Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Kevin Wamsley


This study explores the social history of boxing in the Civil War era Union States in both the martial and civilian contexts, focusing on issues of masculinity, ethnicity, race, and class. This dissertation is divided into four sections, each emphasizing a different boxing scene. First, boxing in is explained in the context of the Union Army, drawing upon accounts of military life from diaries, letters, official army correspondence, and newspapers to examine how soldiers used: gloved sparring for physical and mental exercise and camaraderie; bare-knuckle prizefighting for dispute resolution, entertainment, and gambling; and both forms of boxing to exhibit masculine prowess. This section also discusses the various roles of prize fighters in the Union Army. The dissertation then focuses on Civil War era civilian boxing, beginning with an analysis of pugilism in New York State, illustrating the importance of sparring and prizefighting for Irish, English, and white native-born American working-class masculinity in Brooklyn and Manhattan; the marginalization of black boxers throughout the State; sparring as a component of middle-class ‘rational recreation’ routines and wartime distraction; and, the suppression of boxing in those portions of New York most impacted by the Second Great Awakening. Section three follows a similar line of inquiry to section two, but uses a broader geographical scope to assess the social significance of boxing in the broader northeastern region, examining the similarities and differences evident between boxing scenes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Boston and Worcester, Massachusetts; and, rural New Jersey. Lastly, boxing practices in the Midwestern and Western regions of the Union States are discussed, including analyses of boxing in Midwestern boomtowns; Border States; predominantly German-American settings; western Mexican-American contexts; and the western mining frontier. After examining boxing in such varied contexts, this dissertation argues against a ‘national’ understanding of boxing in favor of more culturally sensitive regional and local explanations of pugilistic activities, consistent with the existing historiography of the Northeastern, Midwestern, and Western United States.