Why this blog?

Many folks ask me why I would want to spend all this time and energy researching and writing about an individual soldier in the Civil War. This extract from the “About this Blog” page may help explain why I choose to write about one soldier…

A Yard Sale Bargain

People will buy anything that is one to a customer. – Sinclair Lewis

The noise of the crowd faded away as my eyes sharpen focus on the rough, but ornate brown leather marred by a small repair in the upper right corner. I forgot my paternal duties as I lifted the book from its resting place on the blanket to perform a close examination. Having now summoned the powers of both sight and feel, I immediately gained a sense that this was no ordinary yard sale artifact. At the time, I could not appreciate the understatement of that thought.

Some bargains gain value over time. Other bargains have their true value hidden in the history of the item. So it would be for this bargain of an artifact discovered a sunny Saturday morning in Germantown, Maryland. Simply along for the ride with my wife as we moved from neighborhood to neighborhood, we were in search of bargains for the immediate needs of our young family. As she searched for children’s clothing in one multifamily yard sale, my eye caught a glimpse of two items that were out of place. One was an old violin, but it was the beautifully aged leather cover of a small book of some type that fixed my interest.

My interest and expertise, such as it was, would not let me turn away from the book. The visual appeal was enhanced by the feel of the old leather cover in my hand as I examined it closely. Realizing this small book must be an old bible, I carefully opened the cover in an effort to confirm my assessment and determine its age. As I turned to the title page, my initial evaluation was validated. In fact, this was an 1854 edition of a King James Bible printed by the famous Thomas Nelson Publishers in London.

“How much for this?” I asked the proprietor of the collection standing by his goods laid out on the front lawn. His response of three dollars stunned me for a moment but I worked my best yard sale face not to reveal it. Considering the fact that this almost hundred and forty year old bible had to be worth much more than the asking price, I determined to forgo the normal haggling routine and quickly accept the price. As I handed over the three greenbacks and firmly gripped my new possession, I had no foreshadowing of the journey upon which I would now embark, making the purchase price seem even more of a yard sale bargain.

The rest of that Saturday was spent at dozens of other yard sale locations. After arriving home in the afternoon, the cares of family life quickly supplanted my curiosity about the new purchase and I put the bible aside with the resolution that I would explore it when time permitted. Time would not permit a proper examination of the artifact for another two weeks.

When the moment came to again pick up the bible, I carefully began to turn through the opening pages which are normally left blank by the publisher. In this case, someone had written in script on some of these pages. My heart leaped as I read the words on the first page with writing:

Oliver C. Case

Co. A. 8th Reg’t

C.V.

If we suffer, we shall also reign with Him. If we deny Him, He will also deny us.

2 Tim. 2

[unreadable] OCT. 13, 1861

[unreadable]

Well, I now knew this belonged to a soldier likely of the Civil War era based on the publication date of the bible. The following page revealed additional writing in another hand:

If you die, die like a man.

Miss Abbie J Case

Hartford

Conn

Miss Jennie A Hartford

Oliver C. Case

The first words on this page would hold my curiosity captive for years to come, “If you die, die like a man.” Who could this person be, Oliver C. Case? Who would write should a phrase? As an Army officer who had just returned from war only two years earlier, I could not imagine using these words to encourage a modern American soldier. I had to find out more about this man and his story, as I immediately felt the connection. It was the beginning of my calling that would only grow stronger with the passage of time. One factual discovery would beg for two more. Never satisfied to accept that learning about this man and his bible had reached their terminal point, I pressed on.

“If you die, die like a man.”

These are the prophetic words written inside the front cover of Oliver Case’s pocket Bible that he carried into battle as he ascended the rolling hills toward the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland on September 17, 1862. Oliver and many of his fellow soldiers in the 8th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry would die on those hills just short of the Harpers Ferry Road at the end of the bloodiest day in American history. But, as Lincoln put it, “these dead shall not have died in vain” and this site is dedicated to the memory of one of those “honored dead,” Private Oliver Cromwell Case of Simsbury, Connecticut.

The chroniclers of Connecticut’s involvement in the Civil War, W.A. Croffut and John M. Morris, envisioned the challenge in telling the stories of the foot soldiers:

…there is a sense of pain and profound sorrow in the consciousness that it is impossible to render justice to the nameless rank and file who never wore even a corporal’s chevron, but held to their duty with sublime patience. The last of the color-guard, who seized the standard that had dropped from the relaxed grasp of his 3 comrades, and bore it on, and planted it and stood by it on the edge of the rebel rifle-pit; the martyr who perished in prison, and ever since has been marked “missing” upon the roll of regimental casualties; the thousand glorious obscure, who were mown down by the flaming blade of battle, and died singing songs of triumph, and praying for the establishment of Liberty and Law, — these are the true heroes and martyrs of all the wars of the world. 1

The great American poet and volunteer Civil War nurse in the Union hospitals of Washington, D.C. was moved to tell the world of this kind of soldier. On August 10th of 1863, Whitman sat down to compose “a few lines” to the parents of Erastus Haskell, a soldier of Company K, 141st New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The poet wanted to relay information about their son who had recently died in the Armory Square Hospital where Whitman had provided him comfort, care and companionship during his last days. One line in his last paragraph gives voice to my purpose in telling the story of Oliver Cromwell Case. Whitman writes, “He is one of the thousands of our unknown American young men in the ranks about whom there is no record or fame, no fuss made about their dying so unknown, but I find in them the real precious & royal ones of this land, giving themselves up, aye even their young & precious lives, in their country’s cause…”2

So, I tell the story of Private Oliver Cromwell Case, one of the real precious and royal ones of this land…

For more on info, please visit John Banks’ excellent blog and the interview he did with me in January 2012.

