February 20, 2023
By Kurt Allemeier
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Quite a bit of legend-making was involved in naming Abner Doubleday the inventor of baseball, but there's no disputing the facts about his leadership as a Union general in the American Civil War and his importance in a key battle.
He found himself in many of the key moments of the American Civil War: Fort Sumter, First Manassas, Antietam, Gettysburg, and the Gettysburg address. In fact, he played a pivotal role on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, but his low-key manner often kept him from the military recognition he deserved.
A pair of factory presentation engraved and gilded Moore’s Patent Firearms Co.’s No. 1 derringers inscribed to the Union general and apocryphal inventor of America’s pastime, and his wife, Mary Hewitt Doubleday, will be available in Rock Island Auction Company’s May 19-21 Premier Auction.
A pair of factory presentation engraved and gilded Moore's Patent Firearms Co. No. 1 derringers inscribed to Union general and apocryphal inventor of baseball Abner Doubleday and his wife, Mary Hewitt Doubleday and the box with the general's initials.
Abner Doubleday was born in 1819 at Ballston Spa in upstate New York. His grandfather fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill and served as a courier for George Washington during the American Revolution. His father fought in the War of 1812.
He won an appointment to West Point in 1838 where he stayed until his graduation, barely in the top half of his class, in 1842. The dates he was at West Point are important later as the story of Abner Doubleday, inventor of baseball, unfolds.
After West Point, Doubleday was assigned to the 3rd U.S. Artillery and fought in the Mexican-American War at the battles of Monterey and Buena Vista in 1846 and 1847. He married Mary Hewitt in 1852. While in Texas, he fought in early skirmishes with the Apaches in 1854-1855 before heading to Florida where he fought in the Seminole War. In Florida, he participated in mapping the Everglades and areas that would be Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
This factory presentation engraved and gilded Moore's Patent Co. No. 1 derringer inscribed to Union Civil War Union general Abner Doubleday came to light at the 1943 Baseball Writers of America meeting in Philadelphia in 1943. It has flairing around his name and a cannon, denoting his experience as an artillery commander. There is scrolling on the barrel and receiver with some bordered checkering on the grip.
Now a captain, Doubleday found himself and his wife in Charleston, S.C. in 1860 where he was second in command of the garrison for Fort Moultrie and Fort Sumter that protected the harbor. Abner Doubleday, a Republican who voted for Lincoln and a fierce abolitionist, didn’t appreciate the posting, writing later:
(Charleston) “was far from being a pleasant place for a loyal man. Almost every public assemblage was tinctured with treasonable sentiments, and toasts against the flag were always warmly applauded. As early as July there was much talk of secession, accompanied with constant drilling, and threats of taking the forts as soon as a separation should occur.”
Mary Doubleday, who loyally followed her husband from posting to posting and an equally fervent abolitionist, shared her fears about Fort Sumter in a letter to her sister in December, 1860: “I feel too indignant. I can hardly stand the way in which this weak little garrison is treated by the heads of the government. Troops and proper accommodations are positively refused, and yet the Commander has orders to hold and defend the fort. Was ever such a sacrifice (an intentional one) known? The Secretary has sent several officers at different times to inspect here, as if that helped. It is a mere sham, to make believe he will do something. In the meantime a crisis is very near. … When the last man is shot down, I presume they will think of sending troops. The soldiers here deserve great credit – they know what an unequal number is coming to massacre them, yet they are in good spirits and will fight desperately.”
Her letter was published in the `New York Evening Post.’
This factory presentation engraved and gilded Moore's Patent Firearms Co. No. 1 derringer is engraved to Mary Hewitt Doubleday, wife of Union general and apocryphal inventor of baseball, Abner Doubleday. The gun is engraved with her name and has scrolling on the barrel while the receiver has floral engraving and scrolling, a bird in front of the hammer, and checkering on the grip.
