Abner Doubleday in Antietam’s Cornfield: No Day in the (Baseball) Park

Abner Doubleday may not have invented baseball, but his actions amidst Antietam’s deadly Cornfield rightly cement his place in American history.  This is that story…

By David A. Welker

Born on 26 June 1819 in Ballston Spa, New York to Ulysses F. and Hester (Donnelly) Doubleday, Abner joined a respected family with deep ties to the still-young United States. Abner’s namesake paternal grandfather had survived the brutal Valley Forge winter and fought in the Battles of Bunker Hill and Stony Point, while his other grandfather, Thomas Donnelly, served George Washington as a messenger early in the Revolutionary War. Abner’s father was a War of 1812 veteran who settled in Auburn, New York, publishing there a newspaper, authoring several books, and serving twice in Congress.  [1]

Doubleday BirthplaceGrowing up in New York’s Finger Lakes region, Abner later wrote of his childhood “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 addicted to topographical work and even as a boy amused myself by making maps of the country around my father’s residence…” After graduating private Auburn Academy, Abner was sent to live with his uncle and continue his studies at the Cooperstown Classical and Military Academy, working after graduation as a surveyor and civil engineer.  [2]

In 1838 Abner entered the US Military Academy at West Point. Graduating in middle of the Class of 1842, he was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the 3rd US Artillery and posted to Fort Johnson in North Carolina, prior to similar garrison postings in Forts McHenry in Maryland, Moultrie in South Carolina, and Preble in Maine. [3]

Doubleday first experienced combat in 1845 during the Mexican War. Part of the 1st US Artillery, Lieutenant Doubleday participated in the Battles of Monterey and Buena Vista before ending the war as a quartermaster in Fort Brown, Texas. Returning home to a posting in Fort Columbus, in New York City’s harbor, by 1851 Doubleday’s battery moved briefly to Fort Hamilton before returning him to Baltimore’s Fort McHenry.  [4]

Doubleday Lt in Mexican War

Lieutenant Doubleday in Mexico

Doubleday and Mary

Mary and Abner

Abner recalled “…a pleasant time indeed at Fort McHenry…I was fascinated by the bright eyes of a Washington belle, Miss Mary Hewett…” and the two were married on 2 January 1852. Although they never had children, Abner and Mary’s life together was apparently happy and their marriage proved to be life-long.  [5]

 

After briefly returning to Mexico as part of a commission investigating a US citizen’s claims—subsequently proved fraudulent—of wartime damage to his mining investments, Abner was posted again to Texas in 1854, participating there in skirmishes against the Apaches until 3 March 1855, when promotion to captain took him briefly to Virginia’s Fort Monroe. Transferred once again, this time to Florida, Doubleday participated in the Third Seminole War (1855-1858) and conducted topographic work, preparing roads and swamp draining projects, as well as mapping the Everglades and ground which became the cities of Miami and Fort Lauderdale.  [6]

By 1859, Abner Doubleday returned to Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina, this time as second-in-command to Major Robert Anderson. A staunch abolitionist and supporter of Abraham Lincoln—of Charleston, Abner wrote “Almost every public assemblage was tinctured with treasonable sentiments and toasts against the flag were always warmly applauded”—Doubleday must have known the tight spot he was in as South Carolina militia repeatedly threatened the fort from its weakest side, facing inland.  [7]

In December 1860 Major Anderson and Captain Doubleday abandoned vulnerable Fort Moultrie for the more easily-defended Fort Sumter in the harbor channel. Four months later, on 12 April 1861, South Carolina militia fired on Fort Sumter. Although Captain Doubleday directed what became the first Union return fire, 36 hours later he and Major Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter. Abner Doubleday had played a starring role in the opening moments of the Civil War.   [8]

Doubleday Ft. Sumter

Enter a Firing on Ft. Moultrie

The advent of war may have been a disaster for the United States but Abner Doubleday, like other men with military experience, suddenly found his personal “stock” rising dramatically. After languishing for years in the peacetime army’s lower officer ranks, enduring a series of dreary backwoods postings, Abner now enjoyed several dizzying promotions and increasingly-important positions.

