From the NY Times "Disunion" series: the standard deck of cards that Heyes and Curry used were not standardized until the Civil War. Considering how much Heyes and Curry liked to play cards, it's curious to note that cards had undergone substantial revisions in the recent past.
¶Civil War soldiers, like all soldiers, spent the vast majority of their time in camp, waiting for action and looking for anything they could find to fill the long empty hours. For many, card playing more than met the need, and provided a chance to make a little money besides. “It was a poor hut that could not boast of a pack of well-thumbed cards,” reminisced George Forrester Williams. Union men could even claim card playing as a patriotic duty, since the Revenue Act of 1862 slapped an excise tax on decks and just about everything else under the Yankee sun.
¶The monotony of sutlers’ wares squelched games like taroc, which German and Hungarian immigrants would have played with a 78-card deck. Fortunately for card makers, the 52-card deck, like speaking English and playing baseball, quickly became part of the common camp culture among both Rebs and Yanks, native-born and immigrant. That deck, in turn, determined the range of card games they played.
¶Whist claimed gentlemen, and ladies when available. Seven-up, or old sledge, seemed to have been favored by rustics and roughs. Twenty-one, keno and faro also stood ready to strip soldiers of everything from coin to clothing to “a chicken which had been pressed into service,” as one Union soldier, Napier Bartlett, recalled. In describing furtive games played for “postal currency,” paper issued by the Post Office and used in lieu of hard-to-get coins, the New York volunteer Albert Rowe Barlow mentioned euchre as a “standard game” — though for Barlow and other gamblers North and South, poker was the hands-down favorite.
¶Gaming, combined with alcohol, boredom and any suspicion of cheating, ignited duels and brawls as enthralling as the game itself, at least to bystanders. But serious gamers played not to fight but to win, and then as now they demanded that the cards be easily recognized, undistracting and clearly denominated.
Reproduction of Civil War Generals Playing Cards Courtesy of U.S. Games Systems, Inc.Civil War-era playing cards featuring Union and Confederate generals.
¶The standard deck, laid down by French cartiers in the 16th century, was as familiar to the Civil War soldier as it is today. The black suits of spades and clubs and the red suits of hearts and diamonds each comprise 10 pips, or numbered cards, and three “face” or court cards. The graphic design that persists to this day had also by then been set: the arrangement of the suit signs, and the oddly stylized court figures, with their stringlike hair, simple color schemes and geometric patterning. So universally known were playing cards that an examiner tested a New York recruit’s vision by walking to the other end of the room and holding up the 9 of clubs and the 10 of hearts.
¶Not that card makers never dared something new. The Union deck, produced by the American Card Company, featured “national emblems” of eagles, shields, stars and flags in place of normal suit signs. The goddess of liberty, colonel and major replaced the woefully un-American queen, king and jack. Despite the maker’s “fullest confidence that the time is not far distant when they will be the leading Card in the American market,” the deck, like most novelties in the card world, died a quiet death. For the most part, card players accepted only changes that made the deck easier to manipulate and harder to cheat with.
¶One such innovation was indices, the suit sign and value marked in the upper left corner of each card. Before indices were adopted, if Johnny Reb held the four or five of spades, for example, he would have to see nearly the entire card to know its value, since the fifth spade is in the middle. Indices allow a tight fan of cards, easier to hold and hide.
¶Another design change came with the double-figure court card, which mirrors the top half of king, queen or jack. By contrast with the full-length, single-figure personage, a double-figure is never upside down (though only the most naïve infant — or maybe the craftiest bluffer — would tip his hand by rescuing that queen of hearts from standing on her head). Yet however a novice holds his cards, his own face is what gives it all away. The Ohio volunteer John Calvin Hartzell described being fleeced by “Uncle Dan, who has the face of a graven image, while mine always told tales.”
¶Card faces weren’t the only thing that changed in the mid-19th century. Early decks nearly always had blank backs, making the cards easier to mark and easier to see through. (Today, a deck of decent quality bears a layer of dark “cartridge” paper within the cardboard.) In the Civil War era, back designs became not only standard, but artistic. Patterns of asterisks and dots, wavy lines and dashes, and “pebbles” gave way to intricate images, often with patriotic and military themes. Flags, a shield and an anchor backed the Union deck.
¶The most radical change, the joker, pranced into the deck around 1860. Trickster that he is, he stands out as the only major innovation not inspired by convenience or caution. The joker most likely hopped over to American decks via the German immigrants who fought on both sides of the war. Some attribute his name to the German word for euchre, “juker,” a game so engrossing that, as the Rebel soldier David Holt recounted, when hymns wafting through camp forced the men to realize it was Sunday, “We would lay down our cards, even in a game of euchre.”
¶Like baseball, cards occasionally brought the two lines together. During the siege of Petersburg, Va., in the autumn of 1864, the Gray and the Blue would “creep into … a neutral cornfield,” one soldier recalled, “for a friendly chat, for a barter, or for a game of cards!” Their money being worthless to each other, a few gamers staked Abe Lincoln and Jeff Davis. “The Lincolnite lost. ‘There,’ says the winner, ‘Old Abe belongs to me.’ ‘Well, I’ll send him over by the Petersburg express,’” said the Union soldier, using a nickname for the shells bombarding the city.
¶Camp gambling became one of the great moral crusades of the war, North and South. Gen. Robert E. Lee was “pained to learn that the vice of gambling exists” — he must have been the last to know — and issued an order forbidding it, to little effect. As the Union soldier David Lane put it, “so far as my observation goes, nine out of ten play cards for money.”
¶Players did, under pressure from family, chaplains and commanding officers, occasionally cast off their “evil practices.” One Confederate soldier, Samuel Hankins, recalled, “When the cannonading became more frequent, you could hear, ‘Boys, we are going to get into it.’ Then there would begin the searching of pockets for gambling goods, playing cards especially. The thought of being killed with such in their pockets induced the soldiers to throw them away.” Once the battle was over, though, the so-called Devil’s Picture Book once again trumped the Good Book, with players so avid that even “the breast of a wounded comrade” did for a table, wrote Thomas Wise Durham, a Zouave.
¶For gambling or for simple fun, playing cards are a staple in memoirs of Civil War camp life. All up and down the ranks, men played cards under fire, men played cards between battles, sworn enemies played cards together in cornfields, prisons, and hospitals. Far from home, often lacking even the simple diversion of a dime novel, as one soldier put it, “card playing seemed to be as popular a way of killing time as any.”
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