The Vault is Slate’s new history blog. Like us on Facebook; follow us on Twitter @slatevault; find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.
Organized baseball has been played in America since before the Civil War. The game evolved from bat and ball games brought to the “new country” during the 17th and early 18th centuries. From the late 1850s throughout the 1860s, baseball exploded in popularity and became, as Walt Whitman famously said, “Our game…America’s game, [with the] snap, go, fling of the American atmosphere.”
During the War Between the States, the game was played on the battlefields and even in wartime prison camps. Baseball was, after all, portable, and even amid the horrors of war, soldiers sometimes found opportunities to play on the vast open fields where they needed only a bat, a ball, and a few willing participants.
This ball was found and retrieved in 1862 in Shiloh, in southwestern Tennessee, on the grounds of one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles. The ball is inscribed: “Picked Up on the Battle Field at Shiloh by G.F. Hellum.” Giles Hellum was an African-American who worked as an orderly for the Union Army at Shiloh. He later enlisted as a soldier in the 69th Colored Infantry.
The artifact is a “lemon peel ball,” looser and softer than today’s baseballs, and it is hand-stitched in a figure 8 pattern with thick twine.
Along with other artifacts, this rare ball will be unveiled on Opening Day this year at the new online baseball museum and archive www.TheNationalPastime.com.