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The Gamblers Won Both Sides of the War
Gambling, the traditional relaxation of soldiers, was particularly rampant during the War between the States. The boys in blue and the boys in gray alike were addicted to faro, poker, casino, euchre, monte, seven-up, and chuck-a-luck.
Grains of corn, buttons, and such served as chips since counters were seldom available. As for cards, no soldier considered himself armed unless he had a pack in pocket or knapsack. The card manufacturers being in the North, many men, including military personnel on both sides, engaged in cardboard contraband, smuggling decks to the South. High-ranking officers, involved in the trade, crossed and recrossed battle lines to reap a harvest of gain from the gambling Confederates.
During the battle that followed, a cannon ball fell so close to a Union soldier that it split open his knapsack and scattered the contents-clothing and decks of playing cards-all over the battlefield. As cards rained down, a fighting Wisconsin Volunteer took time out to shout, "Deal me a hand!"
Farther down in the same military area a stone wall separated the Northern and Southern forces. A small body of Rebel soldiers defended the wall, one of the Union Army's objectives. For a full day Union troops trying to move across the open plain to the wall were mowed down by Confederate cross-fire from the top of the hill and behind the wall, and seven thousand of them were killed or wounded. Behind one section of wall a Confederate card game went on uninterrupted while the soldiers who lacked money to gamble did the shooting.
After Fredericksburg, when the Confederate forces went into winter quarters in Centerville, gambling became so widespread that the commanding general was driven to issue a loftily worded order stating in essence that henceforth it would not be tolerated. To divert their attention, the men were ordered to drills, roll calls, guard standing, and endless inspections and encouraged to wage snowball fights. These were conducted under combat discipline. The troops marched to the scene with banners fluttering in the winter winds and used military tactics and strategy to win or lose.
Neither North nor South ever made much headway in discouraging card players. Every glorious day that the eagle screamed and issued the long green, soldiers dreamed anew of turning small pay into fortunes by gambling. The mails were so bad it was hard to send money home regularly. Within a few days it was too late, anyway, and pay money was concentrated in the hands of a few shrewd and lucky regimental sports. As the number of players dwindled, the stakes swelled.
Gambling was at least a democratic influence in the stratified Union Army. Union officers did not normally fraternize with enlisted men, but they would invite the lucky gamblers from the ranks to sit in on steep card games.
In the Confederate Army officers regularly played with their men under any and all circumstances. When a Texas cavalry regiment arrived to take up a military station on the Mississippi near Vicksburg, Lieutenant General Richard Taylor of the Confederate high command rode out to meet them. At the camp he was greeted with deep silence and no troop formations. All the Texans were seated on the ground in a circle under some trees and very much occupied. The general's arrival went unnoticed, as the cavalrymen were absorbed in a brisk game of monte with the colonel of the regiment banking the game. When the colonel saw the general he invited him to join them. General Taylor refused icily and the colonel turned over his deal with undisguised annoyance.
The chaplains might wring their hands ("men . . . of rank would win from the private soldier his scant pay, which he ought to have sent home to his suffering family," Reverend L. Wm. Jones wrote), but one of the prizes of Manassas was a complete faro layout. The new owners of this valuable war booty set up a faro bank where soldiers flocked to buck the tiger till the officer of the guard was ordered to confiscate the layout and arrest the players. The raid embarrassingly disclosed that officers as well as men, even from other regiments, were offenders.
If the life of the free soldier was dreary and dangerous enough to promote card playing, the life of war prisoners was desperately dull. Whenever a pack of cards could be obtained, it was soon worn out by day and night use. Captured gamblers would set up gambling tables under a large tent and play even went on all day Sunday. "At the morning meeting, Brother Harris made a short address; and Capt. Samford preached in the afternoon. The latter services, I am told, were considerably interrupted by those who preferred amusement to worship. I regret exceedingly, that the interest on religious subjects seems to be growing less. Sometimes, the attendance at the gambling tent is quite as large as under the awning," wrote Isaac W. K. Handy.
When Richmond fell Union soldiers found the floors of Libby Prison marked off with faro layouts, a record of how the long days were passed.
In at least one case a knowledge of gambling was said to have served the purposes of a Union general. When W. T. Sherman was marching through Georgia, the Confederate high command replaced General Johnston with General John Bell Hood. The story went around the campfires that General Sherman called together all of his officers who had known Hood at West Point in order to get a line on the man. He received no intelligence of any moment until a salty old Kentucky colonel who had been in Hood's class remembered that he once saw Hood "bet twenty-five hundred dollars with nary a pa'r in his hand!" Sherman took this as persuasive evidence that here was a Southern general who bet 'em like he had 'em and would not deploy his men out for defensive war or rush up reinforcements before attacking. Playing his gambler's hunch, Sherman prepared for venturesome Rebel assaults, and pressed his advantage by attacking after his army had repelled the Southern thrusts. And went on to reach Atlanta.
