A Rough Passage

Oliver composes his next letter to his sister Abbie on January 19, 1862, on the day after he arrives aboard the schooner Recruit in the Hatteras Inlet of North Carolina. His last letter announced the arrival of his ship at Fortress Monroe on January 13th and according to this letter, Recruit left Monroe on January 18th for the passage south. Most of the vessels in Burnside’s Expedition have arrived off the North Carolina coast by the time the Recruit reaches the inlet. The schooner is being used as a hospital ship and Oliver has spent the majority of the past three weeks on the hospital ship although he professes to be in good health after several bouts with fever.

The largest amphibious operation to this point in American military history has not gone well for General Burnside and his fleet of ships. Typical winter weather along the east coast amplified by a significant storm that hit just as the fleet left Fortress Monroe has caused considerable delays in the movement. The passengers and crew of the Recruit also experience these storms during their journey.

Oliver describes the wild scene on board the ship:

The waves ran pretty high through the day and increased to a gale at night. At 12 o’clock the waves swept over the deck and carried away the ship’s boats, the vessel rocking at the same time so violently as to rock some out of their berths and send all the wood and boxes tumbling over the deck. The wind broke loose gaff (a piece of round timber 8 inches through and sent it flying over the deck. The boilers (large heavy copper which are kept on the stove continually) of coffee were overturned and the boiling liquid sent streaming over the deck. The confusion was general, many falling out of their berths, others falling flat upon the floor. One boiler fell down the hatchway making causalities too numerous to mention.

For his part, Oliver finds a bit of humor in his personal experience with the rough passage:

I was fast asleep when I heard the racket and such laughing and enraging [?] I never heard before. One thing was falling here, another there – those that were in their berths rolling from one side to the other (that is those that were lucky enough to keep in) and those that were holding on to the sides. There was no danger, only a little rolling and a little fun.

Later in the letter, Oliver shows more of his indifference to the stormy conditions by writing that he “slept very soundly when in my berth while everyone else were rolling about the deck.”

Burnside’s Expedition does suffer some causalities and the lost of vessels. Although he is still on the ship, Oliver provides a fairly accurate description of the disposition of the fleet in his letter to Abbie. This includes the sinking of the gunboat Zouave and the drowning of Colonel Allen and Surgeon Wellen of the 9th New Jersey who died as a result of the swamping of their small boat as they returned to their ship from a shore reconnaissance.

A New York Times Special Correspondent gives a complete description of the journey.

Wreck of the Gunboat Zouave in Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina, January 1862

Oliver goes on to express his concern about the fate of his regiment, the 8th Connecticut, from whom he has not heard. Also, he returns to the subject of the Zouave Drum Major we met in his letter of January 9th.

The Zouave drum major died night before last (sic?) and his body left at Annapolis. He was a commissioned officer and had no business to come with us on the hospital ship.  The band to which he belonged was dissolved 2 weeks before he started but he was getting $60.00 a month which was too good a berth [?] to give up without a struggle. He never was well enough to come aboard. He died of the rheumatic fever.

In my research, I have been unable to determine the identity of this drum major. I presume the “Zouaves” referred to in Oliver’s letters are the 9th New York Infantry.  However, I cannot locate a drum major reference other than Charles T. Smith who mustered in on May 4, 1861 and was discharged only three weeks later for incompetence.

Oliver closes his letter by asking about several of his friends from back home and passing along his regards to family members. He seems to be glad to stay and work on the ship serving the sick, “if it were not for that horrid sea sickness.”


Anchors Away: Heading for Dixie

Writing from on board the schooner “Recruit” beginning on January 9, 1862, Oliver writes in a journal type of format for the next five days making a short entry on each day. The schooner is being used as one of two hospital ships in Burnside’s expeditionary force. A New York Times article from February 12, 1862 provides a description of the two hospital ships and their surgeons.

Oliver’s entries are short due primarily to the rough seas the vessel is encountering sailing for Fortress Monroe. They are expected to depart on January 9th, but are forced to wait until the 11th before sailing. There are several interesting items from the letter over the five days:

Oliver has “great confidence in our new doctors” and expresses his regret that “we did not have the doctors before and have something done for Sexton.” He offers as evidence of the clinical effectiveness of these new physicians the fact that “the sick are much better; none dangerous.” This is more likely attributed to leaving the preventative medicine nightmare of camp life for the fresh air of the open seas. There is some recognition of this by the doctors who order the soldiers to go out on deck for fresh air at various times while on the schooner. Oliver mentions the head surgeon of hospital ship, Dr. S.A. Green of the 24th Mass.

For his part, Oliver is “in the best of health with a good appetite.” Because of his helpfulness in caring for the sick soldiers, the nurses provide him with extra rations. In fact, he confesses to eating “two rations at every meal…” Oliver does mention that he has a sore throat but attributes it to “smoking strong tobacco.” The revelation that he smokes is not surprising given the fact that his father, Job Case, is a tobacco farmer back in Simsbury.

Oliver also writes about a “Zouave drum major, a Frenchman who cannot understand English, is quite bad off with the rheumatism.” After the patient tries to get up and move around, he falls and can’t get back up. Oliver and another soldier “carried” the drum major back to his bed. He also comments that “the Dr. talks with him in French.”

