Abner Doubleday “invents” baseball and orders the first shots in defense of the Union

General Abner Doubleday. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Abner Doubleday (1819–1893) rose to the rank of Major General in the United States Army during the Civil War. He ordered the first shots to be fired in the defense of Fort Sumter, was injured at the Battle of Antietam, and fought at Gettysburg. However, he is likely most well-known for being identified as the inventor of the modern version of the game of baseball.

Doubleday orders the first Union shot of the Civil War

When the Civil War started on April 12, 1861, Abner Doubleday was serving as a Captain in the U.S. Army and was a member of the garrison defending Fort Sumter. When South Carolina Militia fired on the fort, Doubleday gave the order for Union forces to return fire — the first shots in defense of the fort — and the United States of America.

Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Illustration
The Battle of Fort Sumter. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Covering the Union retreat at Second Bull Run

As the war escalated, Doubleday was transferred to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. On February 3, 1862, he received a promotion to Brigadier General in the Volunteer Army. In May, army officials assigned Doubleday to command a brigade in the Army of the Potomac (USA). Soon after, he was transferred to the Army of Virginia (USA), and he played a key role in covering the Union retreat during the Second Battle of Bull Run.

Wounded at the Battle of Antietam

Following the Union loss at Second Bull Run, Doubleday returned to the Army of the Potomac in time to take part in the Battle of South Mountain and the Battle of Antietam

At Antietam, Doubleday and his men anchored the right flank of the Union forces and performed well despite sustaining heavy casualties. During the battle, Doubleday’s horse threw him from the saddle and injured him when it was started by an artillery explosion. 

Later, the War Department gave Doubleday a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel in the regular army “for gallant and meritorious service at the Battle of Antietam, Md.” on September 17, 1862. 

Major General Abner Doubleday

On November 29, 1862, the War Department promoted Doubleday to Major General in the volunteer army. As a divisional commander, Doubleday took part in the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862), the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863), and the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863).

Doubleday at Gettysburg

During the Battle of Gettysburg, he briefly served as a corps commander after the death of Major General John J. Reynolds. On the last day of the battle, Doubleday’s division played a decisive role in repelling Pickett’s Charge.

Battle of Gettysburg, Pickett's Charge, Cemetery Ridge, Illustration
Union troops defending Cemetery Ridge during Pickett’s Charge. Image Source: Harper’s Pictorial History of the Great Rebellion, Vol 2, Archive.org.

Administrative Duties in Washington, D.C.

Following the Battle of Gettysburg, Doubleday was reassigned to administrative duties in Washington, D.C., where he remained for the rest of the war. On September 20, 1863, the War Department promoted Doubleday to Lieutenant Colonel in the Regular Army.

Later Years and Death

Following the Civil War, Doubleday remained in the regular army, eventually reaching the rank of Colonel on December 11, 1873. After leaving the army, Doubleday settled in Mendham, New Jersey, and he worked as a lawyer in New York. During his retirement, he also authored several books about the Civil War. Doubleday died of heart disease in New Jersey on January 26, 1893, at the age of seventy-three. His remains were interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

Doubleday is credited with inventing baseball

By the latter half of the 1800s, the game of baseball had grown in popularity and was referred to as the “National Pastime.” However, the origins of the game were unclear and there was a debate over whether or not it was a truly “American” invention or a version of the British game “rounders.”

In 1905, sporting goods magnate Albert Spalding formed a commission to investigate the matter. Spalding, a staunch believer that baseball was an American sport, based on the games “Old Cat” and “Town Ball,” filled the commission with men who agreed with his point of view.

Baseball, Our National Game, Spalding Collection
Promotional poster for Baseball, circa 1900–1910. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The commission asked players and members of the general public to provide feedback. In Denver, Colorado, Abner Graves saw the request and wrote two letters that claimed he knew the origin of the game, as it was being played at the time.

In his first letter, which was written to the editor of the Akron Beacon-Journal, he said:

The “American game of Base Ball” was invented by Abner Doubleday of Cooperstown, New York, either the spring prior, or following the “Log Cabin & Hard Cider” campaign of General Harrison for President, said Abner Doubleday being then a boy pupil of “Green’s Select School” in Cooperstown, and the same, who as General Doubleday won honor at the Battle of Gettysburg in the “Civil War.” 

Graves went on to describe how the game was played, per Doubleday’s rules, even though he said it was “crude compared with present day ball.” He closed the letter by saying:

“Baseball” is undoubtedly a pure American game, and its birthplace Cooperstown, New York, and Abner Doubleday entitled to first honor of its invention.

Spalding was intrigued and sent a letter to Graves, asking for more information. Graves responded and tried to recall the year, saying:

You ask if I can positively name the year of Doubledays invention, and replying will say that I cannot, although am sure it was either 1839, 1840 or 1841…

The second letter went on to provide more details about the game and the boys that played it.

…I remember well Abner Doubleday explaining “base ball” to the lot of us that were playing marbles in the street in front of Coopers tailor shop and drawing a diagram in the dirt with a stick by marking out a square with a punch mark in each corner for bases, a ring in center for pitcher, a punch mark just back of home base for catcher, two punch marks for infielders and four punch marks for outfielders…

The information was good enough for Spalding, who presented it to the commission. On December 30, 1907, the commission issued a report giving Abner Doubleday credit for inventing the modern game of baseball in Cooperstown, New York.

Baseball, Red Stockings v Atlantics, 1870, Illustration
Drawing from “Harper’s Weekly” of July 2, 1870, Baseball — the match between the Red Stockings and the Atlantics, Sketched by C. S. Reinhart. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

30 years later, Stephen C. Clark, a philanthropist living in Cooperstown, and Ford Frick, President of the National League, proposed the idea of establishing a baseball hall of fame in Cooperstown. The idea gained support and the first class was elected in 1936, which included Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, and Honus Wagner. The following year, the National Baseball Hall of Fame opened in Cooperstown. Time magazine commemorated the occasion — and Doubleday’s role — by saying:

The world will little note nor long remember what he did at Gettysburg, but it can never forget what he did at Cooperstown

Babe Ruth scores after hitting the first home run at Yankee Stadium, on April 18, 1923. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The “Doubleday Myth”

Since then, the claim that Doubleday invented baseball has been discredited, giving rise to the “Doubleday Myth.” The main point of contention between the findings of the commission and baseball historians is the fact that Doubleday was attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point from 1838 to 1842. Contemporary research has found no evidence that Doubleday had any connection with the development of the game of baseball.