Wednesday, June 27, 2012

"Him Who Shall Have Borne the Battle"

There has been an ongoing practice in the United States (and probably other countries as well) of linking war with sports.  One example is a line of college football uniforms by Nike called "Pro Combat"  One web site promoting these uniforms warns the reader to "Prepare for battle."  The problem is that unless the young man is playing football for one of the service academies, his chances of serving in the military, much less seeing combat, are almost nil.

2nd New Jersey Regimental Flag

There is nothing new about this, many major league baseball players served in the military during World War II, but, with notable exceptions like Bob Feller and Ted Williams, few of them saw combat.  In its own way this practice seems to have also existed during the Civil War which, of course, paralleled base ball's pioneer period. 

One of the things we tend not to recognize about the Civil War is that most service was voluntary.  In New Jersey, for example, over 70,000 men from New Jersey served in the military, but less than 1000 of them were drafted.  As a result the members of New Jersey base ball clubs could choose to avoid military service and it certainly appears that many of them did. 

For example, less than half of the Eureka Club of Newark, (New Jersey's premier team of the war years) appear to have served in the military and a number of them were in regiments that served for only nine months.  The point is perhaps graphically illustrated by one week in September of 1863 that saw the 33rd New Jersey leave Newark by boat for the front, to be followed a few days later by the Eureka Club, (all of whom are of prime military age and health) on their way to Philadelphia for a series of matches with local clubs.

All of which is to illustrate the importance of recognizing those New Jersey players who did volunteer to save the Union, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice.  To date I have been only to identify two men in the latter category both members of the Newark Club, one of the state's first base ball clubs.  James Conklin and Horace Smith both played for the Newark Club and in the spring of 1861 joined the 2nd New Jersey Regiment.  Both men apparently were important members of the base ball club, Smith was elected an officer and Conklin represented the Newark Club on the all-Newark nine which took on a similarly picked side from Bloomfield in 1858.  The Newark players won the game aided by Conklin's home run.

Conklin's enlistment in the 2nd New Jersey Regiment didn't mark the end of his base ball playing days.  New Jersey regiments played a fair amount of base ball during their off hours with men from the 2nd New Jersey even forming their own club in November of 1861, called the Excelsior Club with Conklin as its Vice President.  On at least one occasion during the spring of 1862, Conklin umpired a game between two New Jersey regiments.

Sadly it was one of his last times on a base ball field.  On June 27, 1862 (150 years ago today), the 2nd New Jersey was heavily engaged at Gaines Mill in Virginia, a battle in the Peninsula Campaign near Richmond.  On July 9, 1862, the following appeared in the Newark Daily Advertiser, reporting that Conklin and Smith(who had been promoted to Corporal) had indeed given "their lives that that nation might live."

As noted earlier these are the only two New Jersey players who I have identified by being killed in the war - I'm confident that there are more and plan to look at base ball play by New Jersey soldiers a lot more closely.  Interestingly some of Conklin's letters home survive and are in the Special Collections at Alexander Library at Rutgers.  I took a quick look at the file (very hard to read - dampened my enthusiasm for writing another regimental history) and didn't see any references to base ball, but it certainly deserves a another look.

In the meantime, however, on this the 150th anniversary of their deaths we  should take a moment to honor their commitment to our country.  It is in Abraham Lincoln's words "all together fitting and proper that we should do this."

1 comment:

  1. Interesting piece, John.

    /Steve G.