Civil War 'base ball' on Johnson's Island

SANDUSKY Maybe the South didn't strike out on everything in the Civil War. According
jasonsinger
May 24, 2010

 

SANDUSKY

Maybe the South didn't strike out on everything in the Civil War.

According to diary entries from that era, Confederate soldiers introduced baseball to Unionsoldiers at Johnson's Island Civil War Prison Camp in the 1860s, beginning Ohio's storied relationship with America's pastime.

John Husman, a local historian who studied those diaries, said the sport was a home run with everyone at the camp. One"championship game" in particular attracted some 3,000 spectators, including prisoners, guards and Sandusky townspeople.

"The prisoners nearly every evening are engaged in a game they call 'base-ball," wrote Confederate soldier John Dooley in his diary on July 26, 1864. "I don't understand the game, but those who play it get very much excited over it."

Husman announced his findings to a group of 20 people at the Sandusky Library on Wednesday afternoon, part of the library's Brown Bag Lunch series.

The discovery debunks the myth -- first claimed by baseball bigwig Al Spalding in 1912 -- that Northern soldiers spread the game during the Civil War by teaching it to Southerners.

"Turns out that was a pretty good figment of (Spalding's) imagination," Husman said.

Although baseball had earlier origins, the New York Knickerbockers, a popular club team in Manhattan, codified a set of 21 rules in 1845.

But the game's popularity didn't spread to many places outside New York. Although some cities like Sandusky and Toledo had local baseball clubs before the war, those clubs only played intrasquad games. No record exists of any game in Ohio being played between two different teams before 1864.

That year, a group of officers and baseball lovers from the Louisiana 7th Infantry arrived at Johnson's Island.

"Louisiana, and New Orleans specifically, had a thriving baseball culture," Husman said, noting the city had nine baseball clubs by 1960.

According to war records, the 7th Infantry surrendered to Robert E. Lee at Rappahannock Station in Virginia in November 1863. After the battle, more than 50 officers, many from New Orleans, were taken prisoner and sent to Johnson's Island -- the only prison specifically built for Confederate officers.

Among those captured were Lts. Michael McNamara and Charlie Pierce, the latter of which Husman called "Ohio's first baseball hero."

"(The prisoners) organized base-ball clubs -- the Southern nine ... of which Charlie Pierce was captain and catcher, and the Confederate nine," wrote McNamara. "Their championship game was considered one of the finest ever played, and was witnessed by upwards of 3,000 people."

Husman guesses that by calling it a "championship game," other games had been played leading up to it. The diaries, however, only mentioned this specific contest.

Lt. William Peel of Mississippi wrote about the interest surrounding the game.

"The game came off today and created more excitement than anything has done in the yard for a long time," he wrote in his diary. "There were several hundred dollars bet on the game by the clubs and outsiders."

The Southern Club won 19-11, and the atmosphere resembled a modern baseball game: Each team had fans that sat together; fans and players placed bet on the game; and each team wore uniforms -- the Southern Club wore white shirts and the Confederate Club wore red.

Husman said historians lucked out that these men were officers, and consequently more educated and likely to keep diaries.

He took pride in debunking the myth that Northern soldiers taught Southern soldiers the game.

"Nothing is more fun for a historian than to dispel something that isn't true."