Share This Article

Since the first clash of armies, gambling and war have been uneasy bedfellows.

From the moment the first shots were fired in 1861, gambling and the Civil War embarked on a volatile relationship. Strategic and tactical gambles became commonplace for Civil War commanders. Soldiers gambled with their lives every time they set foot on the battlefield. Secession and the opposing governments’ decisions to contest it by force were gambles that would claim over 650,000 lives before they were finally settled.

Gambling in its more traditional forms represented a darker side of the soldiers’ and sailors’ everyday lives. The war’s many terrifying battles were shock points, but the tedium and monotony of camp life in many ways dominated the typical combatant’s experience. Card games, horse races and virtually anything else that could be wagered on were popular methods of relieving boredom in every army, Northern and Southern.

Most states had passed antigambling statutes before the Civil War due to widespread corruption in state-chartered lotteries. In 1860 only Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri allowed lotteries. In addition laws were passed in most states, including the wild west of California, that made it illegal to gamble against a bank or a house. Although lotteries and house gambling were banned, horse racing and gambling in private clubs were still allowed.

Even though soldiers on both sides believed they were fighting for the good and moral cause of either defending their homes and property or preserving the Union, many Federals and Confederates quickly discarded their morals when they took off their civilian clothes and donned their new blue or gray uniforms. Union Private Delos W. Lake warned his brother who was about to enlist that “The army is the worst place in the world to learn bad habits of all kinds. there is several men in this Regt when they enlisted they were nice respectable men and belonged to the Church of God, but now where are they? They are ruined men.” At the end of 1863, T.C. Holliday of Mississippi also warned his brother who was enlisting: “The temptations that will beset you will be very great…of all the evil practices in Camp, gambling is the most pernicious and fraught with the most direful consequences.” Gambling, along with profanity, drunkenness and whoring, swept through the armies as the men left the influences of family and community at home.

Adam Rader of the 28th Virginia was appalled by “the most onerest men…I ever saw, and the most swearing and card playing and fitin and drunkenness.” Musician Henry E. Shafer of the 103rd Illinois had the same reaction, observing: “It looks to me as though some men try to see how depraved they can be. Gambling, Card Playing, Profanity, Sabbath Breaking &c are among the many vices practiced by many of the men.”

But despite this intolerance, gambling was prevalent. Some soldiers and sailors would bet on anything: horse races, cockfights, athletic competitions and boxing and wrestling matches. Although horse racing was popular, it was particularly frowned upon, as it ran the risk of ruining good horses. Soldiers beset by lice threw their tormenters on blankets and pitted them against one another in races fueled by wagering. Raffles were popular for blockaded Southerners, who faced stretched budgets. As one Confederate noted near Yorktown in December 1861, there was “raffling of any and everything—watches, gold pins, coats and blankets. You can hear on every side someone saying, ‘Do you want to take a chance for a watch?’ or something else.”

In addition to wagering on races and competitions, the men in blue and gray also amused themselves with dice. A blanket thrown on the ground and a pair of six-sided cubes was all that was needed to establish a craps parlor.

But the most popular form of gambling was “throwing the paper,” or card games. Playing cards were produced in the North as well as Europe during the war, and manufacturers made a fortune. English cards, which were brought in on blockade runners, carried patriotic Southern designs. Cards North and South would have stars, flags, shields and eagles replacing spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs. Presidents Lincoln and Davis, their generals and other notables were often represented in the designs.

Poker, 21, faro and euchre brought forth wagers from most troops, even those who had little idea of the rules or odds of winning or losing. In October 1864, one Union soldier noted that “nine out of ten play cards for money.” Virginian Alexander Hunter believed five of six soldiers played cards. He wrote: “Some soldiers gambled day and night; draw poker of course being the game. When out of money, a man stayed in the game by resorting to the use of ‘O.P.s’” These were IOUs on the Order of the Paymaster. Despite their meager pay, as Private Newton of the 14th Wisconsin observed while in the trenches outside of Vicksburg: “Since we were paid off a person cannot go five rods in any part of our camp without seeing someone gambling. The day after we were paid there were a good many of the boys to be found who had not a cent left of their two months pay.” Southerners, whose pay was infrequent and as the war went on increasingly worthless, gambled for pocketknives, jewelry, clothing and rations.

Some Southerners would even play for their lives. During the Second Manassas campaign, Allen C. Redwood of the 55th Virginia fell in with the 6th Louisiana, a unit dominated by immigrants (most of them Irish) who had made New Orleans their home. They had proved their valor to Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson during the Shenandoah Valley campaign and had lost their colonel in an impetuous charge at Gaines’ Mill. As Redwood settled in, he marveled at the “congress of nations only the cosmopolitan Crescent City could have sent forth, and the tongues of Babel seemed resurrected in speech; English, German, French, Spanish, all were represented, to say nothing of Doric brogue and local ‘gumbo.’” The Louisianans, as Redwood observed, “burned little powder that day,” spending most of August 29, 1862, countermarching and supporting a section of Wilfred Cutshaw’s battery. He noted further: “The tedium of this last service my companions relieved by games of ‘seven up,’ with a greasy, well thumbed deck, and in smoking cigarettes, rolled with great dexterity, between the deals. Once, when a detail was ordered to go some distance under fire to fill the canteens of the company, a hand was dealt to determine who should go, and the decision was accepted by the loser without demur.” Redwood did not record the outcome of the detail.