Doubleday

General Abner Doubleday

After surrendering Fort Sumter, Doubleday briefly commanded New York’s Fort Hamilton, being promoted on 14 May 1862 to the rank of major in the US Regulars. From June to August 1861, Doubleday commanded the Artillery Department in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley before briefly commanding the artillery in Brigadier General Nathaniel Banks’ division in McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. Promoted again, on 2 February 1862 to brigadier general of US Volunteers and given command of artillery forces protecting the Union capital, Doubleday remained behind in Washington while the Army of the Potomac shipped south to fight the Peninsula Campaign. Soon newly-minted Brigadier General Doubleday was given command of the Second Brigade in King’s Division, McDowell’s III Corps, part of Major General John Pope’s newly-created Union Army of Virginia.  [9]

Late on 28 August 1862, Abner experienced his first combat commanding a large unit when Stonewall Jackson’s artillery unexpectedly attacked King’s Division near the old Bull Run (Manassas) battlefield. The ensuing Brawner Farm fight opened the Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) and challenged Doubleday’s command skill when division commander General King was removed by suffering an epileptic seizure, leaving his three brigade chiefs unknowingly in charge. Abner rose to the occasion, however; taking personal initiative, he sent nearly 1,000 of his men to support General John Gibbon’s heavily-engaged Black Hat brigade (soon to be known as the Iron Brigade). During the struggling Union assaults the following day, Doubleday skillfully managed his brigade, despite being driven back by Longstreet’s Command, and on the 30th led his brigade intact from the field during the sometimes-disorganized Union retreat.  [10]

Iron Brigade

The Iron Brigade’s Company I

The dissolution of Pope’s army and King’s departure found Doubleday and his brigade in Brigadier General John P. Hatch’s Division, part of the newly-designated I Corps commanded by Major General Joseph Hooker, in McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. Pursuing Lee’s army into Maryland, Doubleday’s command acquitted itself well during fighting in Turner’s Gap in the 14 September Battle of South Mountain. General Doubleday, too, distinguished himself in taking command of the division in place of wounded General Hatch, subsequently holding off a Confederate assault on the I Corps line.  [11]

Having proven a skilled, adaptable senior commander, Doubleday faced a new challenge in formal command of Hatch’s—renamed Doubleday’s—division. Now responsible for leading a 2915-man division on the march, in the field, and in battle, a significant step up from his 727-man brigade, he also had oversight of artillery forces, was responsible for significantly greater tactical planning and battlefield management, as well as interacting with often-prickly senior superiors. Perhaps easing Abner’s burden somewhat was that his new command comprised four very familiar brigades – his own, now named for Lieutenant Colonel John William Hofmann, as well as those commanded by former counterparts Brigadier General Marsena Patrick, Colonel Walter Phelps, Jr., and Brigadier General John Gibbon.  [12]

Marching west with the rest of Hooker’s I Corps, Doubleday’s First Division reached the eastern banks of Antietam Creek late on the 15th, bivouacking near Keedysville. This much-needed rest ended late the next day when General Hooker alerted his division commanders—Doubleday and new counterparts Brigadier General James B. Ricketts, commanding Hooker’s Second Division, and Brigadier General George G. Meade, leading the Third Division—to have their commands ready to move right within the hour. Unlike McClellan, who shared his battle plan with only General Hooker, Hooker told his subordinates where they were going and why – after crossing the Antietam, they would seek the Confederate left flank, wherever it really was. With these orders issued, the once-calm, restful field camp came alive as men reflexively packed their gear, quickly fell into ranks, and waited to move.  [13]

Crossing an hour later at the Upper Bridge and its nearby fords—Doubleday’s command at the latter—Hooker deployed his force into three parallel divisions; Doubleday’s division formed the left column, with Ricketts’ column in the center and Meade’s on the right. Led by the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry, acting as scouts, the massed I Corps pressed westward, deeper into the unknown.

Near dusk they first encountered the Confederates in force, near what would soon become known as the East Woods; instantly, confusion ensued. Despite holding the left-most column, Doubleday’s Division was halted while Ricketts’ Division moved forward, guiding left toward the enemy and effectively swapping places with Doubleday. This halt allowed Hooker to close up his apparently-extended column—perhaps explaining the position change—but it exposed Doubleday’s static troops to Confederate artillery. General Doubleday, too, was exposed to enemy fire when a shell sailed over his head and wounded several in Patrick’s Brigade and dismounted three of the general’s orderlies. When Confederates retreated in the gathering darkness, Doubleday ordered Patrick’s Brigade forward into a “small triangular piece of woods”—soon known as the North Woods—advancing until reaching the Hagerstown Pike. Deploying Hofmann’s Brigade on Patrick’s left—with Gibbon’s and Phelps’ Brigades bivouacked in reserve on the Samuel Poffenberger farm—Doubleday’s Division claimed the vital North Woods for the Union – a position they would never yield and which would soon prove vital to McClellan’s and Hooker’s battle plans.  [14]

