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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

America’s Pastime, Behind Bars

By George Kirsch, 4-2-13


Civil War prisons were terrible places: captured solders suffered and died by the thousands from malnutrition, disease and exposure to the elements. But in several Northern and Southern prisons, a few fortunate inmates were able to enjoy, for a moment, a lighter side of life: baseball.

The Civil War was the cauldron of America’s pastime, the period in which several prototype forms of the game – the New York game, townball – were melded into what we more or less know as the sport today. Such melding took place in camps, where officers on both sides permitted and even encouraged baseball playing. But it also took place in prisons, mostly notably those in Salisbury, N.C., and Johnson’s Island, near Sandusky, Ohio.

During the first two years of combat, weather permitting, the Salisbury camp was the site of daily baseball games by captured Northern soldiers. Adolphus Magnum, a Confederate chaplain who visited the prison in 1862, wrote that a few inmates “ran like schoolboys to the play ground and were soon joining in high glee in a game of ball.” Charles Carroll Gray, a physician held at Salisbury from May 17 to July 28, 1862, recorded in his diary that the Fourth of July was “celebrated with music, reading of the Declaration of Independence, and sack and foot races in the afternoon, and also a baseball game.”

Some of the prisoners who were assigned to Salisbury had previously played baseball in other Southern prisons. William J. Crossley, a sergeant in Company C, Second Rhode Island Infantry Volunteers, was captured on July 21, 1861, at the Battle of Bull Run. He was transported to camps at Richmond, Va., and Tuscaloosa, Ala., before winding up at Salisbury on March 13, 1862. In his memoir he described a baseball game at Salisbury that spring between sides of men initially incarcerated in New Orleans and Tuscaloosa. He recalled that the “great game of baseball” generated “as much enjoyment to the Rebs as the Yanks, for they came in hundreds to see the sport.” He added: “I have seen more smiles today on their oblong faces than before 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.” The game ended in a draw (11 runs each), but “the factory fellows were skunked” – i.e., shut out – “three times and we [from the Tuscaloosa prison] but twice.”

Another commentator regretted “that we have no official report of the match games played in Salisbury between the New Orleans and Tuscaloosa boys, resulting in the triumph of the latter.” He explained that the “cells of the Parish Prison were unfavorable to the development of the skill of the `New Orleans Nine.’” Crossley was released that summer as part of a general exchange of prisoners, rejoined his old regiment in October, and fought again in campaigns at Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor.

Josephus Clarkson, a ship chandler’s apprentice from Boston held at Salisbury, recalled that the prisoners preferred to follow the New York rules rather than the townball regulations, since the latter game allowed fielders to “plug,” or hit, base runners with the ball to record an out. He remembered that a pitcher from Texas was removed from the game after “badly laming” several prisoners. His side had to politely inform their captors “that we would no longer play with a man who could not continue to observe the rules.” Clarkson also wrote that “the game of baseball had been played much in the South,” but many of the guards “had never seen the sport devised by” Alexander Cartwright, a member of the Knickerbocker Base Ball club of New York who is often credited with devising the modern rules of baseball.

Through most of 1862 Salisbury prison was not filled to capacity, and the adequate supply of food, frequent prisoner exchanges and opportunities for recreation made life reasonably tolerable for many of the inmates. But conditions deteriorated severely in late 1862, and grew even worse until a new prisoner exchange agreement was negotiated in February 1865. Overcrowding, the intense cold winter weather, a breakdown in prisoner control and shortages of food, medicine and fuel made life miserable for the men. Approximately a quarter of Salisbury’s 15,000 prisoners died, many during its last few months. There is no documentary evidence of ball playing during that period, and given the horrific conditions and poor health of the inmates, it is unlikely that they participated in any athletic exercises from 1863 to 1865.

While baseball declined significantly in Southern camps after 1862, it remained a popular diversion for prisoners and guards in Northern facilities, especially at Johnson’s Island. The baseball historian John R. Husman has shown that it is very likely that a few of the Confederate prisoners had previously been members of the first baseball clubs in New Orleans. This group included Lt. Charles H. Pierce, captain of the Southern Base Ball Club at Johnson’s Island, who was a native of Ohio and grew up in Cincinnati. He later moved to New Orleans and enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861. After the end of the war he joined that city’s Southern club and also became an umpire.

