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Introduction to the Ora W. Harvey Letter
By George Rugg
References to baseball appear with some frequency in the letters and diaries of Civil War soldiers, though most are made in passing, and add little to our understanding of the game as a soldiers' recreation. The author of this particular letter, though, seems to have been an enthusiast; the document contains several observations on the game as it was played by Union troops at New Bern, North Carolina, in the spring of 1863. Pvt. Ora W. Harvey (1840-1921), was a native of Marlboro, Cheshire County, New Hampshire, who on 25 September 1862 was mustered in to Co. A, 46th Massachusetts Infantry, for nine months' service. The new regiment's destination was the coastal city of New Bern, captured by the Federals in March 1862 and occupied for the remainder of the war.
Harvey's letter is addressed to a friend back in Marlboro, Fred Ward (b. 1840/1), who very likely shared an interest in baseball: the text of the letter certainly suggests that the two had played the game together, presumably in Marlboro. Informal stick-and-ball games had been played in America for generations, typically by children, but modern, codified versions of such games emerged only in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s, in the large cities of the Northeast. By the Civil War years one particular form of baseball, the "New York game" codified by Alexander Cartwright in the mid-1840s, was rapidly becoming ascendant, displacing, among other forms, the "Massachusetts game" previously dominant in New England. Harvey says that "We play the New York Game most. Mass Game som"—even if the units he mentions as fielding teams (the 25th, 46th, 44th, and 51st Massachusetts, the 5th Rhode Island, and the "Battarys," (a team of artillerymen, probably New Yorkers) were mostly from New England. The games played between these regimental teams were probably quite regulated, and the object of considerable fanfare. On the other hand, the game Harvey plays in the midst of writing his letter, won by his side 10 tallies to 7, seems to have been more in the nature of impromptu recreation. Officers tended to encourage baseball as a generally beneficial way of occupying men's idle hours, and the U.S. Sanitary Commission included it among its approved athletic pastimes. Harvey also mentions a number of other soldiers' recreations, including quoits, cards, dominos, climbing a greased pole, and chasing a greased pig.
Provenance note: The Harvey letter was purchased by the University Libraries via ebay in 2004, from Schmitt Investors Ltd. of Northport NY.
Bibliographic note: For a recent overview of baseball and the Civil War see George B. Kirsch, Baseball in Blue and Gray: The National Pastime during the Civl War, Princeton NJ, 2003.
Index of Letters
|MSN/CW 5026-01||Letter||April 15, 1863||Newbern, North Carolina||Ora W. Harvey|