The braver and more foot-loose of the gambling profession took their chances as soldiers, though there is no record of men who played dramatically daring games of cards and were cool enough under a barrage of poker chips hanging up very glorious records as soldiers. In two Southern gambling cities the professionals preferred to stick together, partly as a matter of protection.
Gamblers in New Orleans formed their own company. The Wilson Rangers equipped themselves splendidly and obtained the best horses money could buy. The belles of New Orleans agreed that they were the handsomest body of men in the Confederate Army. George Devol described the company's daily routine: "When we were ordered out to drill (which was every day) we would mount our fine horses, gallop out back of the city, and the first orders we would receive from our commanding officer would be: `Dismount! Hitch horses! March! Hunt shade! Begin playiKig!' There was not a company of cavalry in the Southern army that obeyed orders more promptly than we did; for in less than ten minutes from the time the order was given, there would not be a man in the sun.... We would remain in the shade until the cool of the evening, when the orders would be given: `Cease playing! Put up books! Prepare to mount! Mount! March!' When we would get back to the city, the people would come out, cheer and wave handkerchiefs, and present us with bouquets . . .".
By the time they were thoroughly versed in military horsemanship, the Rangers were detailed to patrol duty in the area. As dispatches came through that Forts Jackson and St. Philip were being cannonaded by Farragut's fleet, New Orleans was stunned. At word that the fleet was bearing down on the city and a large army advancing under General Ben Butler, the picturesque Rangers responded unhappily to the familiar command "Prepare to Mount! Mount! March!" They rode off with wan smiles and sick hearts while women tossed flowers to their heroic defenders. Several miles off, the vanguard of the Yankees greeted the gamblers with a fusillade. The startled Rangers heard the command: "Retreat!" Though they had never heard this order spoken before, they withdrew from the field like men who had been trained to show their backs to the enemy. The Rangers reached New Orleans on the double-quick, fervently thanking the Lord for their fast horses. They alighted without waiting for a command, tore the buttons and insignia off their coats, hid their cavalry swords, and turned themselves into simple citizens. The Rangers were tired of war.
In Houston, Texas, an extremely capable lawyer decided to do his bit for the Confederacy, and the professional gamblers of the city who made up most of his clientele raised a storm of protest when he told them that his services would no longer be available. He had never lost them a criminal case and what if he got killed? In this dilemma the lawyer applied to General John Bankhead Magruder for permission to form a troop of cavalry to function relatively free from the Southwest Command. He then threw his clients into a state of dismay by telling them that all able-bodied men in the area would soon have to register for military service. They could avoid this bunion-breeding destiny by associating themselves with his cavalry unit. Almost a hundred of-them succumbed; at least they would not be separated from their attorney.
Their self-appointed leader made each man provide his own arms and equipment. They invested in pearl-handled six-shooters, carved leather holsters, thoroughbred horses, and silver-mounted saddles, and they each wrapped long gray cavalry cloaks over the heavy gold watch chains that ran from pocket to pocket across their vests.
The women in Houston, like the women in New Orleans, went mad over the gallant gamblers, waving and shouting as they paraded daily until their headquarters were established eighty miles southwest of the city near the peninsula of Matagorda Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Besides taking in each other's money, the gamblers decided to amuse themselves with an oyster roast on the bay side of the peninsula, which meant that their backs were to the Gulf and their view blocked by tall grass and shell banks.
A terrific explosion shook the cavalrymen from their preparations and their eyes bulged as a spray of water leaped twenty feet into the air. There came a second blast. And yet another. A Union gunboat, seeking the range of the peninsula tip, was less than a mile away. The gamblers fled to where they had tied their horses. A nightmarish sight confronted them: Union marines pouring out of boats close to the horses. The marines made ready to fire and the Texans suddenly found that they were perfectly willing to part with their fine horses. They hastily reversed their direction and took off down the peninsula like a blue streak.
Another boat tried to head them off from the mainland and it became a race in which the cavalrymen proved themselves fleet of foot and reached the isthmus before the marines, but the dash became desperate when shells dropped fast from the long-range guns on the boats. The Southerners made it and kept right on running till they reached an old farmhouse. `vorn out by their ordeal, they threw themselves down, heaving and gasping like exhausted animals. Their captain went upstairs to survey the lay of the land. A few seconds later the men heard a frightful crash. Attributing it to a direct hit by a Yankee gunboat, the terrified men panicked, plunged out of windows, tore down the door, and fled to the safety of their camp in the live-oak grove.
