Hilton Head swung for the fences with 1862 baseball game

May 21, 2010 

An engraving of Civil War Union prisoners playing a baseball game at Salisbury, N.C.

IMAGE COURTESY OF THE LIBRARY OF

The score of what might have been one of the largest sporting events of the 19th century -- and played on Hilton Head Island -- is still a mystery.

The Hilton Head Baseball Championship took place Christmas Day 1862, with about 10,000 Union soldiers and Confederate prisoners watching, according to regimental records at the New York State Military Museum.

The number of spectators for the game made it one of the largest sporting events in the 19th century, according to George Kirsch, baseball historian and history professor at Manhattan College in New York.

The little-known event, which has slipped into obscurity, recently caught the attention of Hilton Head Heritage Library president Robert Smith, who mentioned it in a lecture this week on the island's Civil War history.

As the 150th anniversary of the war nears in 2011, the library has been pinpointing Hilton Head's role in preparation for history buffs who might travel to the area.

Information about the game, beyond the fun it entailed, is scarce, Smith said.

One team consisted of nine men of the 165th New York Volunteer Infantry, who had arrived on the island a week earlier, records show.

Their opponents were members of the 47th and 48th New York Infantry Regiments.

The game gets a two-sentence mention in the official war records of the 165th:

"Christmas Day: The men had quite a time playing a game of ball with other troops here. Sgt. A.G. Mills and George E. Cogswell of Co. B played in this game, which was witnessed by 10,000 soldiers."

Mills later became the fourth commissioner of the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs, according to National Baseball Hall of Fame archivists in Cooperstown, N.Y.

In letters home from the Civil War, Mills wrote that he often carried his bat and ball with him, along with his field equipment.

The game also popped up in the Christmas Day report of The New South, one of Hilton Head's two newspapers at the time.

After a demonstration of fire engines and a large meal, "there were absurd and laughable sports among the men, and a ball match between the 'Van Brunt' and 'Frazer' base ball clubs, which resulted in a victory for the latter," according to The New South's report.

"The specifics of the bout are sort of shrouded in mystery," Kirsch said.

But historians can reconstruct what the game might have looked like.

The day dawned "as warm and sunny as a June day at the North," The New South reported.

The 165th players wore a distinctive uniform -- red balloon pants, ornamental cloth jackets, white spats, and fezzes with blue tassels, according to the New York State Military Museum.

Civil War records show that the 47th and 48th wore blue.

Soldiers would have been familiar with baseball, which had become popular in New York in the two decades before the war, Kirsch said. Regional versions already were being played throughout the states, he added.

The Civil War was pivotal in spreading America's favorite pastime, according to military and baseball historians.

Hilton Head, previously home to wealthy planters and their slaves, was captured early in the war from Confederates and declared the headquarters of the Union's Department of the South. By 1864, there were nearly 55,000 soldiers, civilians and freed slaves camped on the island, Smith said.

In 1861, Union soldiers built a large military complex on the island's heel near what is now Port Royal Plantation. The installation had three forts, houses, a railroad line, a main street called "Robbers' Row," one hotel and a department store, wrote historian Robert Carse in "Department of the South: Hilton Head Island in the Civil War."

By 1865, the leisurely life on Hilton Head was over for Union soldiers. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman asked the troops there to be ready to support his march to Savannah, Carse wrote.

"There would be no more baseball on the beaches, or horseback riding beneath the spreading live oaks," Smith said.

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