UNREMEMBERED ART: Otto Boetticher’s Recreation of Prison Camp Baseball Endures
By Ken Zurski
In 1861, when the Civil War broke out, Otto Boetticher left his job as a commercial artist to join the 68th New York Volunteers. Shortly after enlisting, Boetticher, who was born in Germany and came to the U.S around 1850, was captured and sent to a prison camp in Salisbury, North Carolina. He wasn’t there very long. Thanks to a prisoner swap and after only a few months in captivity, he was set free.
Before leaving, however, Boetticher, did a drawing of a prisoner game of baseball.
The game itself was not new, in fact bat-and-ball type games were popping up throughout the country in the early part of the 19th century, especially in New York, said to be the birthplace of baseball. Then came the war. The game of baseball shifted to the battlefront instead. “Each regiment had its share of disease and desertion; each had it’s ball-players turned soldiers,” remembered George T Stevens, of the 77th Regiment, New York Volunteers. Union soldiers, Stevens remembers, would play a good “game of nines” to help pass the time.
Boetticher’s drawing, released in 1864, was hardly the perception of prison camps at the time. In it, the players look healthy, even happy. The spectators are just as engaged. Lively conversations are taking place around the makeshift diamond. There are no guards, no guns, no torture, no death.
“Despite the bleak realities of imprisonment,there is a sense of ease and contentment in the image, conveyed in part by pleasures of the game, the glowing sky and sunlight, and the well-ordered composition,” one assessment of the drawing goes.
Boettchler’s lighthearted look at prisoner life wasn’t his fault. The harsh reality of the POW camps would come later with the woeful Libby and Andersonville among others. That’s when prisoner population grew by thousands and unsanitary and overcrowded conditions led to widespread starvation and sickness. Early on, however, the captured soldier would bide time and wait for his name to be called. Why not play a spirited game of baseball?
Boetticher’s print may have been from a July 4th game, when prisoners were allowed to celebrate the nation’s holiday, as one prisoner described, with “music, sack and foot races and baseball.” But if weather permitted and “for those who like it and are able,” baseball was played everyday.
Two months after leaving Salisbury, Boetticher mustered back into the Northern Army as a captain and in 1865 became a Lieutenant Colonel. Not much of his life after the war was documented.
The print remains his legacy.
Some might think his depiction of prison life is more of a deception. But prisoner recollections support the claim that despite the animosity between them, a game of baseball was good fun for both sides.
“I have never seen more smiles today on their oblong faces,” William Crosley a Union sergeant in Company C wrote describing Confederate captors watching a match at Salisbury. “For they have been the most doleful looking set of men I ever saw.”