There was no further sound of shelling. A count of noses disclosed that their captain was missing. No doubt that brave man's body lay mangled by the shell burst. The troop summoned enough courage to sneak back cautiously. A fearful flow of profanity and a furious rapping left no doubt that their leader was very much alive. He had crept up the roof of what he thought was a top-floor shed, but it had, in fact, been a water tank, and as the wood was old and decayed it had given way under his weight. The cistern was dry. Except for a sprained ankle, a few bruises, and a bad case of embarrassment the leader was unharmed.
Ten days later a tired, dirty, unhorsed cavalry captain with several of his men waited till the other passengers had gone before sneaking off the midnight train at Houston. All the gamblers were back in town within a fortnight of the oyster roast. They went back to dealing their games and the lawyer went back to his practice.
The professional gamblers who enlisted did so in order to be near their customers. They marched in the ranks, griped about army food, and cursed officers like everybody else. A blanket substituted for the table, a campfire gave light, and the competition most enlisted men were in their teens or early twenties-was negligible. After all, the gamblers reasoned, they were too young to enjoy their pay and they rarely earned it except in actual combat, so why not?
They usually cleaned out the officers first because they had most money, then noncommissioned officers, before settling down on the privates. This took some courage, as the army men did not tolerate blacklegs and showed their intolerance with well-placed bullets and deep knife thrusts.
A Confederate force, quartered at Dalton, Georgia, was spending the long shut-in winter at cards, when a youngster, blue-eyed, freckle-faced, and candid-looking, arrived in camp. He began to play and to win money from everybody. One day a soldier named Tom Tuck undertook to grapple at cards with this young man. Tom pulled out a bowie knife and put it on the table, then cocked his pistol and placed it at his left side. No man, he told the boy, was that lucky honestly.
As they played, winning hands moved from one man to the other and back again. Tom's army buddy was watching and saw the boy throw away four aces and not stake any money on the hand. The gambler was pretending his luck was poor and letting Tom win the pot, which was small. This aroused the suspicions of Tom's comrade and made him doubly watchful. Tuck began to run out of luck and was soon finished. His friend picked up the cards as the gambler swept in the money after the final hand. He saw that the cards were marked and showed Tom. The gambler took to his heels, the two men after him. There were two shots, followed by an agonizing scream. The soldiers quit the area at once. Two days later the Chattanooga Rebel carried news of a civilian found dead near the town's depot. The man's throat was cut and there were two bullets in his body.
Reformers deplored the demoralizing effect of the Civil War. A righteous gentleman wrote the American Tract Society: ". . . it is evident that card playing and other kinds of gambling are more prevalent than formerly, and the war has had its influence in this respect." Bible and missionary societies sent out "Christian workers" to distribute tracts and Bibles and solicit subscriptions for religious newspapers. The society prepared a packet of twentyfour tracts, four to twenty-four pages long, directed to men in uniform. The Gambler's Balance Sheet, Word to a Gamester, Ruinous Consequences of Gambling thundered warnings and religious revivals spread. "Getting religion" also helped break barrackroom boredom. "I have gambled for the last time. I threw my dice into the fire. I now love my Saviour. Blessed be God," was the theme. These religious jags seldom lasted long.
In the early part of 1862 there was a brief period of high moral reclamation in General Robert E. Lee's army. Addicted gamblers were converted and refused to die with the "devil's playthings" on them. Just before the battle of Cold Harbor one of Lee's veterans was "surprised to see the greasy decks of cards scattered along the way" to the battlefield.
On leave there was little incentive to reform. Soldiers found prosperity and its constant companion, gambling, going full tilt in the big cities and the spas. New York, Saratoga, Chicago, and Washington on the Yankee side were wide open and gambling establishments never closed. The Federal Government encouraged enlistment in the army with a $300 bounty, re-enlistment rated $500, and these sums often went on last flings at the tables. Some who squandered their bounty money in gambling deserted the army immediately to re-enlist under an assumed name and collect the bundle all over again. In fact innumerable rascals made a routine practice of this.
Bounty jumpers, paymasters, war profiteers, and soldiers on leave with back pay who reached Chicago found the former Mississippi River gamblers operating as openly as they pleased on Gambler's Row and Hairtrigger Block (Randolph Street between Clark and State). In Washington gambling establishments were decked with paintings and thick red draperies, had gay orchestras and wonderful food. Wartime recklessness consumed the city. Wide bribery, large pay rolls, and fat profits helped stimulate an orgy of gambling.
All statesmen played cards, and gambling was proper social conduct. Even a political moralist like Thaddeus Stevens, Pennsylvania's radical abolitionist, patronized gambling houses and was regarded as one of the hottest poker players in the country. Stevens was once ascending the steps of the Capitol when a Negro preacher asked for a contribution for his impoverished church. Stevens had cleaned up in a poker session the night before, so he emptied his pockets of his winnings and reverently cited William Coivper's Light Shining out of Darkness: "God moves in a mysterious way/His wonders to perform. . . ."
