By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2014-2015, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the April 2015 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
To paraphrase Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of baseball.” There are many aspects of baseball that make it such a captivating sport, not the least of which is the time of year when it is played. Baseball rises from its hibernation in the spring, when the earth is emerging from another of its recurrent seasons of lifelessness. Baseball flows through the hot days and warm nights of summer as a leisurely accompaniment to the sunshine and easy living. Baseball’s climax comes as autumn is putting a close on another season of beaches, amusement parks, and cookouts, and the crowning of baseball’s champion serves as a reminder that the next cycle of hard, drab days is near.
Another aspect of baseball that intrigues its fans is the sport’s many great players, and baseball, more so than other sports, possesses a larger and more intricate range of measures to assess a player’s sustained performance. With the myriad statistics that are tracked, there are many metrics that can be used to evaluate a player’s career. But sometimes momentary greatness comes to a player, such as a perfect game or no-hitter, and this exceptional accomplishment earns the player a place in baseball history. One unique feat of momentary greatness occurred in the 1934 All-Star Game, when Carl Hubbell, a pitcher for the New York Giants, struck out in succession not just five Hall of Fame players, but five of the best hitters in the history of Major League Baseball: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin. How this relates to the Civil War is that there was a Union officer who could claim something comparable in that he was the only Union officer who had the twofold remarkable achievement of defeating both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. That person is Nathan Kimball.
Nathan Kimball was born on November 22, 1822 in Fredericksburg, Indiana. He did not receive a military education, but attended what became DePauw University and became a teacher. He later learned medicine and established a private practice near the town where he was born. When war broke out with Mexico, Kimball volunteered, raised an infantry company, and was elected its captain. At the battle of Buena Vista, he rallied his company to hold its position even after the rest of the regiment fled. After the Mexican-American War, Kimball returned to Indiana and continued to practice medicine.
Shortly after the Civil War began, Kimball again volunteered and raised an infantry company. The governor of Indiana named Kimball a colonel in command of the 14th Indiana Infantry Regiment. Kimball’s regiment was sent to western Virginia to participate in the fighting there, and eventually the 14th Indiana ended up in what would become southeastern West Virginia. Kimball’s regiment was stationed in a fort on a mountain named Cheat Mountain. Opposing Kimball was a Confederate force that was being directed by Robert E. Lee, who had been sent by Jefferson Davis to oversee operations in western Virginia. On September 12, 1861, Lee’s forces launched an attack against the fort in which Kimball’s regiment was stationed. Lee’s battle plan was far too intricate to be carried out by the inexperienced troops that he had at his disposal, and Kimball’s command won the battle and drove off the Confederates. Thus, Nathan Kimball, the commander of the fort on Cheat Mountain, could claim to have defeated troops who were commanded by Robert E. Lee in what was Lee’s first combat command of the Civil War.
In the spring of 1862, Kimball’s 14th Indiana was moved to the Shenandoah Valley where it was brigaded with three other regiments (including the 8th Ohio of Gettysburg fame), and Kimball was named brigade commander. The brigade was part of a division commanded by James Shields, and this division was part of the army that was commanded by Nathaniel Banks. Two of Banks’ three divisions were moved to the vicinity of Washington to protect the U.S. capital when George McClellan moved the Army of the Potomac into Virginia for his Peninsula campaign. Banks’ remaining division, the one commanded by James Shields, was moved to Winchester, Virginia at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley. When Stonewall Jackson received intelligence about the Union movements, he marched his army northward through the valley to attack Shields’ isolated division. Jackson’s cavalry skirmished with Shields’ men on March 22, 1862 on the opening day of what came to be known as the first battle of Kernstown, which is about three miles south of Winchester. During this fighting, Shields was wounded, and command on the field passed to Nathan Kimball. On the following day, Jackson’s small army attacked the strong Union position. However, Kimball skillfully shifted his troops to counter Stonewall’s thrusts, and Kimball’s force held the field. The mighty Stonewall withdrew in what was a defeat in the first battle of Stonewall’s vaunted Valley campaign.
After this battle, Nathan Kimball took part in the battle of Antietam, where his brigade fought so well against the Confederates in the sunken road that it was given the nickname the Gibraltar Brigade. Kimball’s brigade later fought at Fredericksburg and was one of the units that Ambrose Burnside threw at the stone wall. In fact, Kimball’s Gibraltar Brigade was the first Union unit to be sent against the stone wall. During the carnage in front of the stone wall Kimball was seriously wounded, which is ironic because this occurred near the Virginia city that bears the same name as Kimball’s Indiana birthplace. Because of his wound, Kimball could not command the brigade in subsequent battles. After Kimball recovered, he was sent to the western theater and eventually commanded a division under William Tecumseh Sherman in the Atlanta campaign and later was a division commander at the battles of Franklin and Nashville. After the Civil War, Kimball returned to Indiana, was elected state treasurer, and brought about banking reform. In 1873, President Ulysses Grant appointed Kimball surveyor general for the Utah Territory, which he held until 1878. He was then appointed postmaster of Ogden, Utah and remained in this position until his death in 1898. Nathan Kimball is buried in Weber, Utah.
Carl Hubbell did more in his baseball career than his historic feat in the 1934 All-Star Game. Hubbell’s career was so exceptional that he was elected into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. Nevertheless, there are many Major League baseball players not in the Hall of Fame who nonetheless had some outstanding singular accomplishment during their careers. For instance, of the 23 pitchers to throw a perfect game, only 6 are members of the Hall of Fame, and of the 16 players to hit 4 home runs in one game, only 5 are members of the Hall of Fame. If there were a Civil War Hall of Fame, Nathan Kimball most likely would not have been elected to it. Kimball’s Civil War career was solid, but not stellar. However, Nathan Kimball can justly claim that he defeated two of the Confederacy’s greatest military leaders, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, which is a doubly prodigious feat and also is an exemplary achievement that cannot be claimed by any ‘Hall of Fame’-caliber Civil War military leaders.