On a crisp November day four years after the end of the Civil War, two squads clashed on a field in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The young men, from Princeton and Rutgers, were struggling over an inflated rubber ball rather than titanic national issues, but what has been called the first intercollegiate football match was played out in the shadow of the greater conflict. Princetonians cheered their boys to defeat with a “booming rocket call, hissing and bursting,” adapted from a Union cheer, and their strongest player was a hulking Kentucky veteran known as “Colonel Weir.” And when one of the participants came to describe the game, he used a wholly military vocabulary: “It was difficult to distinguish between friend and foe in the ever-shifting change of players on the field of battle.”
As the years went by, football would be more and more suffused by Civil War imagery. “War, when you are at it,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who saw a good deal of it, “is horrible and dull. It is only when time has passed that you see that its message was divine.” During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, people began to look back across an age of increasing material abundance to the martial virtues of sacrifice and valor. As football grew in popularity, it came to many observers to embody those virtues.
An 1887 Century magazine article spoke of the “satisfaction in knowing that this outdoor game is doing for our college-bred men, in a more peaceful way, what the experiences of war did for so many of their predecessors in 1861–65.…” Six years later Francis A. Walker, president of MIT and the survivor of a wound at Chancellorsville and a stint in Richmond’s grim Libby Prison, expressed his gratitude that the Civil War had revealed “how much nobler are strength of will, firmness of purpose, resolution to endure, and capacity for action, than are the qualities of the speechmaker and the fine writer.” And, Walker continued, it was football that demanded “courage, coolness, steadiness of nerve, quickness of apprehension, resourcefulness, self-knowledge, self-reliance,” and developed “something akin to patriotism and public spirit.” It even did so in the spectators, for “the blood of the whole community is stirred by physical contests among the picked youth of the land, as once it was only stirred by tales of battle.” Football, finally, was an antidote to the “selfish individualistic tendencies of the age.”
Theodore Roosevelt, writing for the children’s magazine St. Nicholas , called for rugged sports development of “in-reared manliness” as a substitute for frontier living and told his audience that “in life, as in a football game, the principle to follow is: Hit the line hard; don’t foul and don’t shirk, but hit the line hard!” Stephen Crane, who wrote the definitive novel of the conflict, said after The Red Badge of Courage appeared, “They all insist that I am a veteran of the civil war.… Of course, I have never been in a battle, but I believe that I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field.”
Football as a metaphor for war perhaps found its quintessential application in an astonishing sentence the University of California president Benjamin Ide Wheeler wrote in a 1906 article: “Two rigid, rampart-like lines of human flesh have been created, one of defense, the other of offense, and behind the latter is established a catapult to fire through a porthole opened in the offensive rampart a missile composed of four or five human bodies globulated about a carried football with a maximum of initial velocity against the presumably weakest point in the opposing rampart.”
Ironically, the military metaphor that was used to promote football was also used as a bludgeon against it in the reform-minded Progressive Era. But it is important to remember that the generation seared by the war and seeking to inculcate in its sons something of the fortitude of those years could agree with Charles Francis Adams, Jr., when the aging patrician said in 1894 that football was more important than genius in national development because the game built character. Even death, on the gridiron was cheap, The New York Times said, paraphrasing Adams, “if it educated boys in those characteristics that had made the Anglo-Saxon race pre-eminent in history.”