The Christmas Day game of 1862


Baseball was a popular pastime with Union prisoners as seen in this lithograph by Act. Major Otto Boetticher. Salisbury, N.C. 1863 Image: Wikimedia Commons

Remarkable as it may seem, Hilton Head Island played a key part in the infancy of baseball.

The sport made its island debut on a balmy Lowcountry Christmas Day in 1862, witnessed by a throng of multiple thousands of spectators comprised of Union Soldiers, Confederate Prisoners of War, civilian construction workers and local Black native Islanders who had recently been given their freedom by the occupying Union Army.

In fact, there are some historians who claim the crowd that watched that memorable Christmas Day game was the largest ever assembled to view a sporting event in North America during the 19th century.

Estimates range upwards to 40,000 spectators.

The thought of such a crowd on that location gets a chuckle today from Dan Driessen, Hilton Head Island’s first genuine baseball hero, who 100 years later grew up playing ball on the same headlands overlooking Port Royal Sound where the original 1862 game was played. 

“I can’t imagine that many people watching a ball game on that piece of land,” says Driessen, who made a name for himself as a teenager in the 1960s on Blue Jay Field near the end of Beach City Road just a few years before he became a standout in two World Series championships for the Cincinnati Reds in the 1970s.

The Christmas Day Game

One of the earliest known photographs of a baseball game was taken inside Fort Pulaski in 1862 when a photographer took a photo of members of the 48th New York Volunteer Infantry and also caught the baseball game in the background. Photo : Wikimedia Commons

The Christmas game in 1862 was made up of soldiers attached to two different Union Regiments based out of New York City, including a team comprised of soldiers from the 47th and 48th Infantry Regiment. 

The opposing team was comprised of players from a light infantry unit, the 165th New York Volunteer Infantry. The unit’s uniforms included baggy pants and ornamented jackets plus white spats that featured blue tassels, according to historian Alex Sanders, author of, “How Baseball United America After the Civil War.”

Sgt. A.G. Mills, who 20 years later became president of the National League, played for the 165th Regiment. 

The results are fuzzy, but it appears from a report by a Hilton Head newspaper at the time, “The New South,” that the “Frazer” club, led by Col. James L. Frazer of the 47th, was victorious, although no score was reported.

A report in the “History of the Second Battalion, Duryee: Zouaves, 165th New York Volunteer Infantry,” states, “Christmas Day; the men had quite a time in a game of ball with other troops here.”

A Game of Significance

By the 1860s baseball had begun to evolve from its origins with the mid-1840s New York City-based Knickerbockers, one of the first organized teams. They played in Manhattan and then across the Hudson River in the celebrated Elysian Fields of Hoboken, N.J., which still claims to be the “birthplace of modern baseball,” not Cooperstown, N.Y.

Hilton Head’s Christmas Day Game was one highlight of baseball during the Civil War and a spark for future growth. 

Many sports historians credit the war itself as being the reason baseball became so popular in the latter half of the 1800s and into the 20th century, earning it the moniker “America’s Favorite Pastime.”

George Kirsch, a noted baseball historian — author of “Baseball in Blue and Gray” — records that “this new game of baseball” became a vital part of the lives of many soldiers and civilians during the war years. Survivors brought the game back to their hometowns in the North and South.

“Those who played baseball in training camps or prison camps often did so in peaceful farm fields that might have been, or soon would become a bloody battlefield,” he writes.

According to Michael Aubrecht, another historian of that period: “By the time the war was over, nearly every soldier, Union and Confederate, had been exposed at some time to baseball. Factory workers from the North and farmers from the South alike returned home knowing how the game of baseball was played. The recognition of baseball as the national pastime naturally ensued.”

Although professional teams soon developed in the North (The Cincinnati Reds becoming the first in 1869), there were numerous cotton mills and textile companies in the South that developed their own leagues. 

One of the most famous of players who came out of the mills was “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, who went to work as a sweeper in a cotton mill near Greenville, S.C., and by the time he was 13 he was playing with adults on the mill’s baseball team. 

When he was 19, Connie Mack recruited him to play for the Philadelphia Athletics. Shoeless Joe said he had been taught how to bat a ball by a Confederate veteran who had learned to play baseball in a Union prison camp. 

The legendary Babe Ruth always attested that he became a great home run hitter because he copied Shoeless Joe Jackson’s swing and stance.

Baseball on Hilton Head Island

On Hilton Head Island the tradition of baseball appears to have held on despite the island’s hard times over the course of the next 60 years.

Prominent native Islander Morris Campbell, now in his 70s, recalls stories from his childhood about local neighborhood teams playing after church on Sundays and holidays, with the best players taking bateaus across Calibogue Sound to play teams in Bluffton and Beaufort before the bridge was built in 1956.

There were three teams on the island: the Chaplin Hawks, Stoney Tigers and Spanish Wells BlueSocks.

“These teams were the pride and joy for many local communities,” says Campbell. “The only show in town!” 

A 12-under Hilton Head Island team represented South Carolina in the 2021 Dixie Youth Baseball World Series.

By the 1960s several club-semi-pro teams were organized throughout the Lowcountry, and one of the best was the Hilton Head Blue Jays, who had built their own ball field on the very spot where the 1862 game was played near present day Mitchelville.

For almost 20 years there were more than 20 teams in the Lowcountry representing communities like Bluffton, Grays Hill, Dale, Low Bottom, Burton and St. Helena’s Island. 

During this time Driessen was discovered and recruited. He played 14 years in the major leagues on five different teams. Soon thereafter Henry Greene was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 1975, and then Gerald Perry (Dan Driessen’s nephew) was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 1978. Perry played 12 years in the majors, including stints with the Cardinals and Royals, and made the 1988 All-Star team. 

Youth baseball (Dixie Youth and Little League) took over the local baseball scene beginning in the 1990s with Hilton Head winning the Dixie Youth Majors World Championship in 1999 in Texas. 

Local high schools continue the tradition of excellent local baseball to this day, with several young players being drafted by major league teams in recent years, including Jason Frazier, Brian Harrison, Carmen Mlodzinski and Ryan Kelly, who made the major leagues in 2015 with the Atlanta Braves. Driessen coached Kelly at Hilton Head High School.