Artifact Under Exam – Surgeon William Child Chess Set
Originally published in 2018 in the Surgeon’s Call, Volume 23, No.1
War is an organized bore. When most people think of the Civil War, large battles understandably come to mind. In actuality most of a soldiers time was spent marching, drilling, or in camp. Soldiers distracted themselves in any number of ways. Some read, some wrote letters to their loved ones, and others, such as surgeon William Child of the 5th New Hampshire Infantry, played chess. The NMCWM is lucky enough to have his personal chess set in our collection. A close look at it reveals some unexpected insight about studying the past.
Most Civil War campaigns took place during the warmer months. Throughout the winters armies would often remain in one area until things warmed up again. With relatively little action, soldiers had to find ways to pass the time. Child in particular was excited for the opportunity he would get to unwind with chess during the winter months of 1863-64: “Well, we have a long winter in camp before us…Our work will be but slight. We shall [have] much time for riding, reading, writing, and chess. I mean to read considerable time to time to medical and scientific reading. But must play chess some.”
Child played enough chess that it influenced the way he thought about his life, frequently using it as a metaphor. For example, he wrote that “Every place or advantage I obtain I work for as in a game of chess.” Playing chess regularly was a habit that continued throughout the war for Child. In February of 1865, it was literally keeping him up at night. “Of late I have got into the habit of not going to bed before 12 or 2 o’clock. I yet engaged in chess and therefore do not count the hours. I have an ambition to be the best chess player in the Regt. – and thus far can beat in two out of three games.”
Civil War generals, soldiers, and surgeons can often feel larger-than-life when we study them, but we often forget they were more similar to us than we realize. Dr. Child’s sense of competitiveness and desire to win is a familiar emotion. It puts a human face onto a war defined by mind numbing statistics.
Without these few references that Child made to his relationship with chess, his chess set in our collection appears to the viewer as just another old artifact. The addition of personal stories makes it come alive in unexpected ways. Child’s quotes help us remember that the personal artifacts we see in museums today once meant a great deal to their owners. In Child’s case, playing chess was a wonderful opportunity to pass the time, be competitive, and make friends—a truly invaluable thing for someone spending years away from home.
Want to learn more? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter to discover more stories from Civil War medicine!
Become a museum member and support our educational programs and research like this.
 Letters From a Civil War Surgeon: The Letters of Dr. William Child of the Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers (Solon: Polar Bear & Company, 1995), November 15, 1863, 183.
 Ibid, July 3, 1864, 241.
 Ibid, February 17, 1865, 327.
About the Author
John Lustrea is a member of the Education Department and the Website Manager at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. He earned his Master’s degree in Public History from the University of South Carolina in 2017. Lustrea has previously worked at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park during the summers of 2013-2016.