NOTES:

(1) Croffut, W.A. and Morris, John M., The Military and Civil History of Connecticut: The War of 1861-1865, Ledyard Bill, New York, 1868.

(2) Letter of Walt Whitman to Mr. and Mrs. S.B. Haskell, dated August 10, 1863, access from the Walt Whitman Archive, http://whitmanarchive.org, January 23, 1863.

 

“Ere it was light”

Oliver Case and his fellow soldiers of the 8th Connecticut awoke at daybreak on the morning of September 17th, 1862 to find themselves facing the enemy just a short distance away on the far side of Antietam Creek. “Ere it was light on Wednesday we were aroused blankets rolled up and every man in his accustomed place,” wrote Captain Walcott Marsh of the 8th. (Marsh) With the daylight came the Confederate gunners ability to range the soldiers in blue emerging from the darkness on the Rohrbach farm. It seems that some inexperienced troops from Rodman’s Division when “looking for a glimpse of the rebels” and served as a range marker for the Confederate artillerists. (C&M) The artillery fire had “good range” and quickly found its mark “as they had obtained the exact range [of Rodman’s Division]” positioned on the Rohrbach farm. This artillery fire would exact several causalities in the 8th Connecticut including Sergeant George Marsh of Oliver’s company (A) and three privates assigned to Company K.

So what Confederate artillery units ranged Rodman’s Division at daybreak and where were the guns located? After some research and a couple of terrain walks, I believe I may have a plausible answer to those questions.

The Confederate artillery opposing IX Corps crossing the Antietam included Eubank’s (Va) Artillery Battery. It was assigned to 2nd Battalion of Longstreet’s Corps Artillery which was also known as the Reserve Artillery during the battle of Antietam. This battalion was commanded by Colonel Stephen D. Lee famous for his defense of the Confederate forces in the northern part of the battlefield and for his description of the area as “artillery hell.” Stephen Lee’s battalion arrived at Sharpsburg on the morning of September 15th and after crossing the Antietam Creek, Lee detached Eubank’s Battery which was previously known as Bath Battery, from the battalion and sent them to the right side of the Confederate line to assist with defending against the Union IX Corps in their attempt to cross the Rohrbach Bridge. The battery was commanded by John L. Eubank of Bath County, Virginia and consisted of four different types of guns, a 3-inch ordnance rifle, a 12-pound howitzer, a 6-pound gun and another rifled gun of an unknown type.

The four guns of Eubank’s Battery, according to Ezra Carman’s maps, was situated on high bluff well above the bend in the creek that pointed directly toward Rohrbach’s cornfield and the brigades of Fairchild and Harland which belong to Rodman’s Division. Carman writes that Rodman’s Division “had been put in position in the darkness and when morning came, found itself exposed to the fire of Eubank’s Battery across the Antietam…” (Carman) So, it seems reasonably clear that it was Eubank’s Battery that fired on Rodman’s Division at daybreak, but what about the location of the guns?

Actually, I believe it was one gun from Eubank’s Battery that initially fired on the Union troops that morning and it was located much closer than the battery is depicted on Carman’s map. The first clue is in the letter of Captain Walcott Marsh describing the events of the morning. As daylight began to break “Objects had scarcely become distant around us” wrote Marsh. As the soldiers began to stir, Marsh noted that “the flash of a gun was seen a short distance in front of us on a little hill and in a moment a shell burst over our heads…” (Marsh) This phrase, “a short distance in front of us on a little hill,” is key to understanding the position of the Confederate artillery piece that fired on Rodman’s Division. Several terrain walks quickly revealed that Marsh could not have been describing the location of Eubank’s Battery on the Carman map for it was located on a high bluff at a greater than “a short distance” but still in range.

Lieutenant Matthew Graham of the Ninth New York Volunteers, part of Fairchild’s Brigade, wrote many years after the war that he had observed “considerable activity among some men in grey on the top of one of the hills in our front.” He continued to watch as the Confederate gunners were “apparently shoveling and leveling the ground…preparing a place for their battery to stand.” Graham deduced that the rebels “had gotten their guns up there and were obliged to prepare a platform or level space for them so that the recoil would not force them down the hill.” (Graham)

Eubanks Btty daybreakPossible location of Eubanks’ gun that fired on Rodman’s troops

I set off on another terrain walk to try and locate the precise position of Eubanks’ gun or guns that fired that morning. Interestingly, I stumbled across the site annotated on Carman’s map above by the bright red line. I believe early on the morning of September 17th, 1862, Captain Eubanks, likely acting on information provided by Confederate skimmers positioned near the Antietam Creek or from his own reconnaissance, moved at least one of his artillery pieces to the knoll that formed the inside of the bend in the creek directly opposite the Rohrbach farm. During my terrain walk, I made an interesting discovery.

