Knowledge Corner: How to Become a Legend

11 years ago

You may think it is strange to pay tribute to a man more famous in death for something he didn’t do than for the actual heroic life he led. However, as many things are at Arlington National Cemetery, they are not always what they seem. Major General Abner Doubleday is one of these particular Americans whose interesting life was largely forgotten and distorted by time.

Educated locally in Ballston Spa, New York as a surveyor and civil engineer, Abner Doubleday was a 1842 graduate of West Point. Abner Doubleday soon saw action in the Mexican-American War in 1846 as well as in Florida in the Seminole War almost ten years later. If he did nothing else, Abner Doubleday’s presence and actions at Fort Sumter in April 1861 as an officer should enshrine him in the minds of America’s children as he is credited with firing the first response of Union cannonfire in the Civil War. But he was only halfway to becoming a legend at that point.

As the Civil War progressed he commanded units in multiple battles, making his name at the Battle of Antietam when General John P. Hatch was wounded and Doubleday took control of the division. Similarly, at the Battle of Gettysburg he assumed command when General John Reynolds was mortally wounded. Positioned northwest of the town, Doubleday’s men were badly outnumbered by the approaching Confederate army. Fighting valiantly, they held their position for five hours until adjacent Union forces collapsed. Outnumbered 16,000 to 9,500, Doubleday’s men inflicted 35–60% casualties on seven of the ten Confederate brigades that attacked them. Falling back his unit held their position for the remainder of the battle. After Gettysburg, he largely withdrew from the war serving in various administrative positions in Washington, D.C.

In 1869, he was assigned to San Francisco as head of a recruiting command. It was here that his interest in engineering seems to have revived itself. He and several partners started the first cable car company in that city but sold it to Andrew Hallidie who saw their dream to fruition where it remains an iconic hallmark of that beautiful city.

Years after his death in 1893, strange circumstances forever exalted Doubleday in American folklore. In 1905, a group of baseball executives formed the infamous “Mills Commission” to discover the origins of the game itself. Under questionable motives and techniques they broadcasted their results with great publicity: that it was Abner Doubleday who invented the game of baseball. It would take most of the 20th century to refute their claims.

According to most scholars, the game of baseball evolved over the course of many years and it certainly was not the work of a single individual. When Alexander Cartwright laid out those magical 90 feet for his Knickerbocker Base Ball Club and made other assorted rules that became the framework for the game we now know it was he who likely earned the title “The Father of Baseball”. In fact, it is Cartwright and not Doubleday who is enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown having been credited as one of the true founders of baseball.

Some might argue that memory is baseball’s fourth dimension. If that is true, the association with Doubleday and the game still has its place in many a fan’s mind. Even this writer has made a pilgrimage of sorts to Section 1 at Arlington National Cemetery to pay homage to the idea that one man can be paid tribute for creating something I love so much. His name still adorns the ball field in Cooperstown and peculiarly, the hall of fame’s online database is called the ABNER (American Baseball Network for Electronic Research) but Doubleday made his name as hundreds of thousands of his entombed comrades at Arlington National Cemetery did: service to country. I hope that at some point in his life, he was able to enjoy a pastime similar to the one that millions of Americans do every spring, summer, and fall.

Happy birthday Abner Doubleday, born 193 years ago today.

By Benjamin Bell


Baseball Hall of Fame
Library of Congress

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