Oliver’s first taste of battle – Part I
As the fleet of Army transports carrying the troops of Ambrose Burnside’s expeditionary force lay at anchor in the mouth on Slocum Creek 12 miles south of the North Carolina city of Newbern, Oliver Case was about to get his wish to try his hand at fighting. While back aboard the old familiar surroundings of the “Chasseur,” Oliver read a letter from his sister, Abbie, received on the 11th of March 1862 from a ship of Union fleet traveling from the north. The mail call was a time of much interest from the soldiers of the 8th CVI as it had been a considerable period since the last delivery.
You ought to have seen that boat about eleven o’clock, every light occupied by at least a dozen different persons each anxious to read the news from home.
Oliver and his comrades would have only about 36 hours left to digest the latest news from the homefront. By Friday morning, the orders were given by General Burnside to commence the landing operations. Oliver and the soldiers of the 8th CVI along with the other regiments in Parke’s Brigade landed “in a small cove and immediately commenced marching up the river.” The river was actually Slocum Creek which probably seemed more like a river to Oliver and many of the boys from Connecticut. The 8th marched along the creek’s edge on what Oliver called “the beach” for about two miles before turning to head inland. Not long after heading away from the water, the regiment came upon a welcome sight that was just too good to resist for some of the troops.
In a short time we came up to an encampment of cavalry which had been evacuated but a short time. Some of the boys fell out and helped themselves to chickens, ham, biscuits etc.
Good things cannot last and so it was for the feasting troopers who were soon given the order to move out. In a scene that would be a preview of Burnside’s infamous “mud march” in Virginia almost one year later, the troops struggled against terrible conditions.
We travelled till after sundown over the muddiest road (