Hooker’s remaining divisions rested nearby that unsettled, drizzly night. Meade’s Division held the East Woods while Ricketts’ Division bivouacked on the Samuel Poffenberger woods, straddling the Smoketown Road, grabbing what sleep they could amidst the trees and rocks. Ordered to remain clothed, wearing accoutrements and with weapons loaded signaled—if the men needed any such message—that this would be a tense, fitful night. Still, Hooker now had his entire I Corps on the field and ready to resume their drive at dawn.  [15]

Hooker’s I Corps was now positioned on the cusp of Lee’s Confederate left flank, just where General McClellan wanted it to launch his opening strike in the one-two-three punch he planned for 17 September. Just how that first punch would be thrown was up to General Hooker, who sometime during the dark evening conceived his attack plan.

Hooker planned a traditional West Point-taught assault, sending two divisions forward while holding the third in reserve to reinforce success or stave off disaster. Their goal was breaking Lee’s line atop the ridge on which sat the Dunker Church—which Hooker chose as his attack’s tactical objective—ultimately to allow Hooker’s artillery to shell the collapsing Confederate center in support of the ultimate Union attack there later in the day. Although Doubleday never recorded how or when Hooker shared the details with him, Meade’s Division was selected as the reserve, while Ricketts’ Division would march diagonally across the fields between the North and East Woods to the church. Doubleday’s Division would march due south along the Hagerstown Pike toward the objective – the shortest route, it also was arguably the toughest because it took his men across the very front of Lee’s line and all the rifle and artillery fire they could bring to bear. Further complicating Doubleday’s task was something Hooker had failed to consider in this otherwise carefully prepared plan – D. R. Miller’s cornfield.  [16]

Doubleday Map 1

The position of Doubleday’s Division at dawn

Before daybreak General Doubleday, peering through his binoculars, could see silhouetted against the lightening sky outlines of Rebel batteries on Nicodemus Heights readying for action. What must have more horrified the general was that his still-sleeping division—scattered, slumbering on a hill south of the Sam Poffenberger farm and well within the guns’ range—was clearly their intended target. Instantly, Doubleday was on his horse, racing to warn his men. Riding Gibbon’s and Phelps’ brigade lines, he called for the men to rise up and move back. Suddenly, cries of nearly every division officer echoed their commander, rousing the men, who surged as an amorphous blob back toward the safety of Poffenberger’s nearby barn. Atop the hill, the Danville and the Staunton Artillery trained their four guns—each battery had only two—on the blue mass below, as soon too did the Alleghany Battery. But it was Lieutenant A. W. Garber’s Staunton Artillery which first opened on the Yankees below.  [17]

The first round exploded harmlessly above Gibbon’s men, adding forcefully to Doubleday’s warning. As troops neared Poffenberger’s barn, two more shells sailed through the dark, the last crashing to earth amidst one of Sam Poffenberger’s threshing machines and sending jagged shards of metal flying wildly through Gibbon’s brigade. When the smoke cleared, three 6th Wisconsin men were dead—the first of thousands of Union casualties to fall before Rebel artillery—and 11 more of Gibbon’s men were soon killed or wounded in this opening Confederate barrage. Because these guns were beyond the range of infantry fire, Doubleday’s only hope of silencing them was getting his own artillery into action. Deployed his guns on the slope between the North Woods and the Hagerstown Pike and they soon began lobbing shells though the dim morning light. It took Union gunners time to find their targets, though, and the first shells flew beyond the crest of Nicodemus Heights, completely missing their mark. Instead, the first Union round found Lieutenant Colonel John T. Thornton, resting with his 3rd Virginia Cavalry behind the hill. Killed before he knew he was under fire, Colonel Thornton became the first Confederate victim of the day’s artillery fire. Although 21 Confederate guns now dueled Doubleday’s 18 pieces, they were only a sideshow of the upcoming main event – Hooker’s infantry attack.  [18]

