Chess during the American Civil War

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     Up until the 20th century, there were only a handful of factors that propelled chess kicking and screaming into the mainstream and popularized it with the general population. Philidor's blindfold exhibitions and, to a lesser degree, von Kempelen's automaton gave people something to watch in the 18th century, while Maezel's reincarnation of the automaton as the Turk played an extremely important role in chess in the early 19th century, especially in the United States.  Several matches, such as the Bourdonnais - M'Donnell matches and the Staunton - St.-Amant match, stirred considerable interest in the lay press, but all these pale compared to the sudden public advent of Paul Morphy in 1857. 
     Morphy's presence caused a surge of chess participation and education but the timing of his equally rapid entry into and exit out of the public eye was extremely peculiar. Just as Morphy's fame and popularity had reached its height, two things happened. First, he retired from public chess and second, the American Civil War began.  With Morphy's retirement much of the newly found excitement over chess subsided just as most of the country's young men were thrust into a different sort of preoccupaton.

     It seems that the excitement over chess had, at the very least, introduced the game to many who otherwise might have never even considered playing and that the waning of that excitement was gradual rather than abrupt. With these assumptions in mind, I tried to explore and get a feel for how chess fared during the conflict, particularly among the soldiers. I looked into some old newspapers, old books, etc. to see what people had been saying at the time, or remembered later. Below are some of the things I found.

from The Photographic History of the Civil War By Francis Trevelyan Miller, Robert Sampson Lanier. 1911 (page 241)

Occasionally in permanent camps, officers were able to receive visits from members of their families or friends. This photograph shows an earnest game of chess between Colonel (afterward Major-General) Martin T. McMahon, assistant adjutant-general of the Sixth Corps, Army of the Potomac, and a brother officer, in the spring of 1864 just preceding the Wilderness campaign. Colonel McMahon, who sits near the tent-pole, is evidently studying his move with care. The young officer clasping the tent-pole is one of the colonel's military aides. Chess was also fashionable in the Confederate army, and it is recorded that General Lee frequently played chess with his aide, Colonel Charles Marshall, on a three-pronged pine stick surmounted by a pine slab upon which the squares had been roughly cut and theblack ones inked in. Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have been another earnest student of chess.

 Morphy had traveled to Richmond in October 1861. I looked in the Richmond Dispatch from around that time:

The Richmond Daily Dispatch: December 21, 1860.
--Amid all the troubles and revolutions of the day, we are glad to hear that this noble and philosophic game retains its hold on the love of our people. In the words of Col. Monroe,  (chess)  "unites so harmoniously the curious, the beautiful and the true, under the form of a recreation, as to confer upon it a title to general appreciation and a long continuance of favor." We learn that the Richmond Chess Club is highly prosperous, and will enter upon its fourth year in full vigor. A tournament has lately been in progress, in which thirty-two gentlemen have been matched against each other, and the result will indicate "the champion" for next year.

The Daily Dispatch February 28, 1861
The Richmond Chess Club have extended an invitation to those members of the Convention and the Legislature who are prone to indulge in the intellectual game of chess, to visit their rooms at Goddin's Hall. Knowing nothing of the fascinations of the game ourselves, except through the representations of others, we are not prepared to say much by way of inducing the "congregated wisdom of the people" to accept the invitation thus courteously extended; but we cheerfully adopt the words of "a stranger," who has been at the rooms of the Club and tried his hand against some of the crack players of Richmond. He tells us: I have visited several of the prominent Chess Clubs of the Northern cities, and of course have been the recipient of courteous attentions from all, but at none have I been received with more of that genial kindness — so truly characteristic of Virginia gentlemen — than I have at the rooms of the Richmond Chess Club. I have been tolerably successful, too, in my trials of chess skill with the generality of my opponents, but I have been obliged to succumb to the strong players at Goddin's Hall on several occasions. Feeling assured that all who visit the rooms will be equally well received as stringers and chess players as I have been, I deemed it advisable to give the invitation a more public notice than it might probably otherwise receive.

