During the darkest days of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln would look south from the windows of the White House and distract himself from news from the battlefields by watching the Washington Nationals run the bases. The newly formed baseball team played on what is now the South Ellipse, then called the White Lot, enclosed with a whitewashed fence.

Lincoln was almost certainly a Nationals fan: He knew the team’s founder well. When Lincoln served his one term in the House of Representatives from 1847 to 1849, he lived in a boardinghouse facing the Capitol on the current site of the Library of Congress. It was known as “Abolition House” for being a center of antislavery activists in Washington. (Among Lincoln’s mess mates were Rep. Joshua Giddings of Ohio, the leading abolitionist in the House, who helped Lincoln write a bill for emancipation in the District of Columbia, along with a variety of Whig members and federal employees.)

Edmund F. French, a clerk at the Treasury Department, daily dined and lived in the house with Lincoln. In 1859, while still working at Treasury, he wrote the “Constitution and bylaws of the National Baseball Club of Washington, D.C.” It was the founding document of the Washington Nationals; French was the club’s James Madison. The Nationals’ constitution laid down the rules for sportsmanlike conduct as well as the charge for monthly dues.

French was also a player on the team composed of other government clerks who suited up in uniform in the late afternoons. In 1862, he became the Nationals’ first president. And President Lincoln invited President French to various White House social occasions. (His brother Benjamin Brown French, appointed the superintendent of public buildings by Lincoln, planned Lincoln’s inaugurations and later his trip to dedicate the cemetery at Gettysburg.)

Lincoln loved baseball. He had played a primitive and popular version called “townball” as a young man and lawyer in Illinois. There are several accounts of him playing in Springfield and in towns throughout the Eighth Judicial Circuit of Illinois that he traveled as a lawyer during the 1850s. “Here Abraham Lincoln and his friends played townball,” reads a marker placed before the Postville Park, Ill., courthouse by the Illinois Historical Society.

During the 1860 presidential campaign, a widely circulated political cartoon depicted Lincoln as a baseball player triumphing over his opponents. “You must have a good bat and strike a fair ball to make a clean score and homerun,” the Lincoln figure says. On the long bat in his hands are inscribed the words “Equal rights and free territory.”

Lincoln liked playing townball even as president, especially with boys. He took long rides out to the Maryland home of Francis P. Blair, called Silver Spring, to consult with the venerable political savant — who had been a member of Andrew Jackson’s Kitchen Cabinet and helped found the Republican Party — and to cavort in games of townball.

One of the Blair grandchildren, Frank B. Blair, recalled how a group of the children eagerly awaited his visit: “We boys, for hours at a time, played ‘town ball’ on the vast lawn, and Mr. Lincoln would join ardently in the sport. I remember vividly how he ran with the children; how long were his strides, and how far his coat-tails stuck out behind, and how we tried to hit him with the ball, as he ran the bases. He entered into the spirit of the play as completely as any of us, and we invariably hailed his coming with delight.”

During the Civil War, Union soldiers in their camps played the newly regularized game of baseball. In Washington, organized teams like the Nationals played in the White Lot. But less formal teams of federal employees also played. According to one firsthand account by Winfield Scott Larner, a journalist, Lincoln watched a game between the quartermaster’s department and the commissary department near Sixth and K streets NW on an old circus ground.

“The well-known black carriage drawn by two black horses came along,” stated Larner. “I saw the president get out … and taking his little son, Tad, by the hand, walk over to see the game.” There were no seats. “Mr. Lincoln sat down in the sawdust left by the circus back of first base, crossed his feet, and sat his little son up on them, between his knees.” He stayed to finish. At the game’s end, both teams gave “three cheers for each other.” Lincoln “joined in the cheering.” Then the players gave “Three cheers for Old Abe.”

Lincoln was surrounded by men who followed baseball. The journalist to whom he was closest, Noah Brooks, whom he planned to appoint as his private secretary in his second term, went on to write the first novel about baseball, “Our Base Ball Club and How It Won the Championship.”

“Baseball is the hurrah game of the republic!” declared Walt Whitman, who spent many mornings waiting outside the White House to see Lincoln coming and going. Many apocryphal statements have been attributed to Lincoln. And of course, baseball clubs in Washington have come and gone since those first Nats that Lincoln watched.

But it seems likely that Lincoln, the first president to be a Nationals fan, might once have uttered something like the hurrah: “Go Nationals!”

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