As first light poked through the haze, Doubleday’s four brigades were already moving to their tasks. Hofmann’s brigade had drawn the lightest duty, remaining in the Union rear to guard artillery and the staging area on the Joseph Poffenberger farm. Once deployed facing west along the Hagerstown Pike, it also guarded against any turning movement Lee might throw at the Union right. Phelps’ and Patrick’s brigades would advance in that order as reinforcement for Gibbon’s Iron Brigade—the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin regiments and the 19th Indiana—which had drawn the tough role, leading Doubleday’s attack.  [19]

Upon Hooker’s order, Doubleday directed Gibbon’s Iron Brigade forward, while Phelps’ Brigade stood ready to advance in support. “[W]hiz-z-z! bang! burst a shell over our heads; then another; then a percussion shell struck in the very center of the moving mass of men,” recalled the 6th Wisconsin’s Major Rufus Dawes of the moment. “It tore off Captain David K. Noyes‘s foot, and cut off both arms of a man in his company.” The horror of seeing their comrades so suddenly and hideously wounded instantly brought home what this day had in store for Gibbon’s men. The brigade now moved forward with a purpose – and without complaint.  [20]

Watching Gibbon’s westerners advance southward along the eastern side of the Hagerstown Pike, over the D.R. Miller farmyard and into the Cornfield beyond, General Doubleday now for the first time might have fully experienced the responsibility and frustration of his new role, commanding a division. Rather than being with his men in the thick of the fight, Doubleday had to remain well behind in order to observe and exercise control over the ground on which his nearly 2218 men were engaged. Doubleday could decide when and where to send his brigades but had to depend on the ability of his four immediate subordinates to manage their immediate tactical fights, reacting to challenges while continuing on toward the Dunker Church objective. Fortunately, General Doubleday could count on these men, particularly General John Gibbon, to hold up their end of the bargain.

Only a quarter mile or so south of Doubleday’s position, General Starke readied Jackson’s division—still named after its famous first commander—for whatever the Yankees would soon throw at it. Starke’s first line consisted of Grigsby’s Stonewall Brigade, facing north with its right anchored on the Hagerstown Pike, and Jones’s brigade—now headed by Captain J. E. Penn—to Grigsby’s immediate left. Directly in front of Grigsby’s position and similarly facing north was Poague’s Rockbridge artillery, crewing the three howitzers it swapped for the previous night. Starke’s second line was about 100 yards to the rear, along the north-facing section of the West Woods. Here, Taliaferro’s brigade—lead by Colonel E. Warren—held the right of the line, while to its left was Starke’s brigade, the last of the division’s four brigades to receive a new commander—the 9th Louisiana’s Jesse Williams. Between the two lines was Brockenbrough’s battery; facing northeast, it had already opened fire on Yankees in the East Woods. Deployed well in front of Jackson’s division was a line of skirmishers running from D.R. Miller’s place on the right of the Hagerstown Pike to beyond the Nicodemus home on the left. With woods holding the left flank of his position and the road his right, General Starke probably considered this as strong a position as he could have hoped for at the moment.  [21]

Gibbon encountered his first resistance at the Miller’s fenced orchard and garden and ordered the 6th Wisconsin forward to clear them away. The Miller homestead secured, Gibbon’s reunited Iron Brigade resumed its drive toward the Dunker Church.  [22]

As the Iron Brigade passed D. R. Miller’s yard, General Doubleday ordered forward Phelps’ brigade—the 22nd, 24th, 30th, and 84th (14th Brooklyn) New York regiments, along with the 2nd US Sharpshooters—as reinforcements. Doubleday also sent Reynolds’ 1st New York Light Artillery, Battery L, forward and it was soon racing south on the Hagerstown Road toward the front. About 20 minutes later, Hooker pushed forward Patrick’s Brigade as well. Now all three of Doubleday’s attacking brigades were in play.

Seeing the Rebs ceding the 75-yard-wide patch of open ground between the Miller house and the Cornfield, General Gibbon quickly pushed his brigade forward into the gap until suddenly encountering fire from its right. This fire emanated from the two Confederate brigades of Jones and Grigsby and it quickly began tearing apart Gibbon’s command. In response, the 6th Wisconsin’s Colonel Bragg turned a portion of his regiment right to face the enemy, launching them right at the threat. As the Southerners rose from their hiding place behind several low rock ledges to fire another volley, Bragg realized the danger and instantly ordered his men back to the protection of the post and rail fence at the Cornfield’s western edge. Men scattered, racing for the fence upon which they instantly realigned and regained order. Doing so, however, reoriented the bulk of the 6th Wisconsin facing not forward toward the church, but instead west, toward the West Woods.  [23]

