When you examine the life of Abner Doubleday you eventually have to come to the point expressed by classic detective Joe Friday: “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.” Okay, so here are two facts about General Abner Doubleday’s life. First, his military career was lengthy and he “was the highest ranking officer in the Civil War to have been part of so many of the Civil War’s major events.”1 Second, he did not invent baseball, despite the false assertion from the Mills Commission and others.
Abner Doubleday was born at Ballston Spa, Saratoga County, New York, on June 26, 1819, to Ulysses F. Doubleday and Hester (Donnelly) Doubleday.2 Doubleday’s ancestors participated in the American Revolution; his paternal grandfather fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill, served at Valley Forge, and fought in the Battle of Stony Point (New York) in 1779. His maternal grandfather was a messenger for George Washington in the early years of the Revolution. His father fought in the War of 1812, serving at the naval facility at Sacketts Harbor in New York.3 He returned to Auburn, New York, after the war. He published newspapers and books and served two terms in the US Congress.4
In the library at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown is a letter that gives some insight into how Abner Doubleday spent his youth. “I was brought up in a book store and early imbibed a taste for reading. I was fond of poetry and art and much interested in mathematical studies. In my outdoor sports I was a addicted to topographical work and even as a boy amused myself by making maps of the country around my father’s residence which was in Auburn, Cayuga County, New York.”5 Interesting, there is no mention of baseball in his upbringing. The mythology remains strong today, but most serious baseball historians believe the game comes from England and other ball and bat games in prehistory.6
Doubleday grew up in Auburn and attended the Cooperstown Classical and Military Academy, studying civil engineering before he was appointed to West Point in 1838. During his first year he stood 30th out of 85 plebes.
In 1839, West Point began issuing grades and standings for students. In his sophomore year Doubleday scored third in Drawing; 21st in Mathematics; 29th in English Grammar and 46th in French. Overall, Doubleday stood number 19 in a class of 76 members; many first-year students did not make it through the plebe year.
In his junior year, Doubleday stood 20th in a class of 60 members, scoring 17th in Drawing; 21st in Philosophy; and 27th in Chemistry. He graduated from West Point in 1842 ranking 24th in a class of 56 members on July 1 of that year. His last-year scores were 26th in Engineering; 29th in Ethics; 30th in Infantry Tactics; 32nd in Artillery; and 32nd in Mineralogy and Geology. During his years at West Point, “he did not leave West Point from August 1838 until graduation in 1842”;7 he was considered to be a “diligent and thoughtful student, something of a critic,” and was “fond of questions in moral philosophy.”8 Doubleday was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the 3rd Artillery and was sent to Fort Johnson in North Carolina as his first assignment.9
Doubleday’s first combat came during the Mexican War. Despite his opposition to the war,10 he volunteered to fight. He began the war as a supply officer but applied for and received an artillery posting.11 He was in the fight from 1846 to 1848, and fought at the Battle of Monterey (September 21-23, 1846) and at the Rincouda Pass during the Battle of Buena Vista. After the conflict with Mexico, Doubleday returned to Texas.
As a lieutenant of the 1st Artillery, Doubleday was involved in the hostilities against the Apaches from 1854 to 1855 on the Texas border. In 1858 he posted to Florida. According to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., Doubleday’s activities involved mapping the Everglades and the areas that became the cities of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, plus planning for roads and swamp drainage.12
Doubleday was posted to the garrison at Fort Moultrie at Charleston, South Carolina, in 1858, an assignment that had a huge influence on his military career.13 In the 1850s there was a huge split in the Army over slavery. Doubleday was a supporter of abolition and voted for Abraham Lincoln in 1860.14 Most other officers either supported slavery or supported variations between state’s rights or other alternatives in support or opposition to slavery. In short, the Army’s stance toward slavery was as divided as it was in the rest of the country.
Before the Civil War began, Doubleday noted that Charleston was not a pleasant place to be, commenting, “Almost every public assemblage was tinctured with treasonable sentiments and toasts against the flag were always warmly applauded.”15
His service against the Confederacy began where the war began, at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. Fort Moultrie had been abandoned after South Carolina seceded, and its garrison was moved to Fort Sumter. There, Doubleday was second in command to Major Robert Anderson, who was from Kentucky and was from a slave-owning family. Major Anderson remained in the Union Army, and Doubleday remarked that he was in a cruel situation.16
The Southerners opened fire on Sumter during the early morning hours of April 12, and Anderson offered only token resistance. Doubleday fired the Union’s first cannon shot but the shot did no damage and on April 14 Fort Sumter surrendered. Under the rules of engagement, the Fort Sumter garrison was allowed to vacate the fortress. Doubleday was transferred to command the garrison at Fort Hamilton in New York.17
Promoted to major, Doubleday served with the 17th Infantry in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and in the defenses of Washington from September 1861 to May 1862. During this time he was promoted to brigadier general of U.S. Volunteers.
