Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Civil War Soldier Pastimes


In our modern era of high-tech devices and rapid transit, many citizens are now seeking ways to pass the time while also attempting to mitigate the effects of the present pandemic. Some people are using their personal computers for school work and to reconnect with old friends, while others are discovering new low-tech hobbies now that imposed contact limits and travel restrictions require making significant adjustments to previously normal routines.

Civil War soldiers had their challenges with “down time,” too. When we think about the Civil War, we tend to focus our thoughts on the bloody battles fought from 1861-1865. However, the conflict’s battles, skirmishes, and engagements made up only a small proportion of a soldier’s experience. The fighting men (and some women) spent much more time in moving from place to place and in their encampments. And, while soldiers certainly had both military and personal responsibilities to preform while in those situations, they still looked to fight boredom and monotony in many different ways.

A favorite diversion among soldiers was various games. Games helped some soldiers take their mind off of the constant threats to their health, and the burden of worrying about those back at home, at least for a little while.

Soldiers preferred games that were easy to carry, like dominos, cards, and dice. Games that could be fashioned from readily accessible materials were also favored. For example, it did not take much time or effort to craft a set of checkers and draw a checkerboard on the back side of a rubber blanket or canvas shelter half to have some fun.

Athletic contests and games of skill, like foot races, wrestling and boxing matches, and pitching quoits or horseshoes, brought a level of satisfaction to those who performed well, just as our sports do today. Developed before the war, baseball rose in popularity due to its spread among soldiers during the war. Like many other period games, soldiers constructed a bat and a ball from nearby materials, explained the rules, and a grand time usually followed.

Some soldiers used part of their “free time” to read, or learn to read. The range of reading materials available to fighting men ran from Bibles and religious tracts to dime novels and newspapers. Soldiers were also prolific writers. Since the mail system was the only means of communication with loved ones back on the home front, soldiers both wrote and often requested news from home.

During our present national trial, we can look to history not only for answers to the big questions on policy, but also for ideas on how to maintain a necessary healthy balance in our everyday lives. Game on!

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