Eubanks gun positionCould this be the remnants of an emplacement for one of Eubanks’ guns?

I located what appear to be the remnants of fighting position or potentially a gun emplacement in the most likely position as I was able to determine by the accounts of the incident and Carman’s map. Now, I understand this to be somewhat of a stretch since there are many other possible explanations for this site. However, having seen many of these types of positions from Civil War battle sites and having dug a number of modern battle positions myself, this clearly appears to be man-made for the purpose of emplacing an artillery piece. It could well be the result of the Confederate work party observed by Lieutenant Graham preparing a “platform or level space” for a gun to perfectly range the Rodman’s troops on the opposite side of the Antietam.

Eubanks gun viewThe view from the possible location of Eubanks’ gun looking toward the position of Rodman’s Division on the morning of September 17, 1862

Even with the modern growth of trees, this location offers an incredible view of the area occupied by Rodman’s troops that morning. This site is located just below the Georgians Overlook site off the Snavely’s Ford trail and afforded me the opportunity to contemplate the view of the Confederate gunners that morning as “ere it was light.”

 

A Reunion of Brothers

As Ariel and Alonzo Case drilled with the 16th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment at Fort Ward just outside Washington D.C. during the first week of September 1862, they probably did not realize how close they were to their younger brother Oliver. They had last laid eyes on him almost 11 months earlier as the ship bearing him and the other soldiers of the 8th Connecticut moved down the Connecticut River headed for their Camp of Instruction on Long Island, New York. On the evening of September 3, 1862, the 8th arrived in Washington from Aquia Landing in Virginia rushed to the bolster the remnants of John Pope’s Army of Virginia still limping into the capitol from their defeat at the Battle of Manassas, Part II. The regiment camped on the grounds of the White House near the Washington Monument the first night later moving up 7th Street to a military encampment on Meridian Hill.

On the night of September 5th, soldiers of the 8th Connecticut received a shipment of mail including a letter addressed to Captain Walcott Marsh from his brother in-law, Ariel Case, in the 16th Connecticut that had been mailed on September 1st from their encampment at Fort Ward.[1] It would be a safe assumption that among the letters in the mailbag that evening would have been one or more addressed to Oliver Case from one or both of his brothers. As Marsh and Case read their letters that evening, they may have become aware for the first time of the close physical proximity of the Case brothers and the 16th Connecticut. Fort Ward was only about six or seven miles from Meridian Hill across the Potomac River just west of modern-day Reagan National Airport. Now the challenge for these brothers on both sides of the Potomac would be arranging a reunion in midst of the chaos created by the demoralizing defeat of the Union Army at Manassas Junction.

Enter George McClellan to the rescue of the Army, the Capital City and the Case brothers.

With Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s troops moving toward Frederick, MD, his hope is to draw the Union army out of the defenses of Washington. President Lincoln responded to the poor performance of John Pope by bringing back McClellan to oversee the defense of Washington, but McClellan knew he must react to the Army of Northern Virginia’s move into Maryland. In the absence of clear orders directing him to move the army to meet Lee’s invasion, McClellan began to reorganize the army and prepare it to meet the threat from the Army of Northern Virginia. Within two days after Captain Marsh and Private Case received their letters; McClellan decided to start the slow movement of his 84,000 troops out of the confines of Washington. Initially, his action was only intended to expand the defensive perimeter for Washington and potentially react to any Confederate threat to Baltimore. The operation soon turned into a forced march of the entire army toward Frederick and the invading Army of Northern Virginia.

Early on the morning of September 7, 1862, Walcott Marsh, Oliver Case and the soldiers of the 8th Connecticut received orders to march north out of Washington, DC. General McClellan’s newly formed army is slow in leaving the capital city and once on the road, the 8th CVI is delayed until 10:00 am. Roads are crowded with the wagon trains of the Army of the Potomac and thousands of soldiers in hundreds of regiments. The early September Sunday is particularly hot and the sun is beating down on a march route that is covered with a dust cloud stifling the mass of soldiers. The 8th along with the other two regiments of Harland’s Brigade, the 11th Connecticut march a total of 10 miles for the day. A halt is called at Leeboro, Maryland were the brigade will make camp and rest for almost two full days.[2]

It is near the village of Leesboro that the reunion of the Case brothers and Walcott Marsh occurred on Monday, September 8, 1862 on the march from Washington. Leesboro is the modern-day unincorporated town of Wheaton, Maryland.

