Sunday, August 28, 2011

Baseball in Washington During the Civil War

Depressed about the current state of professional baseball in our nation's capital, I decided to devote this posting to the topic of baseball in Washington during the 60's, the 1860s that is.  In the decade before the Civil War, the evolving sport of "base ball"-- then generally spelled as two words and derived from cricket and townball-- began to gain a following as at least 50 amateur clubs sprouted up, mostly in the North.  The New York City area was the vanguard of the sport's evolution under rules devised by Alexander Cartwright and the New York Knickerbocker Club.

By 1859, Washington, D.C. had at least two baseball clubs: the Washington Potomacs and the Washington Nationals.  The original nucleus of both teams was a group of government clerks. (One of the Nationals' founders, Arthur Gorman, was a Senate staffer and later a U.S. Senator from Maryland.)   The Nationals generally played on ground near the Capitol while the Potomacs frequented he public grounds just south of the White House known as the White Lot, today's Ellipse.  The first match between the Nationals and the Potomacs was played on the White Lot on May 5, 1860 and resulted in a Nationals' victory of 35-15.  The Washington Star wrote approvingly that "it is good to see health-promoting exercises taking the place of insipid enervating amusements."

1863 drawing of Union prisoners playing baseball at Salisbury, NC.  By the 1860s baseball was beginning to have popular appeal to the public.  An August 7, 1861 Washington National Republican item on war terminology used by the soldiers noted that "a base ball game" could refer to the "firing on pickets from an ambuscade." (Library of Congress)

The Civil War helped facilitate the spread of the "New York game" as soldiers idled away time in camp, prisons, and even the front lines. Just as other social organizations, such as fireman units, enlisted together, so to did some baseball clubs.  On April 5, 1861 the Jefferson Base Ball Club demonstrated their dedication to the Union by erecting a flag pole at their regular Franklin Square playing grounds at 14th and I Streets NW.

Amongst the thousands of New York troops arriving in Washington in 1861 were baseball players who brought their New York game with them.    Naturally, matches between regiments soon ensued.  An item in the Washington National Republican on June 28, 1861 announced a game to be played between New York units and hinted at the future NY Yankees/Giants-Brooklyn Dodgers rivalries:

"BASE BALL MATCH- There will be a match played at Camp Wool on tomorrow afternoon at 4 o'clock, between the first nine of the Baldwin B.B. Club (Co. D) and the first nine of the Steers B.B. Club (Co. E).  Those interested in the noble game of base ball are invited to witness the contest.  As the above clubs are composed of some of the best players of Brooklyn and New York, it is expected that the game will be very interesting."

There were also matches between various New York units and the local Washington clubs  The New Yorkers usually won these matches by lopsided scores such as when members of the New York 71st Regiment beat the Nationals 42 to 13 on July 12, 1861.  However, the Nationals got revenge a year later, defeating the 71st 28-13 on August 7, 1862.  The rematch brought out a large number of spectators, including a number of women, and guards from the regiment were posted to keep the crowds from encroaching on the playing field.

Box score for the 1862 rematch between the Washington Nationals and the New York 71st Regiment. (History of the 71st Regiment)
On October 3, 1861, The National Republican reported that "the National Club intend to play a star game at two o'clock this afternoon, on their grounds south of the Treasury."  The popularity of these matches reportedly worried local tavern owners who feared customers would flock to baseball games rather than their establishments.  Needless to say, this fear was overblown as the thousands of soldiers camped in and around Washington ensured the taverns brisk business throughout the war.

