Abner Doubleday was a career US Army officer, who fired the first shot in defense of Fort Sumter at the start of the American Civil War, rose to general rank in the Union’s army, and played a pivotal role during the Battle of Gettysburg. On the civilian side of the ledger, he secured a patent on the San Francisco cable car railway that runs to this day. He is best known, however for his links to baseball, and was credited for many years as having invented the game in the 1830s.
As it turned out, the baseball story was a myth. But even without inventing a national sport, Abner Doubleday still had a significant national impact. Doubleday was born in 1819 in New York, to a family of warriors, his father having fought in the War of 1812, his paternal grandfather in the Revolutionary War on the side of the Patriots, his maternal grandparent had been a messenger for George Washington, and at least one of his great grandparents had been a Minuteman.
He was accepted into West Point in 1838, graduated four years later, and was commissioned as an artillery officer. Prior to the Civil War, Doubleday fought in the Mexican War, 1846 to 1848, and in the Seminole Wars, 1856 to 1858. In 1861, he was second in command in the federal garrison at Fort Sumter when it was fired upon by Rebels to start off the Civil War. He personally aimed the first cannon that returned fire, and forever after credited himself with firing the war’s first shot in defense of the Union.
After the Sumter garrison capitulated and vacated the fort, Doubleday served in the artillery of the Army of the Potomac, and by the time of the Second Battle of Bull Run, had risen to command of a brigade. Following the Union defeat in that battle, he took charge his division after its commander was wounded, and led it as it covered the army’s retreat.
At the Battle of Antietam, the division commander was again wounded, and Doubleday again took charge, and led his men in fierce fighting in which he was wounded.
By the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, Doubleday had been appointed to permanent command of his own division in the Army of the Potomac’s I Corps. That corps was the first to arrive at the field of battle, and reinforced a cavalry commander who had been fighting a delaying action west of Gettysburg, in order to buy Union forces enough time to reach and occupy strong defensive position south of the town.
On that first day of fighting, I Corps’ commander, general John F. Reynolds, was killed, and Doubleday took charge. Leading 9000 men, he fought off nearly twice as many Confederates for five hours, sustaining horrific casualties, before being forced to retreat to the defensive positions on the high ground south of Gettysburg.
I Corps was effectively destroyed in that first day’s fighting, and shattered so badly that it would be decommissioned the following year, with its components sent off to reinforce other corps. However, Doubleday had bought the rest of the Union army enough time to reach the field of battle, and secure the high ground for whose possession Doubleday had sacrificed his corps.
The remainder of the Battle of Gettysburg over the following days boiled down to the Confederates vainly attacking the Union forces in an attempt to knock them off those heights, and getting beaten back each time, culminating in Picket’s Charge on the last day’s fighting, before admitting defeat and retreating to Virginia.
Without Doubleday’s ferocious stubbornness on that first day’s fighting, things could have gone differently in the war’s greatest battle. The story could well have been one in which the Confederates were the ones to first secure and occupy the heights south of Gettysburg. The Army of the Potomac, whose morale was none too high after humiliating defeats in the preceding months in the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, and under a newly appointed commander whom most did not know, would have been forced to do the attacking against strong defensive positions situated on high ground, that were manned by an enemy brimming with confidence after a string of recent successes.
Because sometimes no good deed goes unpunished, Doubleday was penalized rather than applauded. General George Meade, the Army of the Potomac’s new commander, did not like Doubleday, and so was inclined to believe false reports that I Corps under Doubleday, rather than saving the day, had broken and fled, causing the entire Union line to unravel. So Meade took I Corps from Doubleday, and sent him back to command his division.
Doubleday fought well in charge of his division during the remainder of the battle, and was wounded in the process. But for the rest of his life, he never forgot or forgave Meade. After the Civil War, Doubleday was stationed in San Francisco, where he secured a patent for the cable car railway that still runs there to this day.
Retiring from the US Army in 1873, he became a New York lawyer, and took to writing memoirs and histories of the Civil War. He died in 1893, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Section 1, Site 61.