Leesboro or Leesborough received its name in 1826 and served as a hub for business that naturally developed near the junction of three major roads. Modern Maryland Route 97 was known as the Brookeville Pike or the Washington-Brookeville Pike and ran from Washington to Brookeville, Maryland and then to Baltimore. The Old Bladensburg Road was the second major route through Leesboro now known as Maryland Route 193, University Boulevard connecting the cities of Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Georgetown and Bladensburg. The last route was Veirs Mill Road, Maryland Route 586. During the Civil War it was known as the New Cut Road and ran from the sawmill of Samuel Veirs on Rock Creek to Rockville and then across the Potomac River into Virginia.

Early Monday morning as the 8th began to prepare for their day of marching, a soldier from the 16th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment appeared in their ranks declaring that his regiment “was but a short distance back” along the route of march. Captain Marsh took leave of his company and journeyed to the location where he believed he would find the 16th with his brother in law, Ariel Case. When he found the Connecticut regiment, Ariel and his brother Alonzo, also a soldier in the 16th, were not there. Ironically, the two Case brothers had struck out early that morning moving north in search of the 8th Connecticut and their brother in law, Captain Marsh, and younger brother, Private Oliver Case. In the dust and confusion of thousands of marching soldiers along with a seemingly endless line of supply wagons, Marsh and the Case brothers had passed each other.

Walcott Marsh immediately recognized the situation and hurried back to his regiment after a few quick greetings to some of the familiar Connecticut men in the 16th. Upon returning to the 8th, Marsh found a glorious Case family reunion in progress. The 8th Connecticut and the other two regiments of Harland’s Brigade were stalled on the side of the road awaiting orders to continue (or start) the march giving the brothers a golden opportunity to visit one another. Marsh recounts the scene, “I had a fine time visiting with Ariel, Alonzo, Oliver & self went off in woods & roasted corn, potatoes, picked and eat grapes, peaches, apples & c.”[3]

Brothers The Reunion of the three Case brothers and brother in-law, Walcott Marsh occurred on September 8, 1862 near Leesboro, Maryland

(Photos courtesy of John Banks and Matt Reardon)

During the time of the reunion, the group heard the rumor that the 16th would be assigned to Harland’s Brigade, so as Ariel and Alonzo returned south to their regiment, all in the group parted with the hope that another reunion would soon occur. It would be another week of hard marching through Frederick and over South Mountain before the 16th Connecticut would catch up to Harland’s Brigade and that reunion would occur under the dark clouds of looming battle near Sharpsburg.

 

ENDNOTES:

[1] Mercer, Sandra Marsh and Jerry, Letters to a Civil War Bride: The Civil War Letters of Captain Wolcott Pascal Marsh, Heritage Books, Westminster, Maryland, 2006.

[2] IBID.

[3] IBID.

“..within speaking distance of the rebels.”

George B. McClellan faced an enormous logistical and administrative challenge in moving somewhere on the order of 84,000 troops plus the horses, mules and wagons required to support this army out of Washington, through Frederick and fighting across South Mountain enroute to Sharpsburg. Now the challenge was to slow down that army and move them into the appropriate battle positions to prepare to assault Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia who formed a horseshoe shaped line of defense around the town. As his army moved across South Mountain on September 15, 1862, Major General McClellan began to fan out his corps right and left of the Boonsboro Pike. Burnside and the IX Corps moved to the left of the road spreading out into their initial battle positions across the Ecker and Rohrbach farms. As alluded to in the earlier post, Oliver Case and the 8th Connecticut spent most of the daylight hours on the 16th of September 1862 waiting for orders to move out. Even after receiving their marching orders around 4:00pm, the accordion effect was fully in play as thousands of IX Corps troops attempted to find their positions. The accordion effect in marching is caused by starts, stops and changes in the rate of march and for hundreds of years has served as a source of great frustration to soldiers and commanders alike.

The addition of the green troops of the 16th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment earlier in the day on September 16, 1862 had given Edward Harland his complement of four regiments of infantry. Now the brigade commander had to attempt to emplace his regiments in accordance with the orders received from the division commander, Isaac Rodman. It was no easy maneuver as the sister brigade of Colonel Harrison Fairchild was also attempting to leverage the fading daylight to form in a line of battle on the left of Harland’s Brigade marking the extreme left of the IX Corps and the entire Army of the Potomac. Five days after the battle in his official report, Harland recalled that he complied with General Rodman’s orders by placing his brigade “on the left of Colonel Scammon’s division, supported on the left by the First Brigade, of General Rodman’s division…formed behind a range of hills running nearly parallel with Antietam Creek and about one-quarter of a mile directly back from the bridge…”[1]

A retrospective view of the positioning of these brigades and their subordinate regiments is expectedly difficult owning to differences in perceptions from a variety of witnesses created by encroaching darkness, confusion of being under fire from Confederate batteries and skirmishers, and restrictions of the terrain. As with the previous post, Carman’s map serves as the basis of this discussion with my overlays of possible deviations from the positions he reflects on his maps. Carmen writes that Harland’s Brigade assumed their battle positions on the evening of September 16, 1862 “lying east of the road that ran past the Rohrback house to Porterstown.”[2] This means that as they filed off the road from Porterstown, the regiments would have moved to their left into an area of the farm not under cultivation at the time. It is important to remember that Harland would have dressed or aligned his brigade off the right of Fairchild’s Brigade to his immediate right. The 4th Rhode Island formed the left of Harland’s Brigade “and upon its left lay Fairchild’s brigade of Rodman’s division.”[3]