The Daily Dispatch October 15, 1861.
Army of the Potomac
Fairfax, Oct. 14, 1861
(describing the Washington Artillery)
The camp of the artillery is always picturesque. The guns are ranged in order with the caissons in the rear, the horses picketed near, by, and the men lounging about in groups, chatting, smoking cigarettes, playing "eucre," cribbage, or chess; the whole forming a picture that would grace the pencil of Tenniers. At present the battery consists of two rifle and two howitzers; but it is soon to be remodeled and enlarged, and will be probably by the time this letter is in print.

The Daily Dispatch October 16, 1861.
The Champion chess-player.
--Mr. Paul Morphy, the celebrated chess player, of New Orleans, has arrived in Richmond, and is stopping at the Spotswood. A good chance is now afforded for our amateurs to try their hands.

The Daily Dispatch October 24, 1861.
Paul Morphy.
--This distinguished gentleman has been in our city for some days, and has received visits and attentions from a number of our citizens, to whom his unassuming dignity and agreeable manners have made his society very pleasant. He is a fine specimen of the Southern gentleman. From a notice in another column, it appears that he is expected to visit the rooms of the Richmond Chess Club this evening.


Chess was a part of camp life for many:

Confederate Echoes By Albert Theodore Goodloe.  1907.
After the various camp duties had all been duly attended to, there was still a good deal of time left to us to be employed in such way as we might like, provided we violated no military order; and herein the differences of
temperaments, etc., among the soldiers were seen, as in all other conditions in which they were placed. Some enjoyed one kind of recreation and some another, while there were some who cared not to do anything but loll idly about the encampment. Gaming of different ferent kinds, and sometimes gambling with cards and chuclcerluclc boxes, was resorted to by a good many; there was, however, but little gambling carried on in the Thirty-fifth Alabama Regiment that I ever knew of.
. . .
 For myself. . . I loved the game of chess very much, which I had learned when a student in Virginia at B. F. Minor's preparatory school to the University of Virginia, and while at Grenada, Miss., a part of the winter of 1862-63, our chaplain (Rev. Robert A. Wilson) and I played it a good deal.
We both, however, came simultaneously to the conclusion one night while we were playing, that, though there was possibly no harm in the game itself, still we were consuming time that could be better employed, and so we gave it up altogether.


Army Letters, 1861-1865 by Lt. Oliver Willcox Norton  ( O.L. Deming, 1903)

Lt. Oliver Willcox Norton   wrote frequently to his sister, often mentioning chess. His first mention is in the excerpt from the letter below:
Jacksonville, Fla.,
Sunday, March 27, 1864.
Dear Sister L. : —
 . . .
Do you want to know how I spend my time here ? Well, in the first place I am a member of a court-martial that meets every morning at 10 o'clock. If there is business enough we sit till 3 or 4 p. m., and then adjourn, but usually we get through much earlier. Then I come back to camp, and after dinner I read or write or play chess. I play a great deal lately and the more I learn the more I like it. It is a noble game and I am determined to be no mean player. I have already beaten the best player I can find in the regiment, and I mean to get so I can do it every time. Last winter I used to play "euchre" or "old sledge," but it never improved me much. Chess on the contrary is a never ending study. Dr. Franklin called it the "King of Games." 


Charles William Bardeen joined the army at age 14. He was a drummer and served with the 1st Regiment, Massachusetts Infantry. Below are sample entries in his diary.

