was documented, there were a dozen or more that were not recorded. Most of the information I did discover was found in letters home, where soldiers often bragged of their victories on the ball field as opposed to the battlefield.

One of the key factors I believe that people need to understand in regards to the game of baseball and the Civil War, is how truly beneficial the game was. This was baseball in its most primitive and purest form. The game itself was exactly as it was intended to be, a game. Baseball provided an escape from the realities of war and ultimately improved the morale of troops who were obviously homesick, scared and in some cases, traumatized by the horrors they had witnessed on the battlefield. Baseball was also very commonplace in prison camps, where soldiers from both sides of the Mason Dixon Line were able to forget their woes if only for a brief period."

2. I know Doubleday didn't really invent the game, but his name is still one closely connected with it. Do you have any idea if he might have organized a game here during the war?

"Many baseball historians (myself included) still reject the notion that Union General Abner Doubleday designed the first baseball diamond and drew up the modern rules. Regardless of really being (or not being) the actual "inventor" of the modern version, Doubleday did apparently organize several exhibitions between Union divisions and was a passionate student and fan of the game. As a result, it is very possible that Doubleday may have organized a game or two leading up to the Battle of Chancellorsville. At the time of the engagement, he was in command of the 3rd Division, First Corps and despite putting up a ferocious fight, his troops were eventually overwhelmed by the Confederate's Third Corps under the command of A.P. Hill and Robert E. Rodes' division of Richard S. Ewell's Second Corps. Therefore most recorded history focuses on the defeat and not his encampment activities.

According to my sources, there are only a few Civil War photographs in existence that captured an actual game of baseball while in progress. Unfortunately none of them were taken in our area. There is however, a rarely published rendering verifying one particular game with ties to Chancellorsville. In the illustration, apparently commissioned for a veteran's reunion in 1870, the 1st New Jersey Artillery, Battery B is depicted in camp near Brandy Station, Virginia. In the foreground, a group of soldiers are positioned around a baseball diamond and clearly engaged in a contest. Michael Hanifen, a gifted athlete and Irishman from Trenton, recorded the artillery company's memoirs and quoted this event as taking place shortly before they were "called to arms" at the Battle of Chancellorsville.

This makes perfect sense, as baseball was already an established pastime in the northeast years before the first shots of the Civil War erupted at Fort Sumter. Soldiers from states like New York and New Jersey would have been more familiar with the game and more likely to play. Whether Doubleday had any involvement with this specific game is not known."

3. Also, is it true that one of the more active teams of the time was the Union squad called the Washington Nationals?

"Ironically, one of the first established baseball teams in the United States was the Washington Nationals. They were a professional ball club located in the nation's capital and often competed in exhibition games against amateur teams from the Union Army. Among the most noteworthy was a game played on July 2, 1861 in which the Nationals were beaten by a score of 41-13 by members of the 71st New York Regiment. A year later, the 71st returned to Washington DC to take up defensive positions and was defeated by the Nationals 28-13. Many believed that the rematch was tainted however, as many of New York's best players had been killed in action at Bull Run shortly after their first game. In 1901, the Nationals became one of the first eight major league teams in the newly formed American League."

4. How would Stonewall Jackson have looked upon games played prior to battle? A welcome distraction for his troops or a waste of time and energy?

"Although Stonewall is not specifically mentioned as being for or against the play of baseball, I'd like to think that he would view it as a welcome distraction from time to time. Jackson was an extremely well disciplined and Christian man. He frowned upon the use of both tobacco and alcohol. He was not a proponent of gambling and I am sure he would prefer that his men spend their downtime studying Biblical scripture as he did. That being said, he was also a brilliant motivator and I am sure he would understand the benefits of baseball. Often, the teamwork displayed on the baseball diamond translated into teamwork on the battlefield and vice versa."

 5. Are there any other significant connections between the war and baseball?

"More than a decade after the Civil War ended, the National League was developed. Coincidentally, it was the same year that General George Armstrong Custer was killed, along with two hundred and sixty-four Union Calvary troopers, after engaging Indian warriors at Little Bighorn. The year was 1876, and the National League of Professional Baseball was formed with an eight-team circuit consisting of the Boston Red Stockings, Chicago White Stockings, Cincinnati Red Legs, Hartford Dark Blues, Louisville Grays, Philadelphia Athletics, Brooklyn Mutuals and St. Louis Browns.

It has been reported that many members of the U.S. Calvary, most of them veterans of the Civil War, engaged in baseball games to pass the time while protecting the western territories. Some of them returned home to witness the likes of Ross Barnes of Chicago hit the first National League home run which was an inside the park variation. A Cincinnati pitcher named William "Cherokee" Fisher served up that historic pitch."




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