Newspapers and letters home often mentioned baseball as one of the recreational activities pursued by soldiers idling time away in camp.  On September 15, 1861, The New York Times applauded sports as strengthening the Army, "Let our Army of 150,000 amuse themselves, and let cricket, quoit and base ball, alternating with daily drill, give them vigor and endurance."  A Chicago Tribune correspondent reporting on life in the Army of the Potomac in November 1861 observed that "...a wrestling match, a foot race, or a party at base ball are the leading variations of the more formal duties" of a soldier in camp. An August 1862 newspaper article reported that the health of the men of the 71st New York, then posted at Camp Martin in Tennallytown, was excellent and that "they have plenty of amusements. Baseball is their favorite."  The hapless soldier who left his ball at home could always visit H. CLAY STIER at 478 7th Street-- located where the Verizon Center now stands-- which advertized "regulation base balls, foot balls, air balls, and pockets knives."

On June 18, 1864, The Washington Evening Union opined on the growing interest in baseball:

"Base Ball- We are truly glad to see the interest in this noble game awakening again in the young men of Washington. It is a noble game, and one calculated to improve the health, while strengthening the mind. The Union and Jefferson clubs of this city had a match on the grounds south of the President's House on Thursday, which resulted in triumph of the Jefferyson by eight points. Considerable interest was manifested in the result there being a very great press of citizens to witness the game. Another match was played yesterday afternoon. Some of the Metropolitan Police were on the grounds and by their judicious and gentlemanly deportment which distinguished them they preserved good order."

Lincoln, Baseball, and the White Lot/Ellipse

Although the gregarious and competitive Lincoln may have played a form of townball in his youth, many stories regarding Lincoln and baseball cannot be substantiated.  For instance the oft-told tale that Lincoln was playing baseball in Springfield when a committee arrived from the 1860 Chicago Republican Convention to inform him of his presidential nomination is almost certainly false.  As the story goes, Lincoln insisted that he wanted to have one more at bat before he read their message.  Like the myth of a young Abner Doubleday (who in his own right had a distinguished Civil War record) inventing baseball in a Cooperstown cornfield, this Lincoln story appears to have been propagated by early 19h century baseball boosters.

But, there are some credible first-hand accounts regarding Lincoln's at least passing interest and approval of the game.  Francis P. Blair's grandson recalled years later that Lincoln occasionally joined in ballgames with the children during his visits to the Blairs' Silver Springs country home just outside Washington:  "We boys hailed his coming with delight because he would always join us... on the lawn. I remember vividly how he ran, how long were his strides, how far his coattails stuck out behind..."

There are also accounts claiming that President Lincoln strolled out behind the White House on several occasions to watch parts of baseball matches played on the White Lot.  Many years later, one elderly Washington resident recounted that in the summer of 1862, Lincoln watched a baseball game sitting along the first-base line and holding his son Tad between his knees.

In 1921, a New York veteran, Cornelius Savage, recounted to The New York Times his  interaction with President Lincoln while working in the War Department, including Lincoln's supposed intervention to maintain ballplaying on the White Lot..  Savage was part of a group of young Brooklyn soldiers who played baseball regularly in their spare time on the White Lot.  Savage claimed that while playing ball, he would often see the President standing in back of the White House, watching the game with great interest.  One day, the President actually walked down to the field and stood behind the catcher's cage and threw the ball onto the field, according to Savage's story.  If Savage's story, told nearly 60 years after the fact, is genuine, then this may have been the first, "first pitch" by a president.

Savage also claimed that the Commissioner for Public Buildings objected to ball playing behind the President's house and told the ballplayers to play somewhere else.  A few days later Savage ran into Lincoln and told him of the Commissioner's order. According to Savage, Lincoln  intervened to ensure that the players could continue their games in his backyard.  While it is quite possible that Savage did on occasion run into the President, the significant passage of time likely led him to exaggerate his story.  For example, the Commissioner of Public Buildings at the time, Benjamin Brown French, was the half-brother of Edmund French, a Treasury clerk and one of the founding members of the Washington Nationals.  The fact that Benjamin French was listed as an honorary member of the National Baseball Club in 1867 suggests that the Commissioner of Public Buildings actually supported his half-brother and other players using the White Lot for ball games and no executive intervention had been required.

