civil war baseball feature
photograph by David Stanley

On July 4, 1862 — the 86th anniversary of American Independence Day — Confederate soldiers in the Salisbury Prison yard cheer on Union troops as they battle to the finish on the grassy plain.

But the troops wield no weapons, just bats and balls. The contest is a friendly one: a game of base ball.

Dr. Charles Carroll Gray, a prisoner at Salisbury, notes in his diary that the occasion is “celebrated with music, reading of the Declaration of Independence, and sack and foot races in the afternoon, and also a baseball game.”

The players are Union prisoners of war who have brought to the prison-yard game their “New York” rules, adopted at the first base ball Convention of 16 clubs in 1857: The playing field is a diamond, not a square, and behind the first and third baselines lies foul ground; all nine strikers on each side must bat in a regular rotation; each inning continues until three outs — not just one — are made; no throwing the ball at the runner to get him out — as in the Massachusetts rules; likewise, a fielder must catch a fly ball in the air, not on a bounce, to make an out.

And the contest continues until nine innings have been played, no matter the number of “runs” or “aces” scored by either side. Older rules specified 21 or 100 as the winning total.

Among the prisoners is a 46-year-old commercial artist, Capt. Otto Boetticher of the 68th New York Volunteers. He sketches the scene and, after he is paroled a few months later, immortalizes the game in a colorful lithograph.

The players in the field wear dark blue trousers and forage caps, except the “hurler,” who wears tan trousers and a homemade straw hat. A red rosette adorns each of their white shirts above the left breast. The players on the batting team wear red or blue shirts. They are lean and rangy, young men in the prime of their lives.

The hurler is frozen in time, with his long right arm at the apex of his windup, as he prepares to “pitch” the ball toward the striker — underhanded, in the manner of horseshoes. Behind him, an alert runner, cap in hand, breaks down the baseline, bound to steal second base, forever balanced on his left foot, his momentum carrying him forward as if he were charging into battle.

Prisoners and captors surround the diamond, standing shoulder to shoulder, sitting cross-legged on ladder-back chairs, or lounging on the shady lawn. Some are neatly uniformed, others dressed in a motley of civilian and military garb. In the foreground, their backs to the game, a cadre of officers huddles deep in discussion, while two large dogs gambol nearby. Behind home plate, separated from a gang of spectators by an orderly row of white peaked canvas tents, young men play a game of jacks.

In the distance rises the three-story brick edifice of the Old Cotton Factory, the main prison barracks. Neat rows of outbuildings stretch along the wooden palisade, and far beyond right field, gray-clad soldiers march and drill.

But for most of the hundreds of men on the scene, the base ball game is clearly the center of interest.

In fact, Salisbury Prison has become a prime venue for base ball. On nearly every day except Sunday, prisoners form up sides and play. The guards watch and sometimes even join in. In this regard, the prison is merely an extension of the pastimes soldiers have gotten used to in camp. In the camps of both armies, commanders encourage base ball games as a way to keep their men physically fit and mentally alert. Because the Southerners are not familiar with the New York rules, at least one of them — a hurler from Texas — is ejected from a game for deliberately hitting runners with the ball and “badly laming” several other players.

But mostly, the games provide amusement, exercise, diversion, even camaraderie among prisoners and guards alike. One prisoner, Sgt. William J. Crossley from Rhode Island, records in his memoir that the “great game of baseball” offered “as much enjoyment to the Rebs as to the Yanks, for they came in hundreds to see the sport.” Of one game in particular, played between teams of prisoners who were previously held at Tuscaloosa and New Orleans, respectively, he writes, “I have seen more smiles today on their oblong faces than before since I came to Rebeldom, for they have been the most doleful looking set of men I ever saw, and the Confederate gray uniform really adds to their mournful appearance.”

That game ends in a tie, 11-11.

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Otto Boetticher, Union Prisoners at Salisbury, N.C., Courtesy of Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Killing time instead of each other

As in most wars, the fierce episodes of battle are tempered by long periods of inaction — training and drill, to be sure, the long preparation for battle and the exhausted period of recovery and refit that follows. But there is also winter quarters, the four-month season when campaigns are suspended due to bad weather and worse roads, and soldiers simply wait in their tens of thousands at camps far from home, passing the time as best they can.

They gamble at cards and dice, stage amateur theatricals, attend Sunday services, congregate to enjoy regimental brass band concerts. They engage in trials of physical prowess — wrestling and boxing matches, swimming and foot races, pole-climbing contests. They race horses. They carve pipes and write letters. They paint and draw, read newspapers, stage tournaments of chess and drafts. They chase greased pigs and, in winter, battle each other in lively snowball fights.

But there is so much time to kill.

For more than a generation, base ball in some form or other has been sweeping across the land. First played in the Northeast — in big cities like New York and Boston — it has spread out west and south. Now, even small-town boys in North Carolina have become familiar with some version of “town ball,” “bat ball,” or “base ball.”

Seasoned amateur players, most of them in the Union Army, carry their equipment with them to the war: finely turned ash or hickory bats, factory-made base balls covered in horsehide stitched with the new figure-eight pattern, even natty uniforms bearing their proud logos — Excelsiors, Eagles, Mutuals, and Atlantics.

Confederate soldiers make do with a whittled tree branch or the singletree from a wagon, batting any kind of ball they can fashion, even if it is just a walnut wrapped tightly in yarn.

The game has five major advantages for soldiers.

First, it is portable, requiring just a bat and ball and no carefully groomed sporting grounds, as does cricket. Any pasture or town square will do.

Second, any reasonably fit man can learn the basics in a few minutes — catching, throwing, running, and hitting.

