1864: “A Game They Call Base-Ball”

25th July.

Today the order for the removal of Gen. Johnston and the appointment of Gen. Hood to the command of the Georgia army is read in our room. Grief and indignation fill nearly every breast. Probably no General of any war has been so continually unsuccessful (or, if you please, so devoid of victories) as Gen. Johnston, who at the same time has retained the almost enthusiastic confidence of the troops and generals serving with him. If they are in perpetual retreat they don’t appear to mind it, and if they suffer reverses they do not appear to regard them as such. This same feeling of unbounded confidence and trust filled the brave souls of the veterans of the Peninsula campaign even when hemmed and packed close around Richmond in 1862. It never deserted his noble army in the disastrous campaign of Mississippi, and every batch of prisoners from his army up to the present have told the same story – that the whole army has the most implicit confidence in Johnston as the man who is to bring them safely through all their trial, dangers, and conflicts…

26th July.

The prisoners nearly every evening are engaged in a game they call ‘base-ball,’ which notwithstanding the heat they prosecute with preserving energy. I don’t understand the game, but those who play it get very much excited over it, and it appears to be fine exercise. Another source of recreation to much larger number is a quiet promenade during the cool of the evening. Then you may see hundreds of promenaders passing up and down the prison enclosure in quiet, pleasant, but melancholy converse. Their tones are generally subdued. It is more painful to look upon them than to join them; for, we think of the crowded streets and homely faces of those we have left in the distant South.

John Dooley, Journal Entries, July 25-26, 1864

(Source: John Dooley, Confederate Soldier: His War Journal; edited by Joseph T. Durkin, 1963, page 162-163)

Johnson Island Prison

Prison Activities

By July 1864, Lieutenant John Dooley had been a prisoner for a year, spending much of that time at Johnson Island Prison. (Find details about that POW camp in this blog post.) His wounds from Gettysburg had healed, and he had almost resigned himself to the fate of sitting out the war since the prisoner exchanges had ground to a halt.

So what did soldiers in Prisoner of War camps do aside from wait, survive the weather, wish for more food, and hope to stay healthy?

John Dooley

Fortunately for the men at Johnson’s Island, their guards allowed packages and mail to enter the camp after it was inspected. This provided a vital link with the outside world and the Confederate war news; the prisoners followed campaigns with interest and had their opinions on new commanders, fights, and how the conflict progressed. Some prisoners made trinkets – carving jewelry pieces from a variety of materials. Others wrote, organized clubs, or played games.

Baseball and the Civil War

It’s safe to say that forerunners to the game existed for decades prior to the Civil War. And by around 1856, the basics of the game had been established, and some New Yorkers “played ball” regularly. The Civil War helped launch baseball as a culturally popular game.

Men from across American learned how to play – in camps and in prisons, mostly. Then, when the war was over, they “took” the game home to their communities and boys, fostering a craze for the game that eventually turned into leagues and the official rules for the sport.

In this scene, Union POWs in North Carolina play baseball (Library of Congress)

I wonder if the sport would have gained it’s national popularity if it hadn’t been for the Civil War. How else would a ball game from New York have traveled so rapidly in such a short amount of time?

Historical Musings

The commentator club… Dooley’s first entry gives a glimpse into the discussions, opinions, and morale of his fellow prisoners. Their main topic of discussion that day was General Joseph E. Johnston, who had lost command of the Confederate army defending Atlanta, Georgia. General John Bell Hood took command, hoping to hold off Sherman’s advance on that all-important Southern city.

Even though they were prisoners, these Confederates within Johnson’s Island POW Camp were still “invested” in the war. They had an interest in the progress and an opinion on the situation, even though they were miles from the scene of action.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

3 comments

  1. Any post that mentions Base Ball is a great one, IMHO! Whether or not the game would have been popular without the war is a conundrum. Base Ball is so intricately tied to the Civil War that they seem unable to be separated–at least for me. It was among the few things that turned out well for all of us. Huzzah!

  2. This post reminds me that both sides — German and English — played soccer in the North African desert between engagements during World War II. It was even suggested that one side wouldn’t fire on the other if a game was in progress. Such a strange mix of recreation and battle, of play and deadly combat. Thanks again Sarah for a most interesting post.

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