Conditions at Johnson’s Island were generally better than at most other camps, in part because it was restricted to officers, and also because its average population was only about 2,500 men. Yet even there life became harsher by the summer of 1864, with food in such short supply that some inmates resorted to eating rats. But despite their hunger and bleak prospects, they organized a championship match for Aug. 27, 1864, between the camp’s two rival clubs, the Southern and the Confederate. Husman views that game as Ohio’s first formal interclub contest. (Cincinnati, Sandusky and a few other towns in Ohio had organized baseball clubs in the late 1850s, but they restricted their competition to recreational and intraclub play.)

The most detailed report of that grand contest appeared in 1874 in Col. Daniel R. Hundley’s diary. A native of Alabama and a graduate of Harvard Law School, Hundley married a daughter of a Virginia man who owned real estate in Chicago’s suburbs. Hundley purchased a house on Lake Michigan north of Chicago, but spent his winters in Alabama. A supporter of Stephen Douglas in the 1860 presidential campaign, after Lincoln’s election he moved to his home state and joined the 31st Alabama Infantry. After he was captured by Union troops in June 1864, he was transported to Johnson’s Island, just as the excitement was building before the contest between the Southern and Confederate nines. The former were officers below the rank of captain who wore white shirts, while the latter held higher ranks and wore red shirts. Hundley wrote:

During the progress of the game nearly all the prisoners looked on with eager interest, and bets were made freely among those who had the necessary cash, and who were given to such practices, and very soon the crowd was pretty nearly equally divided between the partisans of the white shirts and those of the red shirts, and a real rebel yell went up from the one side or the other at every success of the chosen colors The Yankees themselves outside the prison yard seemed to be not indifferent spectators of the game, but crowded the house-tops, and looked on that match with as much interest almost as did the rebels themselves.”

Another prisoner, William Peel of the 11th Mississippi Infantry Regiment, recalled that several hundred dollars was wagered on the game by players and outsiders, which was won by the Southern club, 19 to 11. Lt. Michael McNamara, who wrote another account of this game, estimated the crowd of spectators at about 3,000, including inmates, officers and citizens of Sandusky. He recalled: “So apprehensive were the prison officials that the game was gotten up for the purpose of covering an attempt to break out, that they had the slides of the port holes” of a patrol vessel “drawn back and the guns prepared for action.”

Although a local newspaper published a detailed and highly favorable account of the game, some radical Northern journals were highly critical of the decision by Johnson Island’s commanding officer to allow it to proceed. According to McNamara, “their malicious efforts were successful, the commander was removed, and the amusement of the unhappy prisoners, for the time being, cut off.”

Generations of historians have endorsed Albert G. Spalding’s view that baseball games played in Union and Confederate prison camps contributed significantly to the spread of the game after the war. Many of the guards and spectators who watched the contests became enthralled with baseball, and after the war brought it back to their respective hometowns. But prisons were hardly the only place where men whiled away their time with a friendly game of baseball. Informal matches played by soldiers on makeshift grounds in army camps and contests between the first nines of the premier clubs of Northern cities kept the pastime alive during wartime and provided the foundation for the baseball boom that followed the return of piece.

And of course, the occasional baseball game does not overshadow the real horror of life in Civil War prison camps. But if nothing else, the fact that men deprived of their freedom and most of their physical comforts nevertheless found time for the sport demonstrates how deep a chord baseball had struck in 19th-century American culture, and foreshadowed how quickly it would spread after the war ended.

George B. Kirsch is a professor of history at Manhattan College and the author of “Baseball and Cricket: The Creation of American Team Sports, 1838-72” and “Baseball in Blue and Gray: The National Pastime During the Civil War.” His latest book is “Six Guys From Hackensack: Coming of Age in the Real New Jersey.”

From: opinionator.blogspot.nytimes.com

Image: Library of Congress: Union prisoners playing ball at Salisbury, N.C., ca. 1863.



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