When you imagine what life as a Civil War soldier would be like you think of the things that they had to suffer through and all the pain that came with it, but what about the times when they weren’t fighting during the Civil War, some free time was spent with small groups of friends huddled around the fire (Frank 512). Times they spent with one another created a bond and help create a sense of nationalism. The main pastimes of the Civil War consisted of the following: Gambling, sports, whittling, making music, and letter writing.
One pastime soldiers enjoyed during the Civil War was gambling. Gambling was a great way of distracting the soldiers from the anxiety and boredom and it required little to no physical effort and was a great source of entertainment. Which made it extremely popular among the soldiers and helped create a bond with one another. In fact, 9 out of 10 gambled. One recruit even wrote to his father” a young man cannot guard himself too closely in camp… where to be considered an accomplished gentleman it is necessary to be a scientific and successful gambler” (Murphy 59). There were multiple ways in which the soldiers could gamble including buying raffle tickets for a nickel, drawing tickets from hats, betting on horses, cockfights, wrestling, boxing, raffles, even fights and races with the soldiers. They got barely any money which made the stakes pretty low, such as five dollars, a chicken, buttons, corn kernels, and matches (Frank 512). Some people believed that gambling was a great way to pass the time however it got too intense and resulted in arguments or fights over things like losing or cheating (Frank 315). Ministers and priests often read from the Bible wanting them to repent for their sins but they got irritated with the service and went back to gambling (Frank 513). Ulysses S. Grant the commanding general of the union army, was a card player all throughout his life especially in the war as well as Abraham Lincoln another former president who likes Grant learned at a young age. Lincoln learned when sailing a flatboat carrying produce from Illinois to New Orleans (Harris).
Another pastime during the Civil War was Sports. One of the sports that they played was baseball. In their spare time, soldiers helped further develop the game of baseball. Abner Doubleday, a soldier in the civil war was given credit for inventing this game but that assumption was false. Abner never said he invented the game and he was in WestPoint in 1839 at the time when the game was said to be invented (“Who Invented”). During the war, the balls were made out of things that were made easily accessible like old shoe leather, socks, or woolen uniforms material stuffed with soft material and sewn together. They used basically anything that was useable like carved out tree limbs or wooden posts for bats. The game was so popular on Christmas during the war in 1862 40,000 spectators attended the game between the 165th New York volunteer regiment and another team including A.G. mils who would later become president of the Nation League when it was formed in 1876 (“Baseball”). Ninety-one former players of the Brooklyn Excelsior enlisted into the Union Army. One member, physician A.T. Pearsall, joined the Confederate side. When these men left for the war, they brought baseball back home with them, laying the foundation for an increase in baseball’s popularity during the Civil War (Frank 490). More athletic activities included wrestling, boxing, leapfrog, racing on foot or horseback, and horseracing, cricket, and other small things to do with what little they had like bowling using cannonballs to knock down rough wooden pins.
Whittling was another way to pass the time, it wasn't a popular hobby until the war in 1865. Not all soldiers enjoyed this pastime or had the skill to pursue it but the soldiers who did enjoy it and have the skill would carve items such as figurines, sculptures, smoking pipes, fans, whistles, and balls in a cage out of things like bone, wood, and other materials they could find. A common item that was made was chess pieces, Lieutenant colonel Robert J. Lawrence was captured in Fort Donelson Tennessee in February 1862. Lawrence was blessed enough to be exchanged for another prisoner in October but while he was a prisoner he stole firewood to carve a chess set out of maple and black walnut and used broken glass and a pocket knife. (“Whittling”). Another man, a member of John Hunt Morgan’s raiders made a knife out of beef bone when he was in Fort Delaware and William hayes took it home with him. The knife has a bumpy handle with crosshatch designs (“Whittling”). Whittling requires skilled hands and a lot of free time but in the end, it makes beautiful “soldier art”. Not only did the soldier's whittle but Europeans and British as well along with most of the commanding officers including General Grant who was enlisted (“Gettysburg”).
Music was also an important part of the War. The soldiers found comfort in singing and creating music as well as using instruments such as drums, guitar, banjos, fiddles that they made out of wooden cigar boxes, fifes, bugles, and harmonicas. There were drummer boys who served during the Civil War that were too young to fight but wanted to help the soldiers and ended up doing so on both sides, although some didn't realize it at first. It kept the soldiers motivated, providing a beat for marching drills or just communicating to the soldiers that meals were ready.
Lastly, letter writing was a common pastime. Soldiers wrote letters home to family, friends, and loved ones and wrote about how they were doing and how much they missed them and wanted to come home to them. Mail service for the union soldiers was on time and reliable during the war but the confederates never fully delivered the mail because of the confederate government but they made an effort to deliver the mail best they could so they could get the letter back as soon as possible in “rain, sleet, or the gloom of the night”(Murphy 55). Young boys in the war often wrote about their duties and about the warlike in this letter to the boy's mother “Deputy while in the noble army of Northern Va and if I were to desert and lie out of this Struggle as many are doing I could not go anywhere but that the Eys of man and woman would look at me … I would feel worse than a Sheep killing dog” (Davis). Letter writing in the Civil War took on different viewpoints for the men who had left everything they've ever known behind. It kept them grounded and helped them to stay connected to the people they loved.