The results of gambling were not always so virtuous. An investigation showed that 90 per cent of the embezzlements of army paymasters were the result of steep gambling losses. An anti-gambling ordinance existed on the District of Columbia's statute books, and General L. C. Baker decided that it was in the interests of the war effort to see that it was obeyed. He was disturbed to find the military commander of Washington unwilling to enforce the statute. This officer explained that the owners and operators of the gambling halls were gentlemen, their patrons distinguished people, and everybody gambled. Undaunted, the chief of the Secret Service assembled his forces one night and had them surround more than a dozen gaming resorts on Pennsylvania Avenue. At halfpast two they made a concerted dash on the houses, arrested the owners, and closed down their premises.
The capital's gamblers raised a great outcry the next morning. They tried bribing General Baker. The Secret Service man was not to be bought off but found it difficult to get co-operation from other government officials. President Lincoln sent for him and asked why he was stirring up such a tempest. General Baker pointed out the ruinous effect gambling was having on prominent civilian and military officials and asked for a free hand to smash this vice in Washington. Lincoln, a penny-ante card player from his flatboat days, had to agree and Baker left him with the understanding that the government would not meddle in his drive to clean up the city. Baker succeeded in closing down all public houses. One gambler shrugged resignedly when his turn came. "After all, I don't care; it has cost me five thousand dollars a month to keep officers still." And the gamblers moved on to other cities where authorities were less hostile to their profession.
The Southern cities were more indulgent. When Richmond was the headquarters of the Confederacy, some Southern wits rechristened it Farobankopolis. Food was scarce, flour sold for $125 a barrel, but parties and balls and the wildly popular faro games went on. Holdups and murders took place openly in broad daylight. Prostitutes sauntered the shady streets and the gambler plied his trade "glistening in fine clothes and waiting like a cat for his prey." Two score of the palatial gambling hells were said to have won large sums held in trust by responsible officials.
An especially thick cluster of establishments centered around Richmond's Exchange Hotel with every third door an entrance to a house of chance. Judah P. Benjamin, Secretary of War from 1861 to 1862 and Secretary of State from 1862 to 1865, spent many exciting hours in them after the day's work was done. Johnny Worsham's place, where the wine was excellent, the furniture regal, and the play high, was the favorite gambling resort of Confederate dignitaries, while lesser men could place their picayune bets in bare-walled dens on the other side of the street. Food and drink were served to men in uniform even if they could not afford to play.
Richmond gambling was under distinguished auspices; most of the housemen in the best gambling places came from Virginia's first families. Under these circumstances it is understandable that the games were honest, especially as the military authorities would not tolerate any brace play. Military detectives in Louisville, Nashville, and St. Louis, for instance, permitted square gamblers to operate, but blacklegs were ferreted out and often imprisoned for months, sometimes forced to do hard labor on fortifications.
Cards, which made fortunes for their manufacturers during the war, reflected the temper of the times. Spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs were replaced with patriotic insignia-stars, flags, shields, and eagles with shields. The kings became infantry officers in full dress, the queens were goddesses of liberty, and knaves were uniformed artillery officers. Designs for the backs, executed in red or blue, were equally patriotic. A deck produced in New York in 1863 had a portrait of a Union general on each card. A particular pack called the American had Lincoln, Buchanan, Pierce, and Fillmore as kings, and, London's Evening Standard gleefully reported "The heads of the queens are the Secretary of the Navy, General Dix and two other old women of note." For the knaves the manufacturer pointedly selected Mayor Opdyke of of New York and three other notorious copperheads.
In 1865 Andrew Dougherty of New York presented his Civil War Army and Navy deck: drummer boys and Zouaves for the red suits, the Monitor and the lllerrimac in blue, replacing the conventional black suits. One of the aces bore the inscription: "To Commemorate the Greatest Event in Naval History-the Substitution of Iron for Wood."
English manufacturers added cards to the cargoes of British ships running the Union blockade. The backs bore Confederate flags and a seal inscribed "Confederate States of America."
Every war generates its legends, and one of the nicest of the Civil War has to do with gambling. A Union paymaster was captured by a small Confederate band who discovered that his wagon contained $50,000. This they gladly appropriated as spoils of war, while allowing the paymaster to keep a couple of hundred dollars of his own. Before the day was over a poker game had set in at an empty farmhouse, and the enemy was allowed to take a hand. He coolly outplayed his captors till he had all of the swag. One faction was for killing him to regain it; another maintained that he had played fair and well and, as a gentleman, was entitled to his winnings. The sound of approaching footsteps sent the Southerners tumbling out of the farmhouse and off at a gallop. The paymaster greeted a contingent of Union soldiers joyfully. He reported being attacked and robbed by Rebel raiders but said nothing about recapturing the $50,000. He had won it across the poker table and considered it his own private affair.