Although Doubleday’s attack was barely underway but already off track and something had to be done to get it moving again. Within moments, Gibbon ordered the 19th Indiana and 7th Wisconsin across the Hagerstown Pike, heading southwestward toward the left flank of the two enemy brigades. Gibbon then directed the 2nd Wisconsin forward on the left to help the beleaguered 6th and called forward a two-gun section from Campbell’s battery, commanded by Lieutenant James Stewart, deploying it in the center to support the two infantry forces. Gibbon’s adaptation struck these two defending Southern brigades—Jones and Grigsby—in front and from both flanks. If this pincer movement worked, Gibbon’s brigade would soon reunite and resume driving to the Dunker Church. [24]

Doubleday Map 2Seeing what Gibbon was about here, Doubleday moved to help him. Redirecting Patrick’s advancing brigade, he sent it not forward toward the church but instead across the Hagerstown Pike and into the West Woods to aid the 19th Indiana and 7th Wisconsin. And as the men of the 19th Indiana’s Company B, leading the advance as skirmishers, stepped among the trees they unknowingly became the first Union troops to enter Antietam’s West Woods.

Doubleday’s and Gibbon’s pincer attack was putting ever-growing pressure on nearby Confederate defenders in Jones’s and Grigsby’s Stonewall brigades. Their right had for some minutes been threatened by Yankees entering the Cornfield across the road, now two fresh Union brigades had appeared on their left and right—Patrick’s and Phelps’ Brigades, respectively—threatening to engulf them whole, if not destroy the two Southern brigades with withering fire.

General Starke moved quickly, responding to these threats. First pulling back his artillery to ensure its safety, he next pushed forward Taliferro’s and his namesake brigade to hold off the Federal tide – but to no avail. Barely had they moved into the gap Starke hoped to plug when a tremendous infantry volley poured into their right flank, delivered by Phelps’ 2nd US Sharpshooters armed with Sharps breech-loading infantry rifles. Perhaps this fire’s greatest impact, though, was in striking down General Starke, the architect of Jackson’s defense here.  [25]

Doubleday Map 3Doubleday’s Division—centered on Gibbon’s Iron Brigade, with Phelps on the left and Patrick on the right—now stood poised to break the Confederate right and without further orders pushed forward. “Men I cannot say fell,” wrote Major Dawes, “they were knocked out of the ranks by the dozens. But we jumped over the fence, and pushed on, loading, firing, and shouting as we advanced. There was, on the part of the men, great hysterical excitement, eagerness to go forward, and a reckless disregard of life, of everything but victory.”  [26]

General Hooker finally had reason to believe his attack could succeed. Doubleday’s attacking brigades had pushed Confederate defenders back and were now about 500 yards from their original objective, the Dunker Church. Artillery to support this push, Campbell’s Battery, was already in place in the center of this evolving line.

Contributing in his own way at that moment, too, was Abner Doubleday’s African-American servant. As the general recalled “…Temple was a very religious negro and while the battle of Antietam was raging, he knelt down in the bloody cornfield for which the two armies were contending and prayed for a long time in a loud voice for the success of the Union cause. This supplication made in the midst of the flying bullets was a remarkable one…”  [27]

Doubleday Map 4

Hood’s Division drives back Doubleday

All of this was not to be, however. Barely could Doubleday’s attackers comprehend their gains when General John Bell Hood led his Confederate division—untouched by the morning’s brutal combat and mad as hornets over having to abandon breakfast to enter this fight—into the gap on Doubleday’s left between Hooker’s two advanced divisions. It was but a matter of time before the Cornfield would again change hands.

Retiring before this unexpected threat, Doubleday’s men did not break and run—as many Federal units had previously in such circumstances—but retired in generally good order back toward the North Woods; overseeing this retreat and the eventual reforming of his division in the rear was General Doubleday. The casualties from this deadly work were tremendous – Patrick’s brigade lost 234 men, Gibbon 348, and Phelps 154—only Hofmann avoided such cost, losing 10—while Campbell’s 4th US Battery B alone suffered 40 of the division’s 66 artillery casualties. Despite all that Doubleday’s Division and its leader had endured this still-young day, however, their work at Antietam wasn’t yet over.  [28]

While Doubleday and his men grabbed what rest they could on Joseph Poffenberger’s farm fields, the battle raged on. General Hooker was wounded, replaced in command on the Union right by General Edwin V. Sumner. Sumner’s II Corps nearly broke Lee’s line in the West Woods until driven back in chaos by Southern counterattacks by McLaws and “Tige” Anderson’s men. Fighting shifted to the Union left/Confederate right as Burnside’s IX Corps pushed toward the Harpers Ferry Road, until turned back by A. P. Hill’s troops.

