Chess and the WORST Picnic in American History!


Image created with Crello using public domain imagery. Used with permission.

"Senator Ely, sir, c'mon now!" your aide shouts to you. "We're going to be late!"


You arise from the desk in your capitol office and wipe the sweat from your brow on this hot July morning of 1861.


You gather your top hat and scamper out of the capitol with your aides and climb into the waiting carriage outside.



Senator Alfred Ely of the New York 29th district. Public domain image.

"To Manassas, my good man," you order your driver. And with a crack of the reins, you and your aides race towards Virginia for what promises to be a truly splendid picnic. The trip is slow, however as the roads are congested today with hundreds of other carriages racing in the same direction.


"I hope we can get there before the parade starts," your aide says to you. You reply with a nod.


After a long and bumpy carriage ride, you arrive in Virginia and your carriage driver drops you and your aide off to join the swarms of other picnickers spreading blankets and unfurling their umbrellas to shield themselves from the blazing sun.


"Oh, this is just grand!" your aide says as she hurries to claim a spot on the small hill overlooking the beautiful Virginia landscape.


Your aide spreads the picnic blanket out on the hill and you ease yourself down and begin to lounge while surveying the open land before you, peppered with thousands of American soldiers, horses, and some nearby cannons.


After a few minutes of relaxing and enjoying your Champagne, the peaceful picnic is interrupted by the distant booms of cannons firing in perfect succession, then a whistling sound begins to grow closer before landing amongst the soldiers on the field. The impact is horrific as the projectiles traumatically amputate limbs and split open previously healthy bodies. Now, the nearby cannons of your side begin to answer in reply!


The deafening cannon exchanges continue, followed by the sounds of bugles, drums, and the shouts of men as they start running towards each other. Soon the sound of crackling rifle fire joins the symphony of destruction.


As the battle rages, you can no longer distinguish one side's army from the other. The soldiers are all wearing different uniforms; some blue, some grey, some red. You even see groups of soldiers flying the same flags but wearing different colors start to open fire on each other!


As the mayhem heightens, what was initially orderly lines of men parading upon the grounds has now become a spectacle of broken, bleeding, and shouting men lost in the choking clouds of smoke.


Hundreds upon hundreds of men start running towards you, some with arms or hands missing, shouting for everyone to run. Now the bullets begin bouncing upon the ground around you as the affluent men and women at the picnic begin to flee screaming from battle.


As more and more bullets impact the earth and trees around you, you scurry behind a tree for cover and hope the chaos ends soon.


Finally, the sounds of rifle fire become more and more distant and you hear the sounds of approaching horses. And... just your luck! They see you.


"Welllll," an officer approaching you on horseback says in a Southern twang. "Who do we have here?"


"Senator Alfred Ely, sir," you reply. "Of New York's 29th district."


"Oh ain't that a shame," he says as he pulls his revolver from his holster and levels the sights on you. "I am Colonel Cash of the 8th South Carolina. And we just whooped ya!" He cocks the hammer!


Your heart pounds in your chest as you stare into the barrel of the Colonel's pistol.


As the tension in the colonel's trigger finger tightens, one of his nearby subordinates reaches out and places his hand on the colonel's arm. "Sir," he says. "He might could be useful to us... alive, that is."


The colonel eases the hammer down and re-holsters his pistol.


"Senator," the colonel says to you. "You are now a prisoner of the Confederate States of America."


Shackled, you are marched to Richmond, Virginia to begin your days as a prisoner of war.


. . .


The coming months would be punctuated with soul-crushing boredom. Thankfully, your captors gave you a chess set. So you could at least spend time improving your game and playing against your fellow captives.


A few months into your captivity, a Confederate guard calls to you.


"Senator Ely," he says. "You have a visitor. Bring the chessboard."


He escorts you to a table where a visitor awaits.


"Good afternoon, Senator," the visitor says arising from his chair and extending his hand. "I'm Paul. Paul Morphy."


. . .


Senator Alfred Ely published a journal of his experiences in the Confederate Prison. In his journal, he wrote that the general public thought that the opening battle of the American Civil War (the Battle of Bull Run, or the Battle of Manassas) would be more of a parade and quick victory, rather than the bloody route that ensued.


He further wrote that the tedium of prison life was frequently broken up by captives playing games of chess.


Upon learning of the senator's imprisonment and, always searching out worthy opponents, Ameican chess prodigy and master Paul Morphy wasted no time planning a visit to the senator in prison. Sadly, there is no record of the actual games played between the senator and the chess master. But given that Morphy was lightyears ahead of even the best masters of his day, I imagine the poor senator was dealt yet another defeat. This time on the chessboard, rather than the battlefield.


After their meeting, Morphy worked with local Confederate officials and helped to secure the release of his fellow chess player. After about 6 months, the senator was finally released.


Chess served as an important pastime during the American Civil War. Soldiers carried pocket-sized sets like the one showed here:


Pocket-sized chess set carried by some Civil War soldiers. Source: National Park Service.

In the subsequent years of the war, chess would frequently be played around campsites and in prisons around the country in order to break-up the monotony of endless waiting. Waiting for the next battle or for a prison release. As chess has freqeuntly been considered a wonderful mental exercise for military tacticians, many officers played each other in order to keep their minds focused during downtime.


Public domain. Colonel Martin T. McMahon playing against an aide, before beginning the Wilderness Campaign. SOURCE: The Photographic History of The Civil War in Ten Volumes, 1911.


Chess analogies also appeared in strategic communications between war planners. One such example refers to a strategic situation that happened during the war when it looked like the Union General Hooker might take Richmond, Virginia (the capital of the Confederacy) while Confederate General Lee would simultaneously take Washington, DC (the capital of the Union). Such a situation, the tacticians wrote, would be like "exchanging queens" with the enemy. Of course, implying that each side would lose their most important strategic assets and thus negate the gains for either side.


As I continue to learn more and more about the history of chess, I continue to stumble upon stories of where chess has brought people together from different walks of life, including different sides of an armed conflict.


Have you experienced this in your life? Has chess brought you together with someone you might otherwise have nothing in common with? Has it ever opened doors (or prison cells, ha!) for you? If so, please share in the comments below.