Saturday, January 16, 2010

Between bloodshed and trenching, try a game of "Dutch Tenpins"

An occasional hobby of mine when surfing the tubes is checking out what was going on in years gone by. Due to the nature of my employment, I have access to all kinds of cool resources, such as historical issues of the New York Times. This morning, I came across an article dating to October 30, 1864. It is a piece about the Civil War. "So what?" you ask. Well, yeah, it has something to do with bowling. Yep, it's true, people bowled even back then. If you do a little research, you will find that most people trace the origins of bowling to ancient Egypt where the archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie recovered a ball and pins from the grave of a child. Being an archaeologist myself, I have always wanted to fact check this tale so firmly ingrained in narratives bowling history. That is a task on the to do list. Today, however, we look at bowling in the civil war. Well, sort of.

This is the headline. It's about the latest activities of the Army of the Potomac, who were camped at Weldon Railroad, just south of Petersburg, Virginia. A couple of months prior, they had defeated the Confederates at the Battle of Globe Tavern, in which they took control of a couple of miles of critical railroad, effectively cutting off a major Confederate supply line.

Before we get on to the bowling part, I can't help but comment on the section of the article titled "Among the Darkeys". Yes, that's what it says. It is about African American soldiers in the Union Army. Keep in mind that this is a Union newspaper reporting on the Union army, which is in part fighting to end slavery. The tone of the section is strange and contradictory. It is clear that the correspondent is torn between a deep seated racism and the need to justify the war. For example, early in this section, the unnamed reporter writes, "Apart from the problem of their fitness for soldiers, one cannot witness their actions without interest and attention" [emphasis mine]. He later writes, "They make willing, serviceable and reliable troops." In other words, according to his own article, there really wasn't a "problem of fitness" with regard to African American troops, but there was an inherent assumption that there should have been. Here you have people fighting for the army of the country which condoned for some 80 years their abduction in west Africa, brutal transport across the Atlantic, and legal enslavement. Yet, these troops are shown relatively little respect even by a northern newspaper. No wonder it took another 100 years to end segregation in this fine land.

No matter the color of your skin, camp life in the Civil War was comprised of a lot of down time. Put a few thousand guys in tents in the middle of nowhere and they will find ways to entertain themselves... often by throwing rocks at things. One game played in Civil War camps was a variant of bowling called "Dutch Tenpins," and its invention is even attributed to General Ulysses S. Grant. Here's the description of the game given by the Times:

After reading this, I couldn't help but wonder what a typical score would be. It seems to me that it would be considerably more difficult than standard bowling. Can you imagine trying to pick up single pin spares by hitting the pin on the back swing? I would guess that anything over 80 was very good. What if you forgot to remove the powder? In that case, it was called "Death Tenpins", but strikes were much more common. I hope I haven't started a new fad among dorky Civil War reenacters.


  1. Just imagine that 12 pound shell swinging back at you after an afternoon of indulging in bowling juice. Adds a whole other element of excitement to the game.

  2. No kidding. The olde Swing and stumble technique.


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