Harlands Bde 6am Carman.png

Fairchild’s reported that his brigade complied with Rodman’s orders by “taking up a position on the hill in a corn-field on the eastern shore of Antietam Creek, this being the extreme left of the line.”[4] Additionally, Farchild placed “two guns of the Ninth Battery in position on our left flank” to help protect the line from Confederates across the creek.[5] Carman’s maps placed Fairchild’s Brigade in a tight formation running across the eastern edge of the Rohrbach cornfield in a position that is somewhat exposed to enfilade fire from Confederate batteries across the Antietam.

Harlands Bde 6am Revised.png

While the lines of both brigades of Harland and Fairchild were likely not properly dressed and crisp, I believe Carman’s positioning of both may be slightly incorrect based on the battle reports, personal accounts and movements conducted the following morning. Carman seems to have positioned the regiments of Harland’s Brigade too far to the south and into the edge of the Rohrbach cornfield. Even Carmen writes that the “left (of Harland’s Brigade was) opposite the Rohrbach orchard” and that “Fairchild’s Brigade, on the left of Harland’s, was in the northeast part of a cornfield that ran down the road skirting the Antietam.”[6] While this difference may not offer much significance or distinction, I believe Harland’s Brigade faced slightly more to the left of Carman’s position and did not extend into the Rohrbach cornfield but ended opposite the orchard. The 8th Connecticut was likely positioned for the night of September 16, 1862 near a large oak tree and slave cabin on the Rohrbach property. The tree, depicted on Carman’s maps, stands tall even today and the ruins of the slave cabin are clear visible near the tree.

Oak Tree Rohrbach

Massive Hickory Oak Tree on the Rohrbach Farm

 

Slave Cabin ruins2

Modern-day ruins of the slave cabin that stood on the Rohrbach Farm in 1862

 

Oliver Case likely rested in his battle position near these locations on the evening of September 16, 1862 as it became clearly evident that it was “the last night before a great battle and many were enjoying their last nights rest on earth for the two great armies were face to face and the conflict could not be delayed but a few hours longer.”[7] A misty rain began to fall adding to the darkness of the night as Oliver and his fellow soldiers settled in for the night in a “line of battle within speaking distance of the rebels.”[8] For Oliver and 33 other soldiers in the 8th Connecticut, it would be their last night on earth.

ENDNOTES:

[1] No. 151.–Report of Col. Edward Harland, Eighth Connecticut Infantry, commanding Second Brigade, Third Division, of the battle of Antietam

[2] Carmen

[3] Curtis OR

[4] Fairchild OR

[5] IBID.

[6] Carmen

[7] Marsh

[8] IBID

“The ball opened this morning…”

As the dawn broke just before 6:00 AM on the morning of September 16, 1862, Oliver Case and his comrades in the 8th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment awoke from what must have been an uncomfortable night of sleep in a stubble field on the Geeting Farm just outside of Keedysville. After viewing the horrifying results of the battle at Fox’s Gap on South Mountain the previous day, the troops marched about five miles from the gap to the Geeting Farm where they arrived after midnight. After the success at the South Mountain gaps, the Union commander George McClellan was now in pursuit of Robert E. Lee’s Army Northern Virginia who found themselves desperately racing to reunite at Sharpsburg before the Union could attack. The soldiers in blue could sense that a renewed battle was now possible at any point along their route of march. The urgency in their commanders’ voices was evident as orders were passed down the line to press onward. As one company commander from the 8th recalled the night of the September 15th, “…we marched quite a number of miles that day and night to the little village called Keedysville (or some such name) where by midnight we got a chance to lie down for night.”[1]

But as daylight broke over South Mountain behind their hastily assembled bivouac, the soldiers would wait for orders to move. The morning of waiting was not to be wasted by the seasoned troops of the 8th Connecticut who quickly made good use of their time at the Keedysville farm by gathering some local products for breakfast. While food for the soldiers may have been “rare” as the regimental historian put it, “the men got corn in prime from the fields and ate roasted ears and green fruit.” Fires were built for cooking using nearby fences for fuel and “the army soon made the area bare from all its needs.”[2] Water was also in good supply on the farm also known as Crystal Spring or Locust Spring. It provided an excellent source of clear, cool water from the spring near the farm house and it’s likely that Oliver Case filled his canteen from the spring as the regiment awaited orders on the 16th of September. Ironically, some of Oliver’s fellow soldiers would return to this farm in less than 36 hours as patients in the Union hospital established in the farmhouse. For more on the hospital and the farm, see John Banks’ excellent post on his blog.

