As early as the 1850s, the game of baseball was being referred to as “our national game.” At a time when the nation was being ripped apart at the seams, it served as a relatively new symbol of national identity. Baseball did not fully reach its unifying potential until after a bloody war that pitched North against South. However, these reconciliationist qualities did not strike at the heart of all Americans.
Civil War soldiers often turned to baseball between battles. George Putnam, a Union soldier fighting in Texas, recalled a game that had to be cut short due to a surprise Confederate attack.
“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.”
Snowball fights during the Civil War were a pretty big deal.
In fact, sports and fitness in general played a role in shaping ideals of honor, courage, and idolization among the Armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia, and they proved to have an impact on the life of the individual soldier by distracting him (or possibly her) from the monotonous routine of camp life and establishing bonds of comradeship.
Boredom seems a triviality compared with the tragedy and hardships of the war’s famous battles, but it took its toll on the outlook and mental health of soldiers. The mundane repetition of everyday army life along with grief for lost friends and fear of impending violence caused depression, homesickness, loneliness, and anxiety and contributed to a general gloom among the armies. Soldiers felt captive in their own camps.
The remedy? Sports. A few men would organize a game of baseball and moods were instantly lifted, grievances temporarily forgotten. The physical exertion itself was beneficial to the soldiers’ stiff limbs and offered a refreshing change of pace and atmosphere compared to the doldrums of boredom and inactivity. Immersing oneself in the game allowed an escape from plaguing thoughts and an outlet for expression.