Sometime late in the afternoon Abner Doubleday was again called into action, given the additional command of 30 artillery pieces deployed in the Union rear guarding the extreme right, rear of the Federal line. If Doubleday thought his weary, expanded command wouldn’t be tested, however, he was quite mistaken.  [29]

Late in the battle, despite tremendous losses and the precarious situation facing his army, General Lee decided to go on the offensive. Lee’s plan entailed Stonewall Jackson leading an infantry attack, supported by E. Porter Alexander’s artillery, to strike the presumably-weakened Union right across the Cornfield. Supporting this assault by drawing away Union defenders from the Cornfield, Jeb Stuart would lead a cobbled-together force north toward the hamlet of New Industry, Maryland, threatening the extreme Union right, rear – exactly the position now defended by Abner Doubleday’s division and new artillery force.

John Pelham

The gallant John Pelham

Stuart’s flanking force consisted of seven cavalry regiments—from Fitzhugh Lee’s, Hampton’s, and Robertson’s cavalry brigades—the 48th North Carolina Infantry from Walker’s Division, and three artillery batteries; 12 guns of French’s and Branch’s Batteries and six more guns—one from Poague’s, two from Raine’s, and three from Brockenbrough’s Batteries—commanded by Major John Pelham.  [30]

Reaching New Industry unopposed and unnoticed, Stuart quickly got to work, directing Pelham’s “battery” to a low ridge extending north from Nicodemus Heights—on which Stuart’s artillery had fired on Doubleday’s troops at dawn—while French and Branch led their batteries toward the Heights. Stuart next ordered his mounted column northward, to establish the attacking force’s left flank. All was proceeding better than Stuart might have expected until, suddenly, it wasn’t.  [31]

Barely had Pelham’s “battery’ deployed on the ridge when a terrific artillery barrage rained lead and hell down on them. “Along with six or eight other guns, under the direction of Major Pelham, an attempt was made to dislodge the enemy’s batteries, recalled William Poague, “but failed completely, being silenced in fifteen or twenty minutes by a most terrific fire.” Losing men and horses fast, Pelham abandoned the position and raced for the rear, allowing Yankee gunners to turn their fire on French’s and Branch’s men struggling to deploy on Nicodemus Heights.  [32]

Doubleday ArtilleryDoubleday’s 30 gun artillery force ended Stuart’s attack—and General Lee’s plan to take the offensive—before it had begun. Doubleday wrote, “[T]he enemy massed his infantry and opened fire with his artillery to force our position, but my thirty guns replied with such vigor and effect that the columns of attack melted away and the rebels gave up the attempt.” Although Stuart preferred instead to blame the Potomac River for his retreat—“In endeavoring to pass along up the river bank, however, I found that the river made such an abrupt bend that the enemy’s batteries were within 800 yards of the brink of the stream, which would have made it impossible to have succeeded in the movement proposed, and it was accordingly abandoned”—the fact remained that Abner Doubleday’s quick action had nipped Stuart’s assault in the bud.  [33]

One of the few Union casualties of Stuart’s attack was General Doubleday himself, wounded when a shell exploded under his horse, sending his mount running over steep rocks and in the process throwing Doubleday to the ground, inflicting bruising that kept the general from holding his horse’s reins for some time.  [34]

For his bravery and cool leadership under fire at Antietam Abner Doubleday earned yet another promotion, this time to major general of US Volunteers. In this new rank Doubleday commanded his division in battle again at Fredericksburg on 13 December 1862 and at Chancellorsville from 2-4 May 1863. Hard work, dedication, and steady leadership had served Abner well, aiding his rapid rise through the ranks. These promotions, however, pushed Doubleday into territory that was unfamiliar and uncertain to the always-steady officer – the world of senior army politics.  [35]