The food aboard the ship is a problem for Oliver and the other soldiers as a creative cook attempts to make soup from sea water. The soup is so awful that the soldiers not only complain to the doctor, but begin to circulate a petition to go to “the general” likely meaning General Burnside. Oliver is not impressed by the efforts of his shipmates and does not “approve of it; think it will amount to shucks.”

Many of the soldiers become seasick during the journey and the ship finally reaches Fortress Monroe on January 13, 1862. He describes the scene in the harbor as “one forest of masts” and welcomes the opportunity “to send and receive letters now…” Oliver has formed friendships with the other soldiers and is “now acquainted with nearly all on board and enjoy it very much, perhaps more than with our own company.” On the day of their arrival at Fortress Monroe, the soldiers are treated to some fun “seeing the Dr. shoot at ducks with his revolver.”



“…the most sorrowful time that I ever witnessed.”

The new year of 1862 did not start well for Oliver Case. He was stuck aboard the schooner “Recruit” in Annapolis Harbor being used as a hospital ship for soldiers in Burnside’s expeditionary force awaiting their orders to sail for the coast of North Carolina. He continued to suffer episodes of ague, a condition involving fever, chills, and what he termed as “shakes.” Oliver’s condition had passed by the time he writes a letter to Abbie on the 7th of January 1862 and he is acting as a medical orderly assisting the physicians in various ways plus pulling guard duty.

However, this letter is the most heartbreaking of any of the letters of Oliver Cromwell Case that I have read. Oliver and his shipmates are only hours from sailing for their first combat experience against the Confederates in North Carolina, but the young soldier must express the deep grief to his sister. As he writes his sister, Oliver is in a time of immense misery having just experienced what he calls “the most sorrowful time that I ever witnessed.” In the period of just a few days during the first week of the new year, Oliver has lost two of his friends in the regiment. As mentioned in earlier letters, both Duane Brown and Henry D. Sexton have been ill with trips to the hospital while still in the training camp at Annapolis. It seems Brown was suffering with “measles and the Typhus Fever” while Sexton had what Oliver called “jaundice.” Henry Sexton had succumbed to the condition at noon on the day Oliver wrote to his sister and Duane Brown appears to have died just a few days before at a hospital ashore and was buried the day before Sexton’s death.

I will quote large portions of his letter beginning at this point because I think Oliver describes the experience so well.

Sexton was a little worse Sunday, but not so bad, that he was around. He said that if he were at home he should be sitting in the rocking chair writing but as there was no place to sit down he kept his bunk. I prevailed upon the Dr. to have his bunk changed to a more comfortable one Sunday night and Monday morning I talked with him. I thought that his mind wandered a little. I left him about two. In the morning he was not conscious and repaired nearly all day in the stupid state.

From this point, Sexton’s condition takes a horrible turn for the worst.

About three he had a spasm and rushed out of his bunk. I had no control of him as he could handle me like a child…It was very difficult to get anyone to take hold of him as they seemed to be afraid of him. It took five of us to hold him and keep him from tearing his face with his hands. He would bite at us and froth to the mouth, making a horrid noise all of the time. I stayed over him twenty four hours in succession before his death. I never saw anything so horrible in my life and if it had not been for the sailors I do not know what I should have done.

Oliver is very dissatisfied with the medical care his friend received while on the ship and does not mince words.

He never has had any care upon the boat from the Dr…He used to come around in the morning and ask him how he did – tell him to cover up and keep warm – perhaps give him a pill. He had only his own blanket and lay down upon the lower deck where it was very cold, damp, and close and where it was an impossibility to keep warm. I used to give him my blanket when I was on guard and when he could not get warm got into the berth with him. I tried all I could to have the Dr. convey him to the hospital Sunday when I began to see that he was getting worse. He also begged him to be carried there and he finally promised that he might go the next day, but the next day was too late. With even ordinary care he might have got well in a short time.

Oliver does not want for his sister to share this experience with “anyone whatever” because he “never felt so bad in my life as when I saw that here was no hopes of his recovery.” Then comes the heartbreaking portion of the letter that shows the devastation of Oliver’s loss. He tells Abbie that “It seemed as though I had lost the only friend I had with me.”

In Oliver’s moment of deepest grief, we gain a glimpse of the source of sustainment for him and the reason to hope for his friend Henry.

But thanks be to God what is our loss is his gain. He was prepared for the final change. Only the day before he was taken unconscious he remarked that there was only one thing that supported him during his illness at the hospital, and now when he got low-spirited, “The religion of Jesus Christ was his sustainer.”

Oliver then turns to the death of Duane Brown but uses only one paragraph in his description as he was obviously not a witness to his passing.

Duane went to the hospital Sunday with the measles and the Typhus Fever set it, and carried him off. He had the best of care at the hospital, as good or better than he could have had at home. Everyone that has been there speaks of the excellent care, accommodations, food etc. that they get there.

Oliver gives a Abbie a brief report on his duties aboard the ship but quickly returns to conclude by relaying the aftermath of his friend Henry’s death.

I got another man to write to Sexton’s wife for I could not do it at the time. I telegraphed this morning…We put all of Henry’s things in a box and sent by express. They would not let me help pay the expenses because they said that I had done my part by being with him all the time.

Almost anticipating the concerns of his sister, Oliver closes this sad story with another comforting note.

Sexton died easy but unconscious.