His troops fought in the Second Battle of Manassas August 29-30, then in the Battle of South Mountain in Maryland on September 14. In both battles Doubleday’s men acquitted themselves well.18
South Mountain was the precursor to Antietam, the bloodiest one-day battle of the war. Doubleday was in the midst of heavy fighting in the Corn Field and West Woods.19 Late in the battle, Doubleday was wounded when a shell exploded under his horse’s nose, causing the rider and the horse to run over steep rocks. Doubleday received some bruises and could not hold the reins of a horse for a long time.20
Doubleday’s bravery and that of his troops at Antietam earned him promotion to major general of U.S. Volunteers in the Army of the Potomac. He saw action at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862 and Chancellorsville May 2-4. By the third year of the Civil War, Doubleday was a reliable general and his biographer Thomas Barthel describes him this way: “He has never been given credit he deserves for his actions in the Civil War or later because he was not one of the boys. He was not glamorous. … Seen not as a foolhardy soldier but as a steadfast one, many times in the future Doubleday would be asked to anchor a line and protect the flank of a large body of soldiers. This reputation was not glamorous. But Doubleday was not a man to worry about his appearance; rather, his concern would be his obligations to the men in his command.”21
It was at Gettysburg that Doubleday and his troops were involved in the turning point of the Civil War. Some historians make the argument that he kept Cemetery Ridge as part of the Federal lines during the first day’s fighting.
Doubleday had a number of West Point classmates who served in the Civil War, including John Newton and John Pope. Newton, who was number one in his class, relieved General Doubleday as commander of the I Corps during the Battle of Gettysburg,22 and Doubleday served under Pope in the Union defeat at Second Manassas in August 1862.23 Several members of Doubleday’s class served with the Confederate army, including Daniel H. Hill,24 Richard Anderson, Lafayette McLaws, and James Longstreet, all of whom fought at Gettysburg.25
In command of a division in the I Corps, Doubleday was among the first to see action in the battle. He assumed command of the corps after John F. Reynolds was killed, and his troops fought well but had to withdraw to Cemetery Hill. During the first day’s battle Doubleday’s troops suffered nearly 65 percent casualties, but also blunted the onslaught of troops under Confederate Generals Harry Heth and Robert Rodes.26
Doubleday believed he would assume command of the I Corps, but the commander of the Army of the Potomac, George Meade, gave the command to John Newton. Doubleday never forgave Meade, and his career with the Army of the Potomac was over.27 Allen C. Guelzo, in Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, writes, “The written update (General John) Hancock sent back to Meade from Gettysburg included a brief statement – “Howard says that Doubleday’s command gave way” – which became fixed in Meade’s mind as proof that Doubleday had lost all control of I Corps and somehow caused the collapse of both the I and the XI Corps. … In the polarized political atmosphere of the Army of the Potomac, it suited Meade to believe that this constituted a very good reason to yank backward one of the better-known Republican abolitionists in the army.”28
On the third day of the battle Doubleday’s troops were stationed on Cemetery Ridge and helped fight off Pickett’s Charge. In a letter to his wife he discussed the battle: “The most awful battle of the War occurred yesterday. … They then attacked near my position opening with from 100 to 150 pieces of artillery. … I was hit and pitched over my horse’s neck by a piece of shell which struck me in the back of the neck. … Luckily I was hit squarely by the smooth round surface. Had the jagged part struck first it would have killed me.”29
Doubleday was assigned to the defense of Washington, and his last combat was in fighting off Confederate General Jubal Early during raids in 1864. Prior to that he was present when Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.30 Mustering out of the Union volunteer service in late August 1865, he became a colonel in the regular army and was sent to California, where he helped get a charter for the first cable car railway in San Francisco.31
In 1871 Doubleday was in Texas, where he commanded the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment. This is where Abner Doubleday and baseball were linked for the only time. Doubleday asked his superiors to “purchase baseball implements for the amusement of the men.”32
After an illness, and after being bitten by a copperhead33 on the way to Brownsville, Texas, Doubleday retired from the Army in 1873. He and his wife, Mary, retired to Mendham, New Jersey. They had no children. He died on January 26, 1893. Mary died on March 13, 1907. They are buried at Arlington National Cemetery.34
So what about Abner Doubleday’s “invention” of baseball? No serious historian of baseball believes Doubleday established the rules of baseball, but the myth of Doubleday still persists to some degree.
In 1905 Abraham G. Mills was appointed by Albert G. Spalding to head a commission to determine when and where baseball began. Spalding was engaged in a dispute with Henry Chadwick. The British-born Chadwick believed the game evolved from the English game of rounders. Spalding, an exemplar of hyper-American nationalism prevalent in the early years of the 20th century, believed baseball was invented in America, by an American.