Doubleday Gettysburg

Doubleday’s Gettysburg statue

During the first day’s fighting at Gettysburg Doubleday again found himself suddenly elevated to a new position, just as at South Mountain, this time commanding the entire I Corps after General John F. Reynolds’ death. Despite effectively leading his new command through some of Gettysburg’s most savage fighting that day, when new army chief George Meade—his counterpart only 10 months earlier at Antietam—heard claims that the Union collapse on 1 July was Doubleday’s fault, it reinforced Meade’s belief that the steady Doubleday was overly cautious in battle. Meade denied Abner the I Corps post—given instead to his junior, Major General John Newton—and returned Doubleday to his division. Despite leading the division in fending off a series of desperate Confederate assaults against Cemetery Hill—and suffering a wound that might have proven fatal, save for good luck—Doubleday’s career had taken a fatal hit from which it would never recover.  [36]

Requesting leave if Meade refused to restore him to corps command—which was the case—Doubleday departed on 7 July 1863 for Washington, where he was eventually assigned to lead a military commission investigating contractor fraud, deserters, and bounty jumpers, a post he retained for the remainder of the war.  [37]

Mustered out of volunteer service in late August 1865, Doubleday reverted to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the US Regular Army and headed to California, where he obtained a patent and helped secure the charter for San Francisco’s first cable car railway.  [38]

Doubleday 24th Inf

24th US Infantry

In 1871 Doubleday returned to Texas, commanding the African-American 24th Infantry Regiment – which would become one of the units later known as “Buffalo soldiers.”  It is here that Abner Doubleday and baseball actually crossed paths when he approved a request to purchase baseball equipment for his men.  [39]

After serving for 35 years, Abner Doubleday retired from the army in 1873. In retirement he became an author, writing of his service experiences in Reminiscences of Fort Sumter and Moultrie in 1860-61 (1876), Chancellorsville and Gettysburg (1882), and My Life in the Old Army: The Reminiscences of Abner Doubleday (a series of manuscripts complied and published 1998). In 1879 he became interim president of the Theosophy Society—an esoteric philosophical organization and forerunner of today’s New Age movement—which counted Thomas Edison among its members.  [40]

Abner and Mary settled into retirement in Mendham, New Jersey, where Abner passed away at 61 of heart failure on January 26, 1893. Mary joined him on March 13, 1907 and the couple repose at Arlington National Cemetery.  [41]

Doubleday grave

So how did this Civil War veteran’s name become integrally tied to baseball? That story begins in 1903 when Albert G. Spaulding—founder of the sporting goods firm that still bears his name—tasked Abraham Mills to form a commission and determine if baseball’s true origin lay in America or in England. Despite its stated objective, the fix was in from the beginning; early 20th Century rising American nationalism ensured no one would accept that the nation’s pastime might have foreign origins and—more importantly—commission sponsor Spaulding was locked in a long, heated dispute with British-born Henry Chadwick, who claimed it had evolved from England’s game “rounders.”  [42]

Doubleday Baseball Card 2 (2)

In 1910 the Mills Commission declared that Abner Doubleday had invented baseball at Cooperstown, New York in 1839 – ignoring that Abner was then already a West Point plebe who was away from Cooperstown from August 1838 until graduating in 1842. Regardless of the facts, the Mills Commission’s findings ensured that baseball’s Hall of Fame would reside in lovely Cooperstown, New York and that Abner Doubleday became the mythical “inventor of baseball.”  [43]

Abner Doubleday, of course, knew none of this and might well be appalled that it’s this nonsensical connection to baseball for which he’s best known today, rather than for his nearly lifelong military service to our nation.

No mere myth, however, Abner Doubleday risked his life and sacrificed much to preserve the Union and end the scourge of slavery in the United States, service that included standing tall in a very different kind of field, one filled with corn and littered with the dead and wounded at Antietam.

Endnotes:

[1]  Harry W. Pfanz Gettysburg – The First Day (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), pp. 121-122.

[2]  Abner Doubleday letter, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum Library, Cooperstown, NY.

[3]  Joseph E. Chance, ed. My Life in the Old Army: The Reminiscences of Abner Doubleday (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1998), p. 2.

[4]  Chance, My Life in the Old Army, pp. 2-3, 51. Like Ulysses Grant, Doubleday personally opposed the conflict as unjust.

[5]  Chance, My Life in the Old Army, pp. 151, 155.

[6]  Chance, My Life in the Old Army, pp. 5-6, 179-180.

[7]  Meredith L. Jones, “In Memoriam Abner Doubleday, 1819-1893,” commemorative address, New York Monuments Commission for the Battlefields of Gettysburg, Chattanooga and Antietam;  Albany, New York, 1918.

