A Captain and the Majors

Time and situation award only a few in each generation with an opportunity to take a place in history. How much smaller is the number who are twice-touched by fate. Today’s post is about one such man. It starts with the differences between North and South and ends with the thin line that separates fair and foul.

The Civil War was a mold for heroes and villains. Out of its tragedies and triumphs came courageous and outrageous men: Lincoln, Lee, Grant, Booth, Sherman, Davis. And unforgettable place-names: Gettysburg, Antietam, Appomattox.

Emotions and issues had been heating up for years before, but the actual shooting began in 1861 with the Confederate firing on Fort Sumter, the lone Union fortification guarding Charleston’s harbor in South Carolina. The fort was still unfinished and ungarrisoned in late December of the previous year when the South Carolina legislature voted to secede from the Union. Six days later, the Yankee troops at nearby Fort Moultrie, a tiny force of 75 men, moved quickly to the more easily defended Fort Sumter. South Carolina’s Governor Pickens immediately demanded that the Union garrison surrender the stronghold, but under direct orders from President Lincoln, the men within the walls refused.

No shot had yet been fired, but war seemed imminent. Over the next four months, the North made several attempts to resupply and reinforce the surrounded garrison at Fort Sumter, but all help was beaten back by the secessionist cannon batteries strategically mounted around Charleston’s harbor. Inside the fortress, the Union officers and men were resigned to the impending conflict and at 4:30 a.m., April 12, 1861, 150 years ago today, the shelling began.

The fort was battered by a continuous bombardment from four sides of its pentagonal shape. Union troops took cover, returning no fire until dawn, when the attacking positions could then be seen. Fort Sumter’s second-in-command was a 41-year-old captain from New York. He was no newcomer to battle. A graduate of West Point, he had served under Gen. Zachary Taylor in the Mexican War and for two years had fought against the Seminole Indians in Florida. Now, at the dawn of the War Between the States, he was the garrison’s ranking field officer…and so destiny chose him on that early spring morning to order the Union’s first return volley.

With the firing of that cannon, the great Civil War was engaged.

That captain became famous. But few remember the man behind that gun for his military exploits, even though he was to fight with distinction as a major general at Gettysburg. His place in America’s Hall of Fame was insured by a game played some 22 years earlier when he was still a teenager. In 1839, at Cooperstown, New York, legend has it that a young man first set down the rude beginnings of what was to become America’s National Pastime.

Abner Doubleday, a man heroic in battle and so close to the eye of history’s storm, is today remembered (and most suggest incorrectly) as the inventor of baseball.

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3 Comments on “A Captain and the Majors

  1. I imagine you realize, when you write “most suggest” it is incorrect to credit Doubleday as the inventor of baseball, that this understates the essentially unanimous agreement among those who have done any research into the matter that the Doubleday story is pure fiction. Just by chance, the NYT Sunday book review had a review two days ago of a book on this very subject:


    1. Indeed I am understating the current scholarship that almost universally denies Doubleday the invention of baseball. But the Hall of Fame is and has always been in Cooperstown, Doubleday’s hometown. And the legend lives in spite of any and all scholarship. Intelligent investigation rarely overturns pre-existing public opinion, no matter the truth.

  2. Sad but true.

    Last May, after I had some business in DC, we went (at last) to Harper’s Ferry, Antietam, and Gettysburg on a wonderful three-day trip. It was great to see where Doubleday really had an impact.

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