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Seeing as today is Super Bowl Sunday here in the States, I thought it might be interesting to see how the Civil War soldiers passed their time when they weren't fighting battles.

Northern Pastimes

In the North, spectator sports included horse racing wrestling and boxing. The soldiers participated in sports such as football, cricket, heel-toe, leapfrog, and broad jumping. Target shooting jumping and foot races were another way to pass the time. One member of Co. F First United States Sharp Shooters won the two hundred yards running race in twenty-eight and one-half seconds. But nothing came close to the ever-loved "bass ball". It had to be the most popular competitive sport. However, it was played differently than how we play today. A Vermont soldier described it in this way. "The ball was soft, and a great bounder. To put a base runner out, he had to be hit by the ball, thrown by the pitcher." The score was also quite different than ours today. A game between two Vermont regiments in February 1864 had a score of 21 to 9. Two other games by other units had scores of 31 to 34 and 58 to 19. The game was played vigorously as one Yankee noted, "We get lamed badly."

Snowballing was another very popular sport.

In addition to the more physical sports, soldiers played board games such as chess, checkers, played on red and green or red and yellow boards, and backgammon. Dice games such as craps and bird cage, also known as sweet cloth, were popular. The dice were either made of wood or flattened musket balls. In the game bird cage the players placed bets on the numbers they thought would show on the dice rolled from a cup. Other gambling took the form of card games. Draw poker, chuck-a-luck, cribbage, euchre, faro, keno, seven up and twenty-one. While dice and board games were frequently homemade, cards were commonly manufactured. During the war, the traditional symbols on the cards were replaced with military patriotic imagery, suits were replaced with eagles, shields, stars and flags.

For the sportsmen in the ranks there was boating, fishing swimming and hunting. Typical prey were opossums, coons and squirrels with deer, wild hogs, foxes and wild ducks hunted less. In the coastal regions the gigantic turtles and their eggs were most sought after. Hunters usually used a gun for small game but often only had torches and sticks. Even so, they brought home hundreds of birds they knocked from their roosts. The up side of this was the delicious potpie served the next day. In Southern regions rabbits were the prey.

Southern Pastimes

Southern soldiers similarly enjoyed foot racing, wrestling, boxing, leap frog, football and of course baseball. They had two versions of baseball, four base and two-base townball. The bat could be either a board, a section of a farmer's fence rail or a trimmed hickory limb and the ball could be no more than a yarn wrapped walnut. And during the winter months snowballing was very popular.

In addition, the soldiers played hop scotch, quoits, marbles and a version of tenpins where they rolled cannon balls at pins or at holes in the ground. They too enjoyed swimming, fishing, seining, grabbling and hunting but more to alleviate hunger than for the sport of it. Cavalrymen reveled in gander-pulling, a game where a horseman rode at full gallop trying to catch the head of a live gander hanging by its feet from a point barely within the rider's reach.

Card games for stakes played daily sometimes lasted for many hours. Confederate generals' or cabinet members' images graced the face of the cards. While played, board games such as chess, checkers and a similar game called "Fox and Geese" were not so popular.

Did you ever wonder what prisoners did to pass the long hours in the prison camps? While conditions were horrible, the men needed something to keep themselves occupied. To help their morale, they played ball games, pitched stones. rolled dice and played marbles. If they had boards they played backgammon, checkers, and chess often having tournaments. They kept their sense of gambling and wagered their food, clothing, blankets and other precious items in card games. Cards lost their corners and markings from much use often making it hard to tell the outcome of a game. Sometimes the games lasted for days and many times fights resulted when the outcome was unfavorable.

They too indulged in snowball fights during the winter. This seemed to be a big pastime for all sides.

And gross as it may sound rat hunting, louse racing and louse fights were common occurrences. The rat hunting was more for the benefit of food but the louse races and fights were purely for their enjoyment. The prisoners named their lice after generals and at the given signal placed their contestants on a hot inverted tin pan. The lice ran in ever widening circles trying to get away from the heat. Eventually they reached the rim and escaped the heat. Similarly, the fights utilized a hot pan. The fights lasted until one or the other of the combatants either died or retreated. I know that sounds horrible but consider what the prisoners faced each day and what resources they had.

Lastly, Camp Sorghum was well known for a prisoner developed game called Buzz. Simply, as many as one hundred men sat in a circle which had a dunce block in the center and a referee on one side. They began counting only instead of saying a number divisible by seven or multiples of seven they would say "buzz". Anyone saying a number instead of "buzz" had to go to the dunce block and sing a song or tell a story. As silly as this game may seem it made the prisoners laugh and they certainly needed laughter.

Actually, this last game sounds similar to a game that children may play today. Even though the war was a long time ago, these men had a lot of the same interests we have today.

Ripley, Wm. Y. W., Lt Col, "Vermont Riflemen In the War For the Union 1861 to 1865 A History of Company F, First United States Sharp Shooters", Rutland: Tuttle & Co., Printers. 1883, reprint Rochester, Michigan, Grand Army Press, 1981 83

Speer, Lonnie, R. "Portals to Hell, Military Prisons of the Civil War", Mechanicsburg, PA, Stackpole Books, 1997 62, 72, 184, 272

Wiley, Bell Irvin, "The Life of Billy Yank The Common Soldier of the Union", Baton Rouge and London, Louisiana State University Press, 1993 169-170

Wiley, Bell Irvin, "The Life of Johnny Reb The Common Soldier of the Confederacy", Baton Rouge and London, Louisiana State University Press, 1994 159-161

© 2006 Winifred Ledoux