The 4th of July is celebrated for the Declaration of Independence, and the birth of the United States. Many people will spend the day watching baseball, either major league games or a trip to a local minor league park for a taste of true Americana. This is appropriate because there is a connection between the date and the sport that stems from the fact that the 4th of July is famous for other reasons beyond what happened in 1776.
July 4, 1863 was the turning point in the Civil War. Along the Mississippi River, the Confederate garrison at Vicksburg surrendered to Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, giving Union forces control of the strategic waterway. The victory would catapult Grant towards the day he would command the Army of the Potomac and defeat Gen. Robert E. Lee to win the war and preserve the United States as a strong and growing world power.
In the same day in Pennsylvania, Lee would begin his retreat after three days of heavy fighting around Gettysburg. Both sides had suffered over 23,000 casualties, but the southern rebels had lost many more killed. Among the Union heroes of the Gettysburg campaign is a man most people recognize more as the father of baseball than as a career soldier; Abner Doubleday.
Doubleday was born in 1819, the son of an editor of Christian newspapers and the grandson of a Revolutionary War veteran. He attended school in Cooperstown, New York where he became well-known as the organizer of the bat-and-ball games that legend credits as the birth of modern baseball. In 1939 the Baseball Hall of Fame was established in Cooperstown to mark the 100th anniversary of Doubleday's efforts to develop the sport.
Yet baseball was only a youthful diversion for Doubleday. His real career was that of a professional soldier. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1842 and was assigned to the artillery. He fought in the Mexican War at the Battle of Monterey and elsewhere as part of Zachary Taylor's army advancing south from Texas. A decade later Doubleday fought the Seminole Indians in Florida.
When the Civil War started on April 12, 1861, Captain Doubleday was stationed at Ft. Sumter in Charleston harbor. He was the first Federal officer to return Confederate fire. He served in the Shenandoah Valley during the summer of 1861. He was appointed Brigadier General on February 3, 1862 and led the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, III Corps at Second Bull Run. He took command of the Division on August 30 when its commander was wounded. He led the Division at South Mountain, Antietam and Fredericksburg. He was promoted to Major General, on November 9, 1862 and commanded 3rd Division, I Corps, at Chancellorsville. He took command of the I Corps when General John Reynolds was killed in the early Gettysburg fighting, on July 1st, 1863.
This was Doubleday's crucial test, as he was leading the only Union troops that could stop the Confederate advance. The key to the battle was geography. If the Union could hold the high ground, they could inflict prohibitive casualties on the Confederates. But on July 1st, the Confederates outnumbered the Federals. Had they been able to drive the blue-coats from the ridges before the rest of the Union army could come up, the battle would have been lost and perhaps the war as well. For beyond Gettysburg, Gen. Robert E. Lee had his choice of targets from Philadelphia to Baltimore. Were Lee to cap his victories in Virginia with a successful invasion of the north, even Abraham Lincoln's will to resist might have been shaken – or his ability to sustain the war effort crippled by a demoralized public and a dispirited Congress.
Doubleday had only the 1st Division initially in line. The division's famed “Iron Brigade” had just counterattacked, its regiments from Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan repelling infantry from Alabama and Tennessee. But the division's other brigade was being pushed back by a determined rebel assault. The Confederates had about 2,500 men against the 1,600 Union defenders. Doubleday quickly assessed the danger. He had held back the 6th Wisconsin regiment and some headquarters troops, about 450 men, as a divisional reserve. He ordered them to counterattack as the Federal brigade retreated. This bold stroke threw the rebels into disarray. The 2nd Mississippi regiment was driven into a railroad cut, trapped and forced to surrender.
This bought time for the rest of I Corps to arrive, along with the XI Corps on its right. The XI Corps commander, Maj. Gen. Oliver Howard, was senior to Doubleday and took command of the front. But when Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell's Second Confederate Corps joined the assault, the XI Corps broke and fled back through Gettysburg in panic. His flank open, Doubleday managed to extract I Corps and lead it back to a new defensive line on Cemetery Ridge. This became the bulwark against which Lee's army would smash itself over the next two days.
Doubleday did not retain command of I Corps, a more senior general being sent to replace Reynolds. He fought on at the head of the New York and Pennsylvania regiments of his 3rd Division. On July 3, his division helped to repulse Pickett's Charge, the last great Confederate effort.
Doubleday served the rest of the war in Washington and stayed in the army until he retired in 1873. He published two war memoirs, Reminiscences of Fort Sumter and Moultrie in 1860-61 in 1876 and Chancellorsville and Gettysburg in 1882. Though not remembered to the same extent as Union icons Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, Abner Doubleday was an exceptional individual. A true patriot, he dedicated his life to building the country in which his adolescent hobby has become the national pastime. Among all the arcane statistics baseball has generated, this is something really worth remembering.
William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.
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