Book Review: Abner Doubleday: A Civil War Biography


by Thomas Barthel

Jefferson, HC: McFarland, 2010. Pp. viii. 278. Illus., append., notes, biblio., index. $29.95 paper. ISBN: 0786445610

A Neglected Civil War General who Didn’t Invent Baseball

Baseball historian Barthel gives us what is, surprisingly, the first ever biography of Abner Doubleday (1819-1893). An able American soldier, Doubleday is better known for something he did not do – “invent” baseball – than for his very real and largely overlooked contributions to the nation on the battlefield.

Barthel opens with Doubleday’s family background and early life. He then follows Doubleday through his time at West Point, where he “earned” few demerits, and graduated in 1842 standing 24th in a class of 56, along with the likes of James Longstreet, D. H. Hill, and William Rosecrans. Barthel then devotes three chapters to Doubleday’s service in the ante bellum army, where he saw action in the Mexican-American and Seminole Wars, and in garrison.

The bulk of the book, of course, covers the Civil War. For Doubleday, that war began at began at Fort Sumter, where he was second-in-command, he gained a measure of fame for having fired the first shot in response to the Confederate bombardment, events to which Barthel devotes a single chapter..

Barthel then traces Doubleday’s career during the war, in which superior battlefield performance led to his rapid rise to regimental, brigade, division, and corps command. He points out that while Doubleday was not a showy or charismatic commander, he was an excellent tactician, took the initiative in tight situations, was careful about his troops, and could manage a hard fight.

Doubleday’s most impressive performance was at Gettysburg on July 1st, when he held off nearly 30,000 Confederate troops with some 8,500 men for most of the day, and again on the 3rd, when his coolness during the Confederate bombardment of Cemetery Ridge helped steady the troops. But Gettysburg was Doubleday’s last command. His performance was criticized unjustly by several other senior officers. Most notable among these was Oliver O. Howard, shifting blame for his own failures that day, something he did with great success throughout the war, and George Meade, who had a very short temper and stubbornly refused to admit errors. As a result, Doubleday’s reputation has only relatively recently begun to recover.

For the interested, Barthel touches briefly on the bogus claim – never made by Doubleday – that the man invented baseball.

Although written largely from secondary sources, and lacking in maps, this is an important read for anyone interested in the Civil War and particularly Gettysburg.


Note: Abner Doubleday is also available in several e-editions


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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