Commonly referred to in military circles as “hurry up and wait,” this period of waiting and inactivity interspersed with orders to prepare to march followed closely by cancelation of those same orders could be very trying on psyche of the average soldier. Veteran units like the 8th Connecticut had considerable experience with this phenomenon and the individual soldiers had developed their own coping mechanisms. Oliver Case often used the downtime to write his sister and others even when the regiment was on the move. “Having a few leisure moments of spare time I thought I could improve them no better than by writing to you” he penned to his sister as the soldiers waited for their ship at Perryville, Maryland in November of the previous year.[3] It’s also possible that Oliver Case turned to another source of comfort and reassurance as the battle loomed close. Oliver very likely opened his pocket Bible for what may have been the final time that morning on the Geeting Farm to find those words invoking courage inside the front cover, “If you die, die like a man.”

Case Bible2Did Oliver Case open his Bible for the final time on the Geeting Farm, September 16, 1862?

There was good reason for the soldiers of the 8th Connecticut to seek words of comfort and courage that morning. Three hours after daybreak around 9:00 AM, “the ball opened” with the Confederate artillery gunners on the far side of Antietam Creek dropping shells among Union forces.[4] As the soldiers of IX Corps had moved off the road to bed down the previous night, long lines of wagon trains containing the supplies and baggage of the corps had moved up on the road toward Sharpsburg. In the light of morning, they became a tempting target for the artillery batteries of the Confederates. Union artillery batteries answered the salvos with counterbattery fire from their positions on the Ecker farm closer to the banks of the Antietam Creek and near the Middle Bridge. Longer range shells from the Confederates fell amongst the baggage trains sending them running for cover. Captain Marsh of the 8th Connecticut reported that the “baggage wagons which had come up during night were soon sent skedaddling to the rear” of the awaiting infantry troops. While damage was minimal, Marsh remembered that “two or three mules were killed and a wagon or two were smashed up and a few soldiers killed and wounded.”[5]

As the artillery duel kept up for most of the day, the Connecticut soldiers continued to wait along the side of the road for orders. Finally, the orders came late in the afternoon at around 4:00 PM by some reports. Harland’s Brigade was to move forward toward the sound of the guns still dueling across the Antietam. It seemed the time for battle could be close but alas it was not to be on this day. After marching only about one mile, the 8th Connecticut and the rest of the brigade took a left turn off of the Porterstown Road onto a road running from Porterstown to the Rohrbach farm along the back side of the Ecker farm.

8th Route of March 4PM 16 Sep 624:00 PM September 16, 1862 – Harland’s Brigade and the 8th CVI move forward to the sound of the guns

As the troops filed off onto this road leading to the Rohrbach farm, the artillery battle continued but now Oliver Case and his comrades could see the Union batteries doing their work. The 8th Connecticut moved “forward to the line of hills on which our artillery was posted when filed off to left and kept on undercover of hills as much as possible for mile or more but not unobserved by our foe for they shelled us continually but doing no damage.”[6] The movement by the Connecticut troops was slow as the entire Union IX Corps prodded along the Ecker farm with wagon trains, artillery batteries and infantry troops clogging the small farm road forcing many to resort to cross country marching.

During this movement, the hurriedly assembled and hastily transported to the front 16th Connecticut Infantry Regiment joined Harland’s Brigade giving it four infantry regiments. It had been a long journey for the green regiment.

“…Adjutant Burnham, who had been absent, returned with the order that we were wanted at the front. This took us a little by surprise as we did not expect to go into battle so soon. But on went the bundles, and after a tedious march through ploughed fields and forests, passing brigades and divisions, the booming of artillery and bursting of shells sounding louder and louder, we finally joined a brigade consisting of the 4th R. I., and the 8th and 11th C.V.”[7]

With the brigade now complete, Edward Harland would now prepare to emplace his troops for the night on their new home, the Rohrbach farm.

 

NOTES:

[1] Letters of Wolcott P. Marsh (unpublished), accessed from The Eighth Regiment Connecticut Volunteers at Antietam website, http://home.comcast.net/~8cv/8cv-frame.html

[2] Croffut and Morris, 1868.

[3] Case Letters, 1861-1862. (3 November 1861)

[4] Diary of Charles S. Buell, 8th Connecticut, as published on Antietam on the Web, http://antietam.aotw.org/exhibit.php?exhibit_id=369

[5] Marsh.

[6] Marsh.

[7] History of the Sixteenth Connecticut Volunteers, B.F. Blakeslee, The Case, Lockwood & Brainard Company, 1875.

Oliver Case on the Rohrbach farm: Some opening thoughts…

I have always been committed to determining the routes, camps and battle positions of the 8th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry and Oliver Case. I strive to be as accurate as possible in the hopes of not only being true in the telling of Oliver’s story but also in the hopes that I can physically walk in his footsteps. The location at the top of my list has always been the fields and woods around Sharpsburg where Oliver gave “his last full measure of devotion” on September 17, 1862. I’ve had the good fortune of living a short distance from the battlefield for a number of years and getting to know people interested in and knowledgeable about the battle. Somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty hikes, solo and with a few other brave souls, have allowed me a much closer study of the terrain. Also, it has been my privilege to develop and lead a number of military staff rides at Antietam over the past few years that brought me onto the field and into Oliver’s footsteps. No person has been more helpful in the process of understanding what Oliver Case and his fellow Connecticut soldiers faced at Antietam than John Banks, the author of two outstanding books on Connecticut soldiers and CW blogger of the highest order. A man I am now privileged to call a friend.