This part of the 1857 Boshke Washington map shows the area around the Executive Mansion.  The grounds south of the White House and the Treasury Department, now known as the Ellipse, was often referred to as the "White Lot" during the 19th century, a reference to a white fence that once encircled it, and frequently hosted baseball matches.  Note that this area was separated from the Washington Monument's grounds by the Tiber Creek, whose course roughly followed what is now Constitution Avenue.  In addition to hosting baseball games, fireworks displays and other public activities, the White Lot was also the scene of several large Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) gatherings and encampments of Union veterans in the decades after the war.   Baseball continued to be played on the White Lot/Ellipse through the end of the 19th century and most of the 20th century.    The author's uncle recalls playing pickup games as a youth in the 1940s on the Ellipse and regularly seeing President Truman on his daily walk. (Library of Congress)

Baseball in Washington Immediately After the War
Although we have anecdotal accounts of Lincoln playing baseball and watching games just behind the White House, his successor, Andrew Johnson, is the first president whose attendance at a baseball game is recorded in contemporary newspaper accounts.  On August 28, 1865 the Washington National Republican reported  a "brilliant" baseball tournament on the grounds south of the Executive Mansion between the Washington Nationals, and the Athletics and Atlantics, both of Philadelphia.  At least one of the matches was attended by President Andrew Johnson and seats were lined up along the first base line for the presidential party.  Johnson even gave government employees the afternoon off to watch the game. Newspapers reported that crowds of over 10,000 attended the games.  Afterwards,the players visited Johnson in the White House

Interest in baseball, which was already being called the national pastime, continued to grow in Washington and nationally following the end of the war.  In its earliest years baseball was a game of middle and upper class amateurs who had time to pursue leisure activities.  The Civil War further expanded the sport by exposing it to soldiers who had idle time to keep busy in camp during the long periods between campaigns.  By the mid-1860s, the sport was undergoing an evolution from amateur clubs to the advent of professional ball clubs.  Five years after the war's end, the first dedicated ballpark in Washington was erected  at 17th and S Streets NW for the Washington Olympics ballclub.  Amateur baseball would continue to be played on the Ellipse for well over a century until the baseball fields were removed in the 1990s.

 Union soldiers, probably of Company G, 48th New York Volunteers, playing baseball at Fort Pulaski, Georgia in 1862.  This is the only known photograph of baseball being played during the war.  Note the soldier in the center foreground of the photo who appears to be leaning on a baseball bat. (Fort Pulaski Military Park)

Aubrecht, Michael, "Battle Field Baseball:  The Birth of a National Pastime."
Forster, Herbert W., "He Knew Lincoln:  New Yorker Who Played Baseball with Civil War President as Sepctator," New York Times,  November 20, 1921, online at
Frommer, Frederic J.  The Washington Nationals:  1859 to Today.
Light, Steve, "150 Years Ago, the Civil War Began .... and Baseball Became Part of Soldiers' Lives" National Baseball Hall of Fame,
Lowedn, Edward George, History of the 71st Regiment, New York:  The Verterans Association of the 71st Regiment, 1919.
"The Lines of Arlington, " The New York Times, September 15, 1861.
Mead, William B. and Paul Dickson, Baseball:  The Presidents' Game.  Bloomsbury Publishing, 1997.
MS 595, Edmund F. French Baseball Scrapook and Memorabilia, 1859-1871, Special Collections Finding Aid, The Historical Society of Washington, D.C. online at 
Rable, George C.  "Patriotism, Platitudes and Politics:  Baseball and the American Presidency," Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 2, Spring 1989, pp. 363-372.
Washington National Republican, online at http://chronicling
The Washington Post, "Baseball in the Sixties:  Reminiscences of the Game in Washington 25 Years Ago," January 22, 1888.
The Washington Post, "Baseball of Long Ago, How Washington Amateru Teams Came Together Back in 1866," Mar 10, 1890.


  1. Honestly I could not imagine that they still find time to play baseball in the middle of civil war...

  2. There is always time for base ball

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