Civil War Camp Games

by Lori Eggleston. 0 Comments

Last week it was time to change our display over at Fort Detrick.  The theme for the current exhibit is Civil War games.  Since this is a medical museum, you might not expect to find game-related artifacts here.  We do have some though, which can be seen in our Camp Life display to illustrate how the surgeons and the soldiers coped with their time in camp.


Now there are also some Civil War game items on display at the Command Building at Fort Detrick.


So, how do games relate to Civil War medicine?

Much of a Civil War soldier’s life was spent in camp, and camp life could be quite tedious.  One method of occupying their time was to play games.  Many of the games the soldiers played are familiar classics like card games, dice games, checkers, backgammon, chess, horseshoes, and dominoes.  In the winter there were sometimes snowball fights.  Other games, like lice races and cockroach races, were invented due to the conditions in the camps!  Soldiers also participated in team sports such as baseball, and an early form of football.


Here are a few domino game tiles made of ivory and ebony. A set of dominoes in a small case was compact enough for a soldier to carry on marches.


In this photo, Civil War soldiers play dominoes at Camp Winfield Scott in Yorktown, Virginia. Library of Congress photo.


Playing cards like these were also popular and very portable. Many different games could be played with these, but poker was one of the more popular games.


When you play poker, you need poker chips! This one is made of ivory, but not all of them were this fancy. Soldiers could fashion poker chips out of many other materials, including bullets.


Here you can see officers of the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry playing cards in front of their tents. Library of Congress photo.


Another popular camp game was chess. This chess board was made by Corporal John A. Barker, Co. C, 2nd New Hampshire Infantry while recuperating at DeCamp Hospital, David’s Island, New York, after being wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg. So, constructing this game board served as a sort of therapy for him while he was hospitalized.


Playing games helped to ease the boredom of camp life, and gave the soldiers a temporary “escape” from the war.  Playing sports had the added bonus of contributing to the physical fitness of the soldiers.  Playing together on teams could also help to create a team spirit and camaraderie among the men.  So, these camp games did play a role in bolstering the men’s physical and mental well-being.

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted.

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