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Original Issue

Fun Behind the Lines

Civil War soldiers relaxed between battles with a variety of makeshift games and sports

Let the wide world wag as it will, We'll be gay and happy still.

This Civil War campfire song was a favorite of both Union and Confederate troops, and in the lusty flavor of their sports the Yanks and Johnny Rebs made honest words of the somewhat ludicrous refrain. Most of their between-battle diversions had antebellum roots, and a few—the more delightfully zany ones—grew out of camp life itself; but nearly all straddled the Mason-Dixon line, with rabid enthusiasts among Blue and Gray alike.

Baseball, still in an experimental stage in 1861-65, was a popular competitive sport, North and South. "The ball was soft and a great bounder," wrote a Yankee trooper of a camp game. "To put a base runner out, he had to be hit by the ball thrown by the pitcher." Attesting to the fact that the ball was not always soft, another Yank player commented dolefully, "We get lamed badly." And a Texas Confederate reported the suspension of a star pitcher for overaggressiveness. "He could throw harder and straighter than any man in the company," wrote the Texan in his diary. "He came very near knocking the stuffing out of three or four of the boys, and the boys swore they would not play with him."

Baseball equipment was often makeshift. Fence rails, boards or tree limbs served as bats, and anything spherical—a yarn-wrapped walnut, for example—made an adequate baseball. The players sometimes ran only two bases, but the regulation four was more common.

In cold weather the monotony of winter quarters was relieved by gigantic snowball fights, with thousands of men joining in the fracas. Fighting in regulation lines of battle and armed with haversacks full of hard-packed snowballs, entire camps were often swept into a monster melee of charges, countercharges, prisoner-of-war captures, mass surrenders and, occasionally, casualties.

One such battle, fought in the camp of General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, involved five brigades, and when the colonel of a surrounded Virginia regiment refused to surrender to the victorious Georgia regiment, a participant in the battle reported this small lapse in respect for rank: "He [the colonel] was pitched head foremost into a snow bank, and two Georgians sat on him until he cried enough and yielded himself prisoner of war," wrote Alexander Hunter, 17th Virginia Regiment, C.S.A. In another Confederate snowball battle the dashing Jeb Stuart was pelted unmercifully when Hood's division tangled with McLaws' division and caught the cavalry command in the middle.

A snowball engagement in a Yankee winter encampment pitted a Vermont regiment against a New Jersey regiment, with each unit led by line officers. Bugles tooted and battle flags flapped, and the mock battle ended with the Vermonters as winners.

Chasing cottontails

The sight of a running rabbit apparently was irresistible to both the Blue and the Gray troops. A cottontail spied in camp or on the march invariably stampeded entire camps or columns into a wild, whooping chase. The observant Alexander Hunter wrote: "A strange characteristic of this southern army was their insane desire to run a hare. The cry 'Old hare! Old hare!' would set a camp in a blaze, and soldiers would drop everything to join in the pursuit. Just so many thousand men after one little animal."

Even the Confederacy's crack, iron-disciplined Second Brigade of Stonewall Jackson's old division once succumbed to hare-chasing fever while lying in the line of battle. The soldiers had been ordered into complete silence in the hope of making a surprise attack on the Yanks. A rabbit suddenly bolted along the battle line and, after a number of futile attempts by soldiers all along the line, was finally snared by a lightning-handed Reb. The cheers that shook the thickets negated any chance of a surprise attack.

Cockfighting also was a popular pastime on all fronts. During the siege of Atlanta, the rear of the Confederate entrenchments had an elaborate pit with seats and benches arranged for the spectators. One gamecock that fought and died in this pit suffered the most ignominious of fates for a Rebel rooster. A Union cavalry raid interrupted the day's cockfighting, and the dead gamecock was confiscated for a Yankee meal.

An enterprising young soldier of General Lee's infantry trained his gamecock to perch on his shoulder during a march and to sally forth to do battle with the head rooster of any convenient farmyard flock. He provided the trooper with many a stew.

Anything for a bet

Horse racing—often for high stakes—was a big sport among the cavalry divisions. The ingenious infantry, however, satisfied its hunger for betting by corralling the likeliest of the ever present louse population for racing and fighting contests. In a regulation louse fight, two gladiators were placed within a small circle drawn on a flat surface, and the pugnacious dispositions of the lice usually guaranteed a duel to the death. The track for louse races was often a small piece of cloth, and the first insect to crawl over the edge was declared the stakes winner. In another version, each entry raced from the center of its own tin plate. One Confederate soldier, who limited his louse to tin-plate races, cleaned out a Mississippi encampment of large amounts of stakes money. The reason for the champion louse's unusual speed was eventually found out. The soldier had hopped up his entry by heating his plate before each race.

Football, cricket, wrestling, footraces, boxing, leapfrog and shooting matches were other diversions reported by diarists and letter writers of both armies. Tenpin games were improvised by rolling cannonballs at makeshift pins or at holes in the ground, and hunting and fishing expeditions often augmented skimpy rations. Occasionally the war was put aside entirely and soldiers from both sides joined each other for some friendly sport. One such incident saw Yank and Reb picket guards stationed on opposite banks of Virginia's Chickahominy River declare an unofficial truce and put in an amiable day of interarmy fishing.