 A Little Fifer's War Diary By Charles William Bardeen  1910

 Charles William Bardeen

 Jan. 16. Pleasant. Fixed up the Chimney. Made some chessmen and played with Phillips at night . Went to Bed at 3 A.M.
 Jan. 17. Pleasant. Fixed up a door with D's blanket. Played chess till 10 1-2.
 Jan. 18. Rainy. Rained hard all day. Played chess, etc.
 Jan. 20. Windy. Did Picket Guard Mounting. Played Chess with Hull. Baldwin gave us another mud job.
 Jan. 21. Pleasant. Played Chess all day. Had two letters from Ceo Liz &
 Feb. 10. Pleasant. Quite cold. Played Chess all day. Sat up late at night.
 Feb. 11. Pleasant. Cold. Played Chess etc.
 March 1. Rain. Rainy. Did little but play Chess. Checkmated Phillips in three moves.
 March 2. Pleasant. Phillips got the Rubber at Chess and felt gay. Checkmated him in seven moves once, however.
 March 5. Cloudy. Beat Hull the Rubber at Chess in the evening.
 March 8. Cloudy. Exercised considerably. Played Chess & Checkers.
 March 9. Rainy. Some rain, Chess &c. March 10. Warm. Quite warm and pleasant. Hull beat me the Rubber at Chess.
 March 11. Rainy. Very heavy Rain. Chess etc. Thunder & Lightning.
 March 12. Cloudy. Football. Phillips beat me two games of Chess in the evening.
 March 13. Pleasant. Inspection. Church in P. M. in the new Chapel. Played Chess in the evening.
 March 29. Rainy. Orders for Review. Went out and stacked Arms & then came in again. Heavy Rain. Beat Sullivan at Chess. Gen. Grant had been made commander in chief March 3, and had come to Cul- pepper. One of his first acts was to reorganize the army of the Potomac.
 April 6. Rain. Played Chess & learned a Waltz. (Affectionate Waltz) from Wallace and got so far as to accompany him on the flute. Attended Singing School in the evening. Wallace was an Englishman, older than most of us drummers, and holding himself  rather above us and above his position. When I heard of him last he had gone back to England.


The Romance of the Civil War by Albert Bushnell Hart, Elizabeth Stevens  1903
Besides letter-writing the various games of cards were freely engaged in. Many men played for money. Cribbage and euchre were favorite games. Reading was a pastime quite generally indulged in, and there was no novel so dull, trashy, or sensational as not to find some one so bored with nothing to do that he would wade through it. Chequers was a popular game among the soldiers, backgammon less so, and it was only rarely that the statelier and less familiar game of chess was to be observed on the board. There were some soldiers who rarely joined in any games. In this class were to be found the illiterate members of a company. Of course they did not read or write, and they rarely played cards. They were usually satisfied to lie on their blankets, and talk with one another, or watch the playing. Yes, they did have one pastime — the proverbial soldier's pastime of smoking. A pipe was their omnipresent companion, and seemed to make up to them in sociability for whatsoever they lacked of entertainment in other directions.


Recollections of the Civil War by Mason Whiting Tyler, William Seymour Tyler  1912
Lieutenant Harris - In a letter to his mother, from Brandy Station, January 31, 1864:
It has been a pretty busy week to me. Busy not with my military labors, but with self-imposed labors and pleasures. I have read two stories. Early in the week I began The Old Curiosity Shop, and finished it Thursday. Then yesterday I finished The Last Days of Pompeii, which I consider one of the best and most powerful stories I have ever read. I am accomplishing a good deal this winter in the reading line, and enjoying it much, too. The fact is, I sit in my tent and read the most of the day, except when I am occupied with my camp duties, which only occupy me two or three hours a day. I rarely go to bed before twelve o'clock, because if I do I am sure to lie awake in the morning. So this makes me quite a long day. Sometimes we get up a game of ball, and now we have some apparatus for gymnastics, that occupies some of my time.
Quite often, the early part of the evening, I engage in a game of chess or checkers or whist, until about nine o'clock, when I go to reading again."
So I have given you a pretty good account of how I spend my time. You can imagine that I devote some time of each day to writing letters. That I usually do in the evening.


History of the One Hundred and Twenty-eighth Regiment By David Henry Hanaburgh 1894.
It must not be supposed by any reader that all is duty in winter quarters, as there is much time left for recreation. Northern soldiers were not slow in devising means for amusement. Ball games were frequent, and not unfrequently a man would be mistaken for a foot-ball, with this exception, that, instead of being kicked into the air or over the ground, he would be elevated by four men and with the assistance of an army blanket. The appearance of this man-foot ball, when he came down, was not wholly unlike a battered rubber ball, indented by a boot, especially as he would be doubled up, or sprawling as if split into parts. Cards, chess, checkers, and various other more quiet amusements, with reading, helped while away the rainy days.



