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Company H of the 48th New York Regiment, stiffly posed for this 1863 formal portrait at Fort Pulaski, in Savannah, GA, seems oblivious to the more informal baseball game in progress behind them. The photo is one of the ealiest known photographs of a baseball game. (Jacqueline Moen)

That Time 150 Years Ago When Thousands of People Watched Baseball on Christmas Day

During the Civil War, two regiments faced off as spectators, possibly as many as 40,000, sat and watched

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On a Christmas morning in South Carolina 150 years ago, two teams took the field for a game of what was not yet the national pastime.       

The epic Christmas Day faceoff between two teams representing New York regiments stationed on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, may be one of the most significant contests in baseball’s early decades, even though it retains a whiff of mystery. 

Details are scarce. We don’t even know the final score. But it was played before an enormous audience: various sources say 40,000 people watched the game on Hilton Head—also known then as Port Royal—on that Christmas morning.

We do know one of the players: A.G. Mills. Then a young private with the 165th New York Regiment, Mills later went on to become president of the National League. It was probably his re-telling of the great Christmas Day game that helped add to its mystique—although, for reasons we shall explain, Mills is hardly the most reliable source on baseball history, least of all his own.

Why Hilton Head? In 1862, it was not yet a tourist destination or golf mecca but rather, the site of an enormous federal base. The 12-mile-long, 5-mile-wide island was a linchpin in the Union’s three-pronged “Anaconda” plan, formulated at the outbreak of hostilities to squeeze the Confederacy into submission. “Hilton Head was at the center of one of those three prongs…the blockade,” says Robert Smith, past president of the Heritage Library Foundation, a Hilton Head historical organization. (The other two prongs were attacking up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and an invasion of Virginia.) The island’s strategic location between Savannah and Charleston made it an ideal refueling and supply base for ships involved in the Union naval blockade, denying the Confederacy supplies or access to the cotton markets of Europe.  

In November, 1861, Federal troops had seized the island, then home to 25 plantations, and never relinquished it throughout the war. About 13,500 troops came ashore in the invasion, bringing with them 1,500 horses and another 1,000 civilian construction workers who set out to create one of the most formidable military installations of the war.

“People poured in, and they built this city,” said Smith. A town center was constructed, with a department store, a U.S. post office, a three-story hotel and a theater. To help re-coal the ships enforcing the blockade, a 1,600-foot-long dock was built, as was a massive military hospital. There were also schools on the island, set up by the American Missionary Society to educate the children from among the population of 9,000 freed slaves. And of course, there were vast tent cities where thousands of Union troops were bivouacked. There, surrounded by water, the men drilled and labored.

Except on Christmas Day.

On that rare day off, soldiers looked for ways to relax.  One way in 1862 was playing and watching baseball, New York style.

While most soldiers from the North would have been familiar with some form of bat and ball game, the version played in New York and Brooklyn was the one that had exploded in the late 1850s. New York games differed from others—-most notably the style practiced in Massachusetts—in that they were played on a diamond shape field, nine men on a side, with rules prohibiting “soaking” (throwing the ball at a runner to record an out, which was legal in other early forms of the game). 

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