“Games of Exercise” During the American Revolution

With the Olympics in full swing, this is a good time to talk about the athletic pastimes of American soldiers during the Revolutionary War. Active campaigning took a relatively small part of the year during the American Revolution, and as a result armies had a considerable amount of downtime in camp. Since the military was made up largely of men in their 20s, sports and games were a fixture of camp life.

As is usually the case, we know the most about the leisure activities of the officer corps, and most of the sports discussed here were documented as being played by officers. It is not clear if that’s because the officers only wrote about the games they played among themselves and ignored what their subordinates did, or because the enlisted men had their own, different games.

There were plenty of ball games, which would probably seem to us similar to baseball, soccer, and football or rugby. George Washington, one observed noted, “sometimes throws and catches a ball for whole hours with his aides-de-camp.” [1] Cricket and a related game called wicket were both played in camp, as was shinny, whose rules were somewhere between field hockey and hurling. There was also a game called fives, a variant of handball. [2]

Both officers and men participated in gambling-driven sports like billiards, cock fighting, and horse racing, all popular activities in America. [3] These did not meet with universal approval from Washington (or perhaps from local citizens):

Any Officer, non Commission’d Officer, or Soldier, who shall hereafter be detected playing at Toss-up, pitch & hustle, or any other Games of chance, in, or near the Camp or Villages bordering on the encampments; shall without delay be confined and punished for disobedience of orders. …

The General does not mean by the above Order, to discourage sports of exercise and recreation, he only means to discountenance and punish Gaming. [4]

Washington knew what things his soldiers did to pass the time, and complained about men who would sit out military drills because they lacked shoes, yet “were employed at games of exercise much more violent.” [5] Jacob Plumb Martin, a private from Massachusetts, described with horror witnessing one such activity which: boxing. Martin ascribed it only to the “lowbed Europeans, especially Irishmen,” and his account of two men too drunk to actually fight,   stumbling around the ring, carries more than a hint of prejudice. [6]

Men also took part in less organized recreation, like swimming, as well as drinking and general carousing, or sometimes all three at once. General Nathaniel Greene noted in May 1776:

Complaint having been made by the Inhabitants situated near the Mill Pond that some of the Soldiers come there to go into Swiming in the open View of the Women & that they come out of the Water & run to the Houses Naked with a design to insult & wound the Modesty of Female Decency.

Blaming soldiers from Massachusetts, Greene asked “Where is the Modesty Virtue & Sobriety of the New England People for which they have been remarkable?” [7]

Service in the Continental Army was serious business. The many dangers of the battlefield paled in comparison to the illness and starvation marked camp life. Still, even amid the awful conditions of Valley Forge, the soldiers had ways of passing the time. The great Valley Forge snowball fight illustrates this. Isaac Artis, a soldier from Virginia, recalled

“a great quarrel that took place in the winter of 1778 between the Virginia and Pennsylvania troops in Consequence of Throwing snow balls which produced a General Order forbidding on pain of severe punishment any person belonging to the army throwing snow balls at each other.” [8]

If you have any experience playing any of the sports mentioned here, we’d love to hear about it in the comments!

–Owen

References:

  1. Francois Barbe-Marbois, 1779, quoted in Bonnie S. Ledbetter, “Sports and Games of the American Revolution,” Journal of Sport History 6, no. 3 (Winter 1979), 30.
  1. Ledbetter, 30-33.
  1. Ledbetter, 32-34.
  1. “General Orders, 3 October 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives.
  1.  “General Orders, 10 October 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives.
  1. Joseph Plumb Martin, Private Yankee Doodle: Being A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier (1830; reprint, George F. Scheer, ed., 1962), 145-146.
  1.  General Orders, 18 May 1776, from “The Orderly Books of Colonel William Henshaw, October 1, 1775, through October 5, 1776,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 57 (1947), 131.
  1. Pension of Isaac Artis, National Archives and Records Administration, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, NARA M804, S 39943.
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