Although most lost their pay, a few lucky or skilled players, not to mention some cheats, became rich. C.W. Bardeen joined the Union cause as a fifer when he was just 15. He quickly became so skilled at cards that none of his comrades would play against him. On August 22, 1863, after getting paid he sat down to a week of gambling during which he won several hundred dollars playing bluff. He sent over a hundred dollars home, bought a watch for $25 and took a trip into New York, where he had his picture taken, went to the opera and saw the sights. Despite his continued success throughout 1863, the teenager’s conscience bothered him. On December 31, after a year in the Army, he recorded: “I bear witness to its [the Army’s] contaminating effects. Many an evil habit has sprung up in me since Jan. 1st 1863. God grant that the year in which we now have entered may not be so.” By February, Bardeen had begun attending church services, and gave up alcohol and gambling.

Ministers sent into the field to tend to the souls, character and moral fiber of the soldiers would frequently preach against the sins of gambling. They ofen carried tracts with them like Pitching the Tent Toward Sodom, which warned of gambling’s dangers.

The Gambler’s Balance Sheet compared the pros and cons of gambling. The gains were described as “lewd and base companions, idleness and dissipation; poverty; and mental anguish.” The losses were described as “time; money—which ought to be sent home to your wife and babies, or to an aged father or a widowed mother; feeling—a young man in New York not many years ago played cards on his brother’s coffin; love of truth—the gambler will try to cover up his loss by a falsehood; self-respect; character—your friends will disown you, your mother will be ashamed of you, your sisters will blush when your name is mentioned; happiness, and soul.” On balance, the author suggested that gamblers would receive nothing but “ETERNAL MISERY.”

Often such sermons fell on few ears. One Sunday the colonel of the 7th Wisconsin, finding the regiment’s church service poorly attended, sent a note to the adjutant saying: “There is a large crowd of soldiers in the grove below, engaged in the interesting game called chuck-a-luck. My chaplain is running his church on the other side of me, but the chuck-a-luck has the largest crowd. I think this is unfair, as the church runs only once a week but the game goes on daily. I suggest that one or the other of the parties be dispersed.” And of course not all men of the cloth set a good example, as a company of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery found when a cleric entered their stud-poker game one evening and proceeded to take all their money.

Although many soldiers played games of chance, most believed it was sinful. The approach of battle caused many a gambler to empty his haversack of cards and dice and open his Bible to ensure that if he should die on the field that day such sinful tools would not be found on his person. For some the repentance lasted no longer than the battle, and when it was over they would return to the fields or woods and, as one observer noted, “gather up the cards until they had a full deck.” The moral ramifications of gambling often seemed to carry more weight with the soldiers than the fact that it was forbidden by Army regulations.

Through the fall and winter of 1861 Southern municipal governments ordered gambling houses to be closed. As the New Orleans Commercial Bulletin commented in January 1862, “The excitement among the sports, in consequence was exceedingly great, and all expressed astonishment at so sudden a move on the part of his Honor.” These houses were closed partly in support of the military and in reaction to eligible men being in gambling houses as opposed to the army. But such actions were always temporary.

Many proprietors of Southern gambling halls contributed generously to the Confederate Army in an effort to obtain public support, and also because their winnings provided funds for such charity. During the Peninsula campaign of 1862, members of the faro fraternity pledged “to contribute a liberal sum ($20,000) for the purchase of any articles which may be needed for the sick or wounded soldiers.” In November Richmond’s “Knights of the Faro Table” contributed another $5,000 for the support of the Army.

Such efforts failed to buy acceptance. In October 1863, Virginia passed laws to suppress all gambling. As the Richmond Examiner reported in February 1864: “The gambling halls of Richmond were closed because their extravagant suppers were exhausting the supplies of provisions. Men who should have frowned down such unreasonable hilarity were the very persons who encourage and support them. But we hope the sin has run its course, and that there will be no more of them.”

The halls did not remain closed, as a refugee reported in September 1864: “Faro and Gambling Establishments…are numerous and are plying a brisk business. They are patronized by government officials who are said to squander away the public funds. A recent law against the keeping of these places subjects the proprietors to severe punishment. They have accordingly adopted the plan of dealing in iron marks so that they may not be recognized.”