Mills had been president of the National League from 1882 to 1884. Other members of his commission were Morgan G. Bulkeley, the National League’s first president; Arthur P. Gorman, a former player and president of the Washington Base Ball Club; Nicholas E. Young, president of the National League from 1884 to 1902; Alfred J. Reach, a former Philadelphia Athletics player and the owner of Reach Sporting Goods; George Wright, a former player with the Cincinnati Red Stockings; and James E. Sullivan, president of the Amateur Athletic Union.35
The commission’s decision, released in 1908, stated that Abner Doubleday invented baseball at Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. This flies in the face of the fact that Doubleday was a plebe at West Point at that time, was only 20 years old, and had never left West Point from August 1838 until his graduation in 1842. “The myth was embellished by the fact that Doubleday was a Civil War general. That, coupled with the dubious conclusion that baseball had no connection to any foreign game, gave the owners the ammunition they needed to promote baseball as the national pastime.”36
While that helped the owners and eventually led to establishment of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the claims of the Mills Commission were spurious and based on evidence that today would not stand up in any court. The commission based its decision on a letter to a newspaper by Abner Graves of Denver, who claimed he had seen Doubleday making drawings on baseball. He said he had attended school with Doubleday. Having acquired the “evidence” they needed, no one bothered to check further with Graves. No one felt it important that Graves was 5 years old in 1839 and Doubleday was already at West Point. Finally, Graves was not well; he wound up killing his wife and spent his remaining years in an asylum.37
Abner Doubleday was a very religious man, who never drank or used profane language, and whose interests were wide, including mathematics, engineering, literature, military science, and sports. If Doubleday were still alive he would likely wonder why his name is connected with baseball and not with his participation in the Civil War battles including Fort Sumter, Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg.38
David W. Anderson is author of "More Than Merkle" and "You Can’t Beat the Hours," and has spoken at the Seymour Conference and SABR conventions. He lives in Olathe, Kansas, with his wife, Judy. Bert Gumpert was an official scorer for the New York Yankees and a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. He died on December 23, 1978. Emily Gumpert assisted with this project as well. Thanks to Mark Pattison for providing information on Gumpert’s work on Doubleday.
1 Letter to Bert Gumpert (1899-1978) from Alan C. Aimone, military history librarian, US Military Academy Library, February 17, 1977. Gumpert’s work on Doubleday supplies much of this biography. He was an official scorer for the New Yankees but was also involved in the Baseball Writers Association of America. He helped found the Bronx Historical Society and was also involved with the Civil War Society and the Revolutionary War Roundtable in New York City. Research on Gumpert’s work was provided by Mark Pattison.
2 Biographic information on Abner Doubleday is from Bert Gumpert, who was working on a Doubleday biography for the Civil War Roundtable of New York.
3 Thomas Barthel, Abner Doubleday: A Civil War Biography (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc., 2010), 7-8.
4 Bert Gumpert, Abner Doubleday (unpublished manuscript).
5 Gumpert, Abner Doubleday.
6 Tim Arango, “Myth of Baseball’s Creation Endures, With a Prominent Fan,” New York Times, November 20, 2010.
7 Barthel, 18.
8 Barthel, 19.
9 Letter to Bert Gumpert from Kenneth W. Rapp, acting chief, US Military Academy Archives, February 11, 1977.
10 Barthel, 25-26.
11 Barthel, 32.
12 Gumpert, Doubleday.
13 Genealogytrails.com, West Point bios 1842 class.
14 Barthel, 56.
15 Meredith L. Jones, “In Memoriam Abner Doubleday, 1819-1893,” commemorative address, New York Monuments Commission for the Battlefields of Gettysburg, Chattanooga and Antietam; and John Cleveland Robinson, 1817-1897. Albany, New York, 1918.
16 Abner Doubleday, Reminiscences of Forts Sumter and Moultrie: In 1860-61 (New York: Harper, 1876), 126.
17 Gumpert, Doubleday; Genealogytrails.com, West Point bios 1842 class.
18 Barthel, 102-111.
19 Genealogytrails.com, West Point bios 1842 class.
20 Rufus R. Dawes, Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers (Marietta, Ohio: E.R. Alderman, 1890), 115. Doubleday Scrapbook.
21 Barthel, 100.
22Allen C. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 224.
23 James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 525-533.
24 Byron Farwell, Stonewall: A Biography of General Thomas J. Jackson (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992), 109-110, 129.
25 Guelzo, 139-231.
27 Gumpert, Doubleday.
29 Barthel, 169.
30 Barthel, 178-79.
31 Gumpert, Doubleday.
33 Barthel, 193.
36 David W. Anderson, More than Merkle: A History of the Best and Most Exciting Baseball Season in Human History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000, xxvii.
38 Gumpert, Doubleday.