'His Best Day During the Civil War': How Abner Doubleday Helped the Union Win at Gettysburg

Army Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday poses for a portrait during the Civil War.
Army Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday poses for a portrait during the Civil War. (Library of Congress photo)

During the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Maj. Gen. John Reynolds -- commander of the 1st Corps, Army of the Potomac -- was killed instantly after being shot in the neck.

Reynolds' death could have sent the Union Army reeling at the outset of what many consider the most significant battle of the Civil War. In Reynolds' place, his senior division commander stepped into a position he had never before occupied.

It was the biggest challenge of Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday's military career.

"[It was] probably his best day during the Civil War," Christopher Gwinn, chief of interpretation and education at Gettysburg National Memorial Park, said in an email to Military.com.

Doubleday's name resonates today widely as the supposed inventor of baseball. While that contention has been largely debunked, Doubleday's alleged ties to baseball have overshadowed his extensive military service.

The son of a War of 1812 veteran, Doubleday graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1842. Before he ordered Union troops to fire for the first time during the Civil War at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, he had already been involved in two conflicts -- the Mexican-American War and the Third Seminole War in Florida.

Doubleday first saw combat in the Civil War during the Second Battle of Bull Run in Virginia in August 1862; a month later, he was at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland -- the bloodiest day of the war -- where an artillery shot knocked him off his horse.

Less than a year later came Gettysburg.

A small town in southern Pennsylvania, Gettysburg presented Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee with his second -- and last -- chance to invade the North after the rebels were rebuffed at Antietam.

Even before Reynolds was killed, Union troops faced significant obstacles as the fighting at Gettysburg began on July 1, 1863. They were badly outnumbered, with the Confederates having 16,000 soldiers available -- about 6,500 more than the total commanded by Doubleday. Despite being outmanned, the 1st Corps held its position for five hours before falling back to Cemetery Hill.

Union Army Gen. Abner Doubleday is commemorated with a statue at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
Union Army Gen. Abner Doubleday is commemorated with a statue at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

While the Confederates occupied Gettysburg after that first day, Doubleday's decision to retreat to higher ground likely prevented casualties while providing the Union Army with strategic advantages and allowing it time to regroup as reinforcements arrived.

Some, though, criticized Doubleday.

"The other corps commanders, [Gen. Oliver] Howard and [Gen. Winfield] Hancock, in their reports back to Gen. [George] Meade -- who was the commander of the Army of the Potomac. ... There's a few dispatches with lines like, 'Doubleday's men gave way,' or 'Doubleday's corps gave way,'" Maj. Thomas McShea, history instructor at the U.S. Military Academy, told Military.com. "In other words, insinuating that they ran.

"Some people think Doubleday saved the day. Others would say he's an inexperienced guy thrown into corps command. He did the best he could, but ... and so it goes."

No fan of Doubleday's to begin with, Meade believed Howard and Hancock's version of events and replaced Doubleday as 1st Corps commander. After returning to command his division on July 2 at Gettysburg, Doubleday was wounded in the neck. A day later, he was there during Pickett's Charge, when Lee ordered Gen. George Pickett to lead roughly 12,500 rebel soldiers in an attempt to break through the center of the Union line at Cemetery Ridge.

Pickett’s Charge essentially ended the Battle of Gettysburg, with the Confederacy losing roughly half its men involved in the charge.

"They were at once enveloped in a dense cloud of smoke and dust," a Northern soldier said of the scene. "... Arms, heads, blankets, guns and knapsacks were thrown and tossed into the clear air. ... A moan went up from the field, distinctly to be heard amid the storm of battle."

About 28,000 Confederates were killed, wounded, missing or captured at Gettysburg, compared with roughly 23,000 casualties endured by the Union.

Within a week after Gettysburg ended, Doubleday's bid to be reinstated as 1st Corps commander was denied, prompting him to leave the Army of the Potomac and return to Washington, D.C., to handle administrative duties for the remainder of the war.

After the Civil War, Doubleday commanded an all-Black regiment in Texas before retiring from military service in 1873. He practiced law and authored several books, including "My Life in the Old Army: The Reminiscences of Abner Doubleday." None of his books was about baseball.

"I think he would be very puzzled as to why it was claimed that he invented baseball," McShea said. "His military record -- the things he witnessed, the battles that he took part in -- were incredible. That's a very interesting and compelling story, so when you think of Abner Doubleday, I would guess that he would prefer that you read about that legacy."

Doubleday died in 1893 at the age of 73.

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