In addition to civilian efforts to check gambling, the military also tried to eradicate it. On November 14, 1862, General Robert E. Lee issued General Order No. 127, which read:

  1. The general commanding is pained to learn that the vice of gambling exists, and is becoming common in this army. The regulations expressly prohibit one class of officers from indulging in this evil practice, and it was not supposed that a habit so pernicious and demoralizing would be found among men engaged in a cause, of all others, demanding the highest virtue and purest morality in its supporters. He regards it as wholly inconsistent with the character of a Southern soldier and subversive of good order and discipline in the army. All officers are earnestly enjoined to use every effort to suppress this vice, and the assistance of every soldier having the true interests of the army and of the country at heart is invoked to put an end to a practice which cannot fail to produce those deplorable results which have ever attended its indulgence in any society.

During the dreary winter of 1864, Federal General John C. Cleveland issued a directive: “Gambling within the limits of this division is prohibited. The attention of the brigade and regimental commanders is called to the suppression of this evil.” Of course the enforcement of these rules was complicated by the participation of officers in these games. When an officer was sent to break up an after-taps gambling party, he failed to follow orders when he found a fellow officer in the game. Throughout the war the command would be repeated that gambling had to be stamped out.

In addition to trying to stamp out gambling among their own troops, both sides struggled with eradicating games of chance between the two armies. In March 1863, Union Brig. Gen. Henry Lockwood complained that the Navy, which was responsible for patrolling the Potomac River and stopping the contraband trade, was failing in this task because naval officers were “going on shore every night and carousing and gambling with the ‘Secesh’” engaged in blockade running. During the siege of Petersburg a Confederate officer found a large number of pickets missing because they had crossed over the lines to play cards with the Federals. Such fraternization created significant problems.

In an effort to eliminate fraternization, Federal forces attempted to close Southern civilian gambling institutions. On July 3, 1863, Union Brig. Gen. William Emory issued an order in New Orleans that, in addition to limiting public gatherings only to church services and closing all bars by 9 p.m., stated, “All club rooms and gambling houses are hereby closed until further orders.”

In January 1864, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman approved the destruction of a Southerner’s home in occupied Memphis, writing: “General Veatch was justified, as commander of a city in time of war, to destroy a gambling house, as it is the cause of crime and disorder. His right to destroy involves the minor right to fine and exact bond.” Part of the problem was that Union soldiers would go into such gambling houses, get drunk and end up indebted to Southerners suspected of being “traitors, spies, smugglers, robbers and house burners.”

Another serious problem with gambling was that some officers embezzled government funds to pay for their losses. In March 1862, Confederate Adjutant and Inspector General Samuel Cooper complained of “Captains getting drunk and gambling off commutation money” intended to pay for uniforms.

In reaction to embezzlements by Union dispersing officers in June 1865, after the end of the war, General Ulysses S. Grant ordered all gambling houses in both the South and North that had entertained U.S. dispersing officers to be “broken up.”

Despite efforts to stamp out gambling, it survived the war. In fact, in the 1880s the Gettysburg & Harrisburg Railroad completed a spur to the Round Tops south of Gettysburg to provide access to this part of the battlefield, which still lay in private hands. To entertain the multitude of daytrippers, refreshment, souvenir and photography stands were set up along with pavilions for dancing, a shooting gallery and a casino.

In the 1890s William H. Tipton, a Gettysburg entrepreneur, laid a trolley line from town to the Round Tops. New tourists coming to Gettysburg to escape the cities often visited Round Top Park, where they could dance, drink, gamble and not be bothered by the monuments or history. Enraged veterans had Tipton sued, and in 1896 the Supreme Court “affirmed…that the government could protect the shrine’s primary function of civic instruction over other uses.” In 1901 the War Department bought out Tipton’s property.

Over the years gambling came and went, often exiting in a lottery or racing scandal. By 1910, Civil War veterans and their children joined other antigambling interests in successfully championing laws and state constitutional amendments that banned most forms of gambling across the country. In 1931 one of the most depressed states in the Union, Nevada, approved many forms of gambling, including casino gambling, in an effort to bring some prosperity to the desert. In 1978 New Jersey passed a law allowing gambling in Atlantic City, another depressed community. For the next decade people watched the Atlantic City experiment.

Then in the 1990s legalized gambling exploded across the country to a point where it now exists in one form or another in almost every state, and many states now have legal casinos. In places like Vicksburg, Miss., this has put casinos close to Civil War sites.

In 2004 Pennsylvania passed a law authorizing slots casinos in 14 locations. Chance Enterprises is proposing to bring gambling back to the hallowed ground of Gettysburg, where it was last seen a century ago. Protests to this plan have emerged from the Civil War community, and the fight continues today. It is clear that even 141 years after the last shots were fired, the uneasy relationship between the Civil War and gambling lives on.


Keith Miller, who writes from Ridgefield, Conn., is a volunteer for the nonprofit “No Casino Gettysburg” organization.

Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here