In December 1860, the garrison was moved from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter for better defense. On April 12, 1861 secessionists fired the opening salvos of the American Civil War. Doubleday aimed and ordered the first shots fired by Union troops in the uprising. Following two days of bombardment, the Union troops surrendered the fort and were allowed to leave.
After a brief posting at Fort Hamilton in New York, Doubleday was assigned to units in Virginia and promoted to brigadier general of U.S. volunteers. He commanded his forces at the Second Battle of Manassas in August 1862 and the Battle of South Mountain a few weeks later. Battle reports show that Doubleday’s men fought well and he was given command of the Army of the Potomac’s I Corps.
At Antietam, his men were involved in heavy fighting in “The Cornfield,” and Doubleday was wounded. His and his unit’s performance earned him a promotion to major general of volunteers in November 1862. Doubleday’s unit saw light action at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862 and was held in reserve at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863.
The right side of the factory presentation engraved and gilded Moore's Patent Firearms Co. No. 1 derringer of Union General Abner Doubleday features scrolling on the barrel and receiver as well as checkering on the back and bottom of the grip.
Doubleday’s I Corps was at the spearhead of the turning point in the Civil War. On the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, commanding General John Reynolds was killed early in the battle, leaving Doubleday in charge. Outnumbered and facing Confederate forces from two directions, Doubleday’s forces slowed the rebel onslaught before withdrawing through town to set up defenses on Cemetery Hill, part of the high ground south of Gettysburg where they were joined by the rest of the Union army.
Doubleday was reliable but not self-promoting so he didn’t get the attention he deserved, his biographer, Thomas Barthel wrote. “This reputation was not glamorous. But Doubleday was not a man to worry about his appearance; rather, his concern would be his obligations to the men in his command.”
After the first day at Gettysburg he was relieved of command of I Corps when General George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac was led to believe Doubleday’s corps collapsed. Doubleday never forgave Meade.
Doubleday’s troops were on Cemetery Ridge on the battle’s third day and helped fend off Pickett’s Charge. Wounded in the attack, he wrote his wife a letter stating, “The most awful battle of the War occurred yesterday. … They then attacked near my position opening with from 100 to 150 pieces of artillery. … I was hit and pitched over my horse’s neck by a piece of shell which struck me in the back of the neck. … Luckily I was hit squarely by the smooth round surface. Had the jagged part struck first it would have killed me.”
He was removed to Washington D.C., where he wrote what was called the Union Army’s longest battle report of the Civil War to try to clear his name. He and his wife attended events with President Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Doubleday traveled with the president to Gettysburg in November 1863 for the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery where Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address.
The right side of the factory presentation engraved and gilded Moore's Patent Firearms Co. No. derringer of Mary Hewitt Doubleday has scrolling on the barrel and receiver and checkering on the grip. The pistol was sold at auction in 2002.
He also testified against Meade along with General Daniel Sickles, at the U.S. Congress Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, critical of Meade for his conduct at Gettysburg. Doubleday wrote in his 1882 memoir, “Gettysburg and Chancellorsville,” that he didn’t think Meade wanted to fight at the war’s decisive battle but was goaded into it by his generals. Doubleday based this on a council of war he didn’t attend, allegedly quoting Meade stating “Have it your way, gentlemen, but Gettysburg is no place to fight a battle in.”
Following the Civil War, Doubleday remained on active duty and was assigned to San Francisco before being posted to Texas where he commanded an African-American unit, the 24th Infantry Regiment. Here is where he came closest to the game he was later fictitiously said to invent when he wrote to his commanding officers a request to “purchase baseball implements for the amusement of the men.”
Health issues forced him to retire in 1873. He and Mary Hewitt Doubleday lived in New Jersey and Abner Doubleday became active in veterans reunions and organizing management of Gettysburg National Park. He died in 1893 at the age of 73, while Mary Hewitt Doubleday died in 1908.
Union general Abner Doubleday and his wife, Mary Hewitt Doubleday. Fifteen years after his death, a commission of baseball officials declared him the apocryphal inventor of baseball in 1839 when he was 20 years old and a plebe at West Point.