Prisoners of war also found solice in chess:

Camp-fire Chats of the Civil War by Washington Davis.  1886.
The devices to while away time while prisoners, were many and varied. Chess was the principal game, and the demand for chessmen created quite a business for a former prisoner who had erected a turning lathe. The games of checkers, cribbage and cards, were also prominent. Then we had the gambler with his huck-a-luck board and keno bank, which relieved many a poor fellow of what little cash he had brought with him.


A Prisoner of War in Virginia 1864-5 By George Haven Putnam 1912.
(Putnam also wrote Memories of a Publisher, 1865-1915 in 1915 in which he mentions his one indirect encounter with Morphy)
It was not easy to find occupation for the long hours of the day. In the earlier weeks of the winter, the more energetic of us drew lots for the opportunity of making the trip to the river, a hundred yards or so away, for the bringing in of water. The water parties comprised from six to eight men who were watched over by two or three guards. Under the earlier arrangement, each man carried a pail, but later as we grew weaker, a pail full or a pail half full was more than one fellow could manage and the routine finally came to be for two men to carry together a pail about half full of water. There was also occasional requirement for parties to bring in wood from the wood-pile but in this luxury we were sadly stinted. There was for a time some activity in chess-playing.
Two groups were formed at either end of the room which fought out with each other in a series of tournaments. I had a boy's knowledge of chess which was much strengthened by my prison experience with older men. It is my memory that the chess champion of the prison was Captain Mason who is at this time (December, 1910),  Consul-General in Paris. Our chess-boards were made out of a couple of pieces of plank which we had been permitted to secure from the guard-house, and the squares on which had been marked out with charcoal. The chessmen had been carved, with no little labour, out of pieces of our fire- wood. Later in the winter, our chess playing came to a stop. We found that the attempt to concentrate eyesight and attention, when we had had so little to eat that our brain cells were denuded of blood, caused dizziness, and occasionally fainting fits. I think, in fact, that an order to stop chess came from the general or his adjutant.


Confederate Veteran by Confederated Southern Memorial Association (U.S.), Sons of Confederate Veterans  p.450-51 (from History of Morgan's Cavalry - Page 473 by Basil Wilson Duke  1867)
We were placed in the cells constructed in that face of the building which looks toward the town. No convicts were quartered in the cells on that side, except on the extreme upper tiers, but the cells on the other side of the building were all occupied by them. The cells were some seven feet in height and were built in ranges, or tiers, one above the other. The doors were grates of iron, the bars of which were about an inch and a quarter wide, half an inch thick, and perhaps two inches apart, leaving open spaces of two inches square. In front of each range of cells were balconies three feet wide, and ladders led from each one of these to the other just above it.  Every conceivable method of killing time and every practical recreation was resorted to. Marbles were held in high estimation for many days, the game being played first and discussed subsequently with keen interest. A long ladder which had been left in the hall leaning against the wall was a perfect treasure to those who most craved active exercise. They practiced all sorts of gymnastics on this ladder and cooled the fever in their blood with fatigue. Chess finally became the standard amusement, and those who did not understand the game watched it with as much apparent relish as if they understood it. Chess books were bought and studied as carefully as any work on tactics had ever been by the same men, and groups would spend hours in discussing: this gamble and that, and an admiring audience could always be collected at one end of the hall to hear how Cicero Coleman just checkmated an antagonist at the other by a judicious flank movement with his "Knight" or other active and effective piece. 


The Richmond Daily Dispatch  January 10, 1862
Reminiscences of Fort Warren.
(POW camp in Boston)
From such a combination of intelligence, wit and worth, each man being "a host in himself," it may be imagined that there was much in the social intercourse which tended to relieve the monotony and enliven the long hours of confinement. The daily papers were supplied in abundance, books were not wanting, and the principal topics of science, art, literature, and war, were discussed with an interest which might be expected from the concentration of so much of cultivated intellect. Frequently a game of foot-ball would form an episode in the day, and at night between twilight and nine o'clock, the hour of retirement, instrumental music, singing, visiting, smoking, games of chess and cards, served to while away the tediousness of the place.