Third, it keeps the men active and in good physical shape — unlike cards, dominoes, or dice.

Fourth, it occupies many men at once. Though regulation teams consist of nine to a side, other men can join in so long as the teams remain roughly equal, and many more can participate as spectators, cheering on their favorite nine.

And fifth, a game can last as short or as long a time as the players wish. Pressed to move out, they can shorten a game to a matter of a few innings. Given a long period of inaction, they can play extra innings.

Because the armies are at their idlest in the winter, waiting for good marching weather, most camp games are played between late fall and early spring.

And it’s no accident that the Union prisoners at Salisbury should choose to celebrate Independence Day with a game of base ball. Almost from its inception as a sport organized into amateur leagues with formal rules, base ball has been imbued with patriotism. The players at Salisbury are only carrying on a tradition that has become commonplace in Northern cities and towns. As early as the 1830s, the Philadelphia Olympics and Excelsiors celebrated the Fourth of July by reading the Declaration of Independence, singing patriotic songs, commissioning a speech on the virtues of the Stars and Stripes — and playing a game of base ball.

Two years prior to the outbreak of war, The Base Ball Player’s Pocket Companion endorsed the game as the American national pastime: “It is fast becoming in this country what cricket is to England, a national game, combining as it does, exciting sport and healthful exercise at a trifling expense.”

After his victory in the presidential campaign of 1860, a Currier and Ives political cartoon depicts Abraham Lincoln addressing his three unsuccessful opponents, Stephen A. Douglas, John Bell, and John C. Breckinridge. In his left hand, Lincoln wields a long bat made from a split fence rail. In his right hand, he hefts a base ball. The cartoon is captioned “The National Game. Three ‘Outs’ and One ‘Run.’ Abraham Winning the Ball.”

Lincoln admonishes the losing candidates, “Gentlemen, if any of you should ever take a hand in another match at this game, remember that you must have ‘a good bat’ and strike a ‘fair ball’ to make a ‘clean score’ & a ‘homerun.’ ”

Breckinridge, a staunchly pro-slavery candidate, turns, holding his nose, a skunk at his feet, saying, “I guess I’d better leave for Kentucky, for I smell something strong around here, and begin to think, that we are completely ‘skun k’d.’ ”

“Skunked” is the common term for a shutout. Now base ball has entered the political lexicon.

Also in 1860, a New York sporting journal called the Clipper declares unequivocally that base ball “may now be considered the National game of ball.”

And like George Washington and the Declaration of Independence itself, base ball is now claimed by both sides of the conflict. In Virginia, soldiers of both armies can watch their enemy counterparts across the battle lines playing base ball games — close enough that they can cheer on the action as a runner is thrown out, a batter swings and misses, or an outfielder snags a long fly ball.

Writing home from the front in 1862, one private from an Ohio regiment marvels at the sport’s popularity: “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 is 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.”

 

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The game of war

Before long, base ball has become a metaphorical construct for the war itself. A newspaperman from Rochester, New York, reports that “many of our first class players are now engaged in the ‘grand match’ against the rebellious ‘side,’ and already have made a ‘score’ which, in after years, they will be proud to look upon.”

A ball-playing Union soldier observes in 1864, “If General Grant dos not send them to have a match with Gen. Lee, they are willing to have another friendly match, but if he does, the blue coats think that the leaden balls will be much harder to stop than if thrown by friendly hands on the club grounds.”

The prisoners depicted in Boetticher’s festive lithograph will soon be liberated from Salisbury Prison under the conventions of the Dix-Hill Cartel, an arrangement whereby prisoners on both sides can be repatriated. Many will find themselves marched into the thick of the terrible battles still to come: Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, the Wilderness, Cold Harbor.

A year from the date of the Fourth of July prison-yard base ball game, almost 8,000 men will lie newly dead on the ground in Gettysburg.

Maybe a sense of foreboding afflicts the senior officers, the reason they remain deaf to the cheering crowd and the chatter of the ballplayers, aloof from a friendly game of hitting and catching and running fast toward home.

Soon enough the Dix-Hill Cartel will be rescinded by the Union to keep the enemy from sending the same troops back to fight time and again. After that, prisoners unlucky enough to be sentenced to Salisbury will languish there until the war is nearly over — almost 10,000 men at a time crowded into a prison meant for a fraction of that number. Between 5,000 and 11,000 will die there — of starvation, disease, exposure, and gunshots — and be dumped unceremoniously into trenches in the largest mass burial of unidentified Union soldiers in the North or the South.

The main building will become a fetid hospital, the top floor occupied by predatory “muggers,” who terrorize the other inmates. Those who survive hunger, disease, and the cruelty of guards and fellow inmates will be forced to live in muddy burrows dug in the open prison yard. The base ball field will become a warren of filthy dugouts, full of sick and desperate men. There will be no more ball games.

Late in 1864, a mob of starving prisoners will storm the gate, only to be massacred by canister fire from the guards’ cannons.

But on this Fourth of July, the sun shines brightly, the clamor of battle is yet far off, the captors behave humanely and with honor, and the prisoners are healthy and well-fed, full of banter and ready laughter, alive with the pure joy of outdoor play.

You can see it on their faces: They are enjoying themselves, intent on their game of base ball, having good, wholesome fun in the open air.

And why not? Most of them are, after all, just boys.

This story was published on

Gerard is the author of Our State’s Civil War series. He has published fiction and nonfiction in numerous other magazines, and is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina. He is the chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He lectures widely on the art and craft of writing history-based stories. His book, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, is a standard in college classrooms across the country.