It’s easy to overlook the fact that soldiers really didn’t spend that much time in combat during the Civil War. Whether they were in the eastern or western theater, the typical day in the life of a soldier could be uneventful. Between marching and drilling, they had to kill time somehow. Games were a popular pastime. Countless primary sources from diaries to letters to memoirs mention soldiers playing games with dice, cards, dominoes, or other forms of gambling.
Dice and card games like the frequently mentioned Chuck-A-Luck and the now extinct game of All Fours, were popular with the soldiers in both armies. They were easy to carry and lightweight, so they wouldn’t be a burden on long marches. While soldiers would chuck blankets and other provisions on the side of the road, they didn’t have any qualms about keeping these games on their person. Gambling was associated with these games and there are many accounts of soldiers losing their recently earned pay after a game of dice or poker. It should also be said that soldiers didn’t always gamble with money, as poker chips were also carried for this purpose. Soldiers could also bet hours on picket duty or something non-material. While there are no regulations against privates gambling, it was frowned upon as a sinful pastime. Chaplains and preachers would give sermons on the evils of gambling, sometimes swaying the hearts of the men they spoke to – sometimes not. Young men who joined the army and had never been exposed to such vices would write back home about the immorality of camp life.
Dominoes, a game we play today, was also a fun way to pass the time in an army camp. Domino pieces would be made out of bone, ivory, or even wood. Some sets were homemade by the soldiers and brought with them upon enlistment. The Civil War game of dominoes is not too different from what we know modernly. Block Dominoes and Draw Dominoes were common variations.
Chess and checkers were often played by officers, as they could typically carry more with them than the average foot soldier. These games of strategy didn’t necessarily involve betting, so it was safer from a regulation standpoint than cards or dice.
A common myth persists that baseball was invented by Major General Abner Doubleday of the Union army during the Civil War. This is false, when considered that the game of baseball was an adaptation from a British game that was brought over to the colonies before the American Revolution. New rules were added to make the game into what we know today as America’s greatest pastime. That’s not to say that the game wasn’t played at all in the armies. It was, and company teams competed against one another throughout the war. Union prisoners of war would also play baseball in southern prisons, inspiring southerners to take up the game as well. After the war, the soldiers went home and the game exploded amongst civilians. So, while it can’t be said that the game was invented during the war, it can be conjectured that the war increased the game’s popularity and influence.
These were just some of the ways that soldiers squeezed a bit of fun into their monotonous hours between drilling and combat. Non-conforming activities such as snowball fights or flea racing can also be sited in primary sources. While boredom did exist, you can trust that soldiers would come up with inventive ways to keep themselves occupied.
To learn more about what games mid-nineteenth century soldiers and civilians might have played, I refer you to The American Hoyle, or Gentlemen’s Handbook of Games. You can still find nineteenth century copies from old booksellers, or pick up contemporary prints online. Also, in most Civil War museums, you can usually find a display of original games the soldiers would have played.
See the videos below for more resources on Civil War games.
Civil War Digest Game Series:
Civil War Baseball: