On Thursday, November 21, 1861 from his quarters near Camp Burnside in Annapolis, Maryland, Oliver Case composed one of his longest letters to his sister Abbie. In accordance with the tradition of the time, this day, the last Thursday in November, was observed as Thanksgiving. However, Oliver makes no direct reference to the significance of the day. This could well be attributed to his longing for the people and the places of home in Simsbury. In the depth of his letter, it is easy to detect this desire for home and the conversation with his sister.
The letter covers a wide variety of subjects starting with Oliver’s earnest concern for a lack of correspondence from his sister, a common theme in many of his letters. He states his purpose in writing this letter is to “induce” in Abbie a desire to “write in reply.” Oliver mentions that he has recently received letters from both of his brothers and he has shared some important news with Ariel that two of his friends, Duane Brown and H.D. Sexton, are sick in the camp hospital. He also shares his visits with them in the hospital and offers his opinion that both should soon recover and return to the normal life of a soldier.
Oliver moves from the news of family friends to a description of his daily duties and the happenings of the camp. His work as part of the provost patrol for the city of Annapolis requires an eight-hour tour of duty moving about the city plus additional time for maintaining his equipment. Oliver seems to have a specific concern about certain camp rumors making their way back to Abbie writing that “you hear such exaggerated accounts and reports about everything that happens here.” The exact nature of the particular rumors is unclear, but he goes on in the letter to describe the arrival of new units in the camp and departure of other units bound for Fortress Monroe on the Virginia coast.
Among the other happenings the young Private Case describes are the adventures of his patrols. Although he proclaims this duty to be mostly quiet, during his eight-hour patrol, Oliver estimates that they arrest “four or five daily and those are mostly sober.” However, alcohol is a problem for some of the soldiers as Oliver’s patrol has “spilled several casks of liquor to say nothing of jugs, demijohns, and bottles, which we have thrown out.”
Oliver also mentions the visit to his camp of a Major Hathaway who by implication seems to be from Connecticut and possibly a recruiter or representative of the Governor. Whatever his position, Major Hathaway is familiar with the Case family as he tells Oliver “that our people were well…” In the only reference to Thanksgiving in the letter, Major Hathaway shares with Oliver “that he was going to be at L.G. Goodrich’s for Thanksgiving.” Hathaway also promises to return to the camp for another visit if the 8th CVI is still there in about two weeks. He also makes mention of a person named “Lucius” that he might bring along for his next visit.
In his typical fashion, Oliver switches for the next two sentences into his appreciation for a set of gloves provided by Ariel and Abbie apparently financed by his father. Just as quickly, he moves back into the camp news and rumors telling Abbie that there is great uncertainty as to the future plans for the 8th. Oliver also points out that the 51st New York Infantry is “the hardest set of boys that encamp here…not excepting the zouaves.” Oliver’s description seems wholly consistent with the popular image of the New Yorkers. The 51st will later play a key role in the capture of Burnside Bridge during the battle of Antietam after being promised the return of their whiskey ration by their brigade commander.
Oliver then spends a few lines on the chaplain of the 8th CVI, Joseph J. Woolley of Norwalk, Connecticut, and his most recent sermon entitled “What is truth” from John 18:38. According to Oliver’s assessment, Chaplain Woolley is “a very talented man” who is “liked very much by” all the soldiers.
He begins the next long paragraph with a description of the relationship between the citizens of Annapolis and the soldier which seems to have warmed after a rocky start. The soldiers are being given all types of food treats from the locals including “shortcakes, gingersnaps, cookies” and “other little knickknacks.” Oliver also writes of his hope to be paid by the following week and asks for clarification on the news of Simsbury’s Joseph R. Toy going into camp with his regiment. He asks Abbie for the news of the harvest on the farm in a tone that implies his desire to be part of that life again. Oliver provides his prediction of the length of the war in response to those who believe it will end within six months.
In the final and shortest paragraph of the letter, Oliver inquires as to the health of his grandmother and laments as to his lack of stamps and writing material which he hopes to replenish upon being paid. The letter comes to close as he is interrupted by his efforts “to get some Ginger snaps that a negro woman is giving to the boys.” His Thanksgiving is now as good as it can get because he pronounces the cookies as “excellent.”
And that’s the Thanksgiving of a young soldier away from home preparing for war 150 years ago.