The Richmond Daily Dispatch July 19, 1862.
The New York Tribune published the following (letter) :
Salisbury, N. C., June 21, 1862. Capt, J. B. Kirker
(Salisbury, NC housed the site of a famous CSA POW camp.)

Our existence here is rather monotonous. We, however, manage to vegetate by procuring, in addition to our rations, some indispensable articles which the market here furnishes, at prices that make fearful inroads into our already dilapidated exchequers. Our time is spent in playing ball, cards, chess, &c., walking, smoking, snooping, philosophizing, speculating, criticising, and, "like Micawber," waiting for something to turn up. There are confined here 44 officers, and about 600 non-commissioned officers and privates. Among the former are five Colonels, six Lieutenant Colonels, five Majors, twenty-three Captains, sixty-four Lieutenants, five Surgeons, and three Chaplains from the army. The navy is represented by thirteen of its officers--forty-two are from the State of New York, and twenty-eight have been in confinement since the battle of Manassas. The health of the Colonel and the other officers is good. Two of our men have died this week; the burial place is outside the enclosure of the grave yard.


We all know of Grant's and Lee's love of chess, but other generals seemed to share that love:

The Life of Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston By William Preston Johnston  1878
The intellectual pasttime of chess was General Johnston's cheif recreation.  His correspondence contains many problems submmittd to him by letter, with his solutions.  He was as a chess-player admirable, not only for skill, but for the equanimity with which he met both victory and defeat.


and last, the caretakers of those soldiers also dealt in chess

The Old First Massachusetts Coast Artillery in War and Peace By Frederick Morse Cutler. 1917. p.77
 Such a chaplain [ChaplainWarren H. Cudworth]  would do everything possible for the welfare of the men. During the first leisure season in the regiment's existence, that in 1861 at Budd's Ferry, he organized a chess club which conducted exciting tournaments ...


The United States Service Magazine 1864
Knowing that in our Army and Navy there are enthusiastic chess-players, who carry their men with them, and improvise chess-boards, as they march, " at a moment's notice," or — we now speak of the Navy — who descend from their "turrets" — watch-towers in a new poetical sense — to fight metaphorical battles, capable of literal application, even while the enemy are calling check with cylindrical shot on armor and rivet, — to such we commend most heartily a book which will be more weleome than Thackeray's new novel, — even ALLEN'S Life of Philidor, Musician and Chess-Player. We know the author, and they will join in our praises when they read the life of his maestro. Professor Allen is the careful collector and present possessor of the finest chess library in the country: and, being besides a musician, he is eminently the proper biographer of Philidor. A more careful, detailed, and interesting biography we have not secn, and we feel that we only " extend the area" of chess study by thus briefly oiling attention to it. Messrs. E. H. Butler & Co., of Philadelphia, are the publishers : and the excellent taste exhibited in the typography of the work deserves our highest praise.


Woman's Work in the Civil War By Mary C. Vaughan
(speaking of Mrs. Stephen Barker) Mrs. BARKER is a lady of great refinement and high culture, the sister of the Hon. William Whiting, late Attorney-General of Massachusetts, and the wife of the Rev. Stephen Barker, during the war, Chaplain of the First Massachusetts Heavy Artillery. . .
These were collected together in a small brick school-house, which stands on the corner of the lot now occupied by the Judiciary Square Hospital, and there was had the first Thanksgiving Dinner which was given in an army hospital.
After dinner, which was made as nice and home-like as possible, they played games of checkers, chess, and backgammon on some new boards presented from the supplies of the Sanitary -Commission, and Mrs. Barker read aloud "The Cricket on the Hearth.

(speaking of Mrs. Mary Morris Husband)
she has a stout serviceable apron nearly covering her dress, and that apron is a miracle of pockets; pockets before, behind, and on each side ; deep, wide pockets, all stored full of something which will benefit or amuse her " boys ;" an apple, an orange, an interesting book, a set of chess-men, checkers, dominoes, or puzzles, newspapers, magazines, everything desired, comes out of those capacious pockets.


actual traveling chess set used during the war