[8]  Chance, My Life in the Old Army, pp. 6-7.

[9]  Chance, My Life in the Old Army, p. 7.

[10]  Ibid.

[11]  OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 222.

[12]  Carman and Clemens, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, Vol. II, pp. 571-573.

[13]  OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 217; pp. 258-259, p. 268.

[14]  OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 223.

[15]  Carman and Pierro, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, p. 209; Carman and Clemens, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, Vol. II, pp. 38-41.

[16]  OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, pp. 217-219.

[17]  Carman and Pierro, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, p. 220; Carman and Clemens, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, Vol. II, pp. 67-71.

[18]  OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 223, p. 1009; Curt Johnson and Richard C. Anderson, Jr. Artillery Hell: the Employment of Artillery at Antietam (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1995), pp. 85-100.

[19]  OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, pp. 223-224.

[20]  Rufus R. Dawes A Full Blown Yankee of the Iron Brigade: Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1962). p. 87.

[21]  Carman and Pierro, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, pp. 219-220; Carman and Clemens, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, Vol. II, pp. 68-70.

[22]   Dawes A Full-Blown Yankee of the Iron Brigade, p. 88; OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 255.

[23]  Dawes A Full-Blown Yankee of the Iron Brigade, p. 89. Carman and Pierro, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, p. 222; Carman and Clemens, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, Vol. II, pp. 76-77; OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 255.

[24]   OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 248; Carman and Pierro, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, p. 222; Carman and Clemens, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, Vol. II, pp. 72-76.

[25]  OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 1009.

[26]  Dawes A Full-Blown Yankee of the Iron Brigade, pp. 90-91.; Carman and Pierro, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, p. 223; Carman and Clemens, Ed. The Maryland Campaign, Vol. II, pp. 78-79.

[27]  Joseph E. Chance, Ed., My Life in the Old Army, p. 248.

[28]  OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, pp. 189-190, p. 225.

[29]  OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, pp. 225-226.

[30]  OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 226, p. 820, p. 1010. Stuart mistakenly indicates that this movement occurred on the 18th (“On the next day it was determined, the enemy not attacking, to turn the enemy’s right.”).

[31]  OR, Vol. XIX, Pt. 1, p. 820.

[32]  Ibid.

[33]  Ibid.

[34]  Rufus R. Dawes, Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers (Marietta, Ohio: E.R. Alderman, 1890), p. 115.

[35]  Chance, My Life in the Old Army, p. 7.

[36] Edwin B. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command (New York: Touchstone Books, 1968), pp. 690-691n; Eicher, John H.; Eicher, David J. Civil War High Commands (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2001), p. 213. General Hancock casually wrote Meade late on 1 July that “(General O. O.) Howard says that Doubleday’s command gave way,” which apparently became fixed in Meade’s mind as explaining the Union collapse that first day. Ignoring that it was actually the collapse of Howard’s XI Corps that forced the retreat, it fed Meade’s impression of Doubleday’s excessive caution, which was fueled by others who derisively called Doubleday “Forty Eight Hours” behind his back. Abner wrote Mary of his wound that “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.”

[37]  Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign, pp. 690-691n.; Chance, My Life in the Old Army, p. 7. It is ironic that having denied Doubleday the I Corps post for being overly cautious, similar charges were leveled at Meade for failing to pursue Lee’s retreating army after Gettysburg.

[38]   Barthel Abner Doubleday: A Civil War Biography (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Publishing, 2010), p. 192.

[39]  Barthel Abner Doubleday, pp. 202-203.

[40]  http://arlingtoncemetery.mil.

[41]  David W. Anderson and Bert and Emily Gumpert, “Abner Doubleday,” Society for American Baseball Research; http://SABR.org.

[42]  Anderson, “Abner Doubleday,” http://SABR.org.   The Mills Commission based its decision on a letter written to a newspaper by Abner Graves of Denver, claiming he’d seen Doubleday making drawings on baseball when they’d been in school together. The Commission never backstopped this claim or contacted Graves, who was in fact five years old in 1839, at the time that Doubleday was already at West Point. Graves was, in fact, an unstable man who killed his wife and spent the remainder of his life in an asylum.

One thought on “Abner Doubleday in Antietam’s Cornfield: No Day in the (Baseball) Park

  1. Pingback: The 19th Indiana in Antietam’s Cornfield: “The command is no longer forward, but now it is follow me!” | Antietam's Cornfield

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