At the turn of the 20th century, Major League Baseball men like Albert G. Spaulding, a Hall of Fame pitcher, sporting goods tycoon, and part owner of the Chicago White Stockings, wanted to put fans in the seats, convincing them it is a truly American game. He wrote to a Boston sportswriter, “[O]ur good old American game of baseball must have an American Dad.”
A friend of Spaulding’s, Henry Chadwick, a British-born sportswriter, baseball statistician, historian, and eventual Hall of Famer contended that the game was based on the English ball and bat game of rounders. Spaulding had to prove him otherwise.
In 1905, Spaulding created a commission to determine the founding of baseball. He handpicked the members. Abraham G. Mills, who was president of the National League from 1882-1884, led the commission on the founding of baseball. Other members of the commission were Morgan G. Bulkeley, the National League’s first president; Arthur P. Gorman, a former player and president of the Washington Base Ball Club; Nicholas E. Young, president of the National League from 1884 to 1902; Alfred J. Reach, a former Philadelphia Athletics player and the owner of Reach Sporting Goods; George Wright, a former player with the Cincinnati Red Stockings; and James E. Sullivan, president of the Amateur Athletic Union.
The panel based its decision that Abner Doubleday invented baseball on a dubious letter by Abner Graves of Denver, Colo., who claimed he saw Doubleday making drawings on baseball when they attended school together in 1839. Graves was five years old in 1839 when Doubleday was in his second year at West Point. Mentally ill, Graves later killed his wife and ended up in a sanitarium for the rest of his life.
In a bit of legerdemain, the commission released its decision in 1908 stating that Doubleday invented baseball at Cooperstown, New York in 1839, a claim Doubleday never made in his lifetime. Doubleday’s history as a Civil War general helped push the legend of baseball as being an all-American game.
Top views of the factory presentation engraved and gilded Moore's Patent Firearms No. 1 derringers of Union general and apocryphal inventor of baseball Abner Doubleday and his wife, Mary Hewitt Doubleday. Abner Doubleday's derringer is at top.
The pair of No. 1 derringers from Moore’s Patent Firearms Co. were manufactured from 1861-1863. One is inscribed “Gen. A. Doubleday” with a cannon, referencing his artillery experience, on the left side of the frame along with decorative scrolls and floral designs, while the second is inscribed “Mary Doubleday” on the left side with floral patterns, detailed interlaced scroll engraving, as well as a bird scene on top of the frame in front of the hammer.
Moore’s derringers were manufactured from 1861 to 1863, and based on the patent markings, the pistols were likely manufactured after 1861. When the guns were presented to the couple is unknown. The pistol inscribed to Abner Doubleday came to light at a meeting of the Sportswriters of America in Philadelphia in 1943, according to Henry M. Stewart Jr. who penned an article in the 1971 “Monthly Bugle” titled “General Abner Doubleday’s Deringer.” It was accompanied by a small rosewood case with “AD" inscribed on the silver lid escutcheon. The box was not originally used to case the derringers. Mary Doubleday’s derringer wasn’t with the general’s when his sold at a San Francisco auction in 2002, but they've thankfully been reunited since.
These gilded pistols are brilliant reminders of a remarkable American and his wife. Abner Doubleday saw action in the Mexican-American War, and fought in the American Civil War, playing a significant role in the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg. Being posthumously named the inventor of baseball despite all evidence against it makes a man who lived a plentiful life that much bigger. This pair of gilded Derringers is available in Rock Island Auction Company’s May 19-21 Premier Auction.
Abner Doubleday, National Park Service
Mrs. Doubleday’s Indiscretion, by Adam Goodheart, The New York Times
“`Such Then Is the Decision’: General Meade and the July 2nd Council of War,”by Jennifer Murray, The Blog of Gettysburg National Military Park
Anyone thinking about dipping their toe into the world of firearms collecting should visit one of Rock Island Auction Company’s Sporting & Collector
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