About two weeks ago, I was able to join John and Bob Anderson (ancestor of Corporal Robert Ferriss, a member of the 8th CVI color guard killed at the battle) to retrace, to the extent possible, the steps of Corporal Ferriss and Private Case of the 16th and 17th of September 1862. It was a wonderful day as detailed by John Banks.

This outing caused me to revisit the route of the 8th Connecticut during these two days. I have studied in great detail and am very familiar with the actions and route of the 8th after 1:00pm on September 17,1862 as all this property from Snavely’s Ford to the 8th Connecticut’s monument is part of the Antietam National Battlefield and accessible (or at least viewable) from the trail system in the park. I believe I have a solid handle on the last four to five hours of Oliver’s young life and John Banks and I have covered this ground on many occasions.

However, since the property is not accessible by the general public, I’ve always made assumptions about the actions of the 8th Connecticut on the day before the battle and the morning of the battle as they marched in from the Geeting Farm near Keedysville onto the Rohrbach farm near the famous bridge that now bears the name of Ambrose Burnside, their commanding general that day. Since our visit to part of the Rohrbach farm two weeks ago made possible by its current owner, Ann Corcoran, I’ve become determined to pinpoint the locations of the 8th with much a greater specificity. In conducting the research and taking into account what I learned during Ann’s tour of the farm, I may have raised more questions for myself than I answered.

Over the next few posts, I will attempt to lay out my best guess as to the locations of the 8th using Ezra Carmen’s maps as a starting point then modifying them to best represent the information from reports and letters of the men who walked the ground over those two days. Some may dispute my conclusions and additional information may help improve my accuracy which I welcome.

Daybreak September 17 Overview Carman

Daybreak, September 17, 1862 on the southern end of the Antietam Battlefield from Ezra Carman’s map (LOC)

“…nothing too good for the soldiers.”

From Oliver Cromwell Case’s letter to his sister dated October 31, 1861 written at Camp Buckingham, Jamaica, Long Island, New York

This phrase caught my eye for the first time even though I’ve read this letter at least a dozen times. It caused me to go back and ponder some previous posts on this subject.

What sounds familiar about those words? It took a little research to pinpoint where I had heard a similar phase…

…from none other than William Tecumseh Sherman!

WT Sherman

There is nothing too good for the soldiers who wear the blue.

Of course, Cump Sherman’s words came about two years after Oliver penned the phrase. Both understood the sentiment of the military leadership and the people of the north. However, Oliver’s declaration from Long Island came at a time when public support for the war effort remained high in the north, the Copperheads notwithstanding. With only about four months worth of significant combat action, the public had yet to grow wearily of the toll the war would soon begin to exact upon the lives of their young men. New Yorkers were among the most enthusiastic supporters of the boys in blue in the fall of 1861.

We are treated much better here than in Connecticut by the citizens. They think there is nothing to good for the soldiers. We are treated with respect wherever we go…[1]  

However, after departing from Long Island on November 1, 1861, Oliver and comrades of the 8th Connecticut would find an even warmer reception awaiting them in the city of brotherly love. We pick up on Oliver’s retelling of the story from his letter of November 3rd:

We were got upon the cars with but little delay and tried to start for Philadelphia which was not so easy a job as you might imagine as we had on 19 passenger cars, but with the help of another engine we got under way and arrived safely at ½ after eleven o’clock where we had a huge dinner and if anyone ever did justice to a dinner, we did to that. I think I never tasted anything so good in my life. We stayed there until nearly five talking and shaking hands with everyone.

On November 2, 1861 from 11:30 in the morning until 5 o’clock in the afternoon, Private Oliver Cromwell Case and his fellow soldiers were hosted by the citizens of Philadelphia. My twenty-five years of service as an Army officer has taught me well that Soldiers with free time in a major population center can spell trouble if not properly occupied and supervised. Chief among the activities of these Soldiers is always the pursuit of food. In fact, when serving as a young lieutenant in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, I was told that one of the rules of the Cavalry Trooper was “never pass up the opportunity for a meal because you never know when you might eat next.” So it was with the nutmeggers on that November day. When Oliver writes that “we had a huge dinner” after arriving in Philadelphia, it’s likely that he had no idea that the keen observations of one of the city’s businessmen and the efforts of a group of ladies was to thank for that meal.

Only six months prior to the arrival of the 8th Connecticut, the citizens of the Philadelphia took action to support the growing number of troops transiting the city. During the closing week of April and the first week of May, Union regiments from the New England states began arriving by both ship and train. Most of these troops proceed along Washington Avenue to board trains bound for Perryville, Maryland, the southernmost location in Maryland accessible by railroad. After noticing the hundreds of soldiers sitting along the streets of the city waiting for their trains, a group of women in the city “formed themselves into a committee, and, with the assistance of their friends and neighbors, distributed coffee and refreshments among the hungry and grateful troops.”[2] These modest efforts to provide refreshments continued for several weeks until the last week of May 1861 when a Philadelphia businessman became involved.

William M. Cooper was a merchant with a store located on Otsego Street just off Washington Avenue when he also noticed the large number of soldiers lounging on the streets of Philadelphia. He managed to convince his partner, Henry Pearce, that their barrel making business could be used to advance the mission to the soldiers started by the ladies of the city. As a result, on May 26, 1861, the Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon opened its doors to serve the Union soldiers passing through the city. Mr. Cooper took the lead role in the effort and served as the committee’s president and chief fundraiser for the duration of the war. A friendly rival, the Union Volunteer Refreshment Saloon, began operating nearby shortly after the establishment of Cooper’s saloon.

The two refreshment saloons provided a welcomed relief for the weary soldiers. As the ladies had first realized, a soldier’s first longing after the long boat or train ride was a cup of hot coffee and so Mr. Cooper converted the large fireplace in his shop into an enormous stove. With this setup, it was possible for the volunteers to brew one hundred gallons of coffee per hour! According to a history of the saloon written immediately following the war, the “coffee was made good and strong, and served up in a purely democratic manner.”[3] I would assume this means that it was one cup for each man.

Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon LOC (exterior view)

Exterior view of the Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon (Library of Congress)

According to the records of the saloon, the soldiers of the 8th Connecticut were divided equally between the Union and Cooper saloons. Oliver does not indicate in which establishment he partook of the “huge dinner” but when he entered the building, he found:

…each table was laid with a clean white linen cloth, on which were arranged plates of white stone china, mugs of the same, knives and forks, castors, and all that was necessary to table use. Bouquets of flowers, the gifts of visitors, were frequently added, and lent their fragrance to the savory odors. The bill of fare consisted of the best the market could supply, and was not, in the articles provided, inferior to that of any hotel in the country. At all meals the fare was abundant; consisting of ham, corned beef, Bologna sausage, bread made of the finest wheat, butter of the best quality, cheese, pepper-sauce beets, pickles, dried beef, coffee and tea, and vegetables.[4]

Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon LOC (inside view)

Interior view of the Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon (Library of Congress)

The Cooper and Union saloons provided an incredible setting for the soldiers to enjoy their meal. One Union Army surgeon provided a detailed description his experience at the Cooper saloon:

We are stopping over Sabbath in Philadelphia, at the above named saloon, where we have been treated with the kindest hospitality. We were met at the ferry by one of the committees, who conducted us to the saloon, where we found tables groaning beneath the real substantials of life. The hall is 150 feet long, by 30 wide, and will accommodate about 350 persons at a time. It is splendidly decorated with wreaths of evergreens, and a great variety of paintings and flags, and is well lighted with gas. At the further end of the hall is a large eagle, stuffed and perched upon a frame enclosing the Declaration of Independence. We were supplied with every thing we could possibly wish.[5]

In September of 1990, I found myself in much the same position as Oliver and the Connecticut boys…waiting around for transportation on my way to war. The USO with many volunteers had established a “saloon” at Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt, Germany providing food, entertainment and, yes, coffee for soldiers deploying to Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Desert Shield. The facility was operated in a German “feast tent” just off the tarmac of the airbase. I don’t believe we enjoyed the same meal as Oliver, but the food was fantastic and represented the last taste of home for many months. Upon return to the United States after the conflict in 1991, we found the same reception waiting for us in both New York and our home base in El Paso, Texas. Today, a USO reception center is found in every major airport in the country and at United States military airbases around the world providing that same warm welcome and food (among many other services) that greeted Oliver Case and the soldiers of the 8th Connecticut in Philadelphia over 150 years ago.

The facility at Cooper expanded to include a hospital on the second floor of the building and both saloons hosted upwards of one million troops during the four years of the war. Mr. Cooper poured his heart, soul and finances into the venture. Sadly, in March of 1880, he died in a condition of debt so abysmal that friends and former soldiers assisted by the Cooper saloon had to come to his rescue to prevent his home from being sold at public auction. William Cooper was fondly remembered as the man who “used his private mean liberally, and no soldier was ever turned away hungry.”[6]

In addition to the History of the Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon by James Moore written in 1866, the following sites provided useful background information on this subject:

The House Divided site of Dickinson College Essay on Philadelphia

Civil War Philadelphia – Volunteer Refreshment Saloons

Notes:

[1] All quotes from Oliver Case taken from the Letters of Oliver Cromwell Case 1861-1862 (unpublished), Simsbury Historical Society, Simsbury, CT (October 31, 1861 and November 3, 1861) unless otherwise noted.

[2] History of the Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon, James Moore, James B. Rodgers, Philadelphia, 1866.

[3] Moore, 1866

[4] IBID

[5] IBID

[6] “A Patriot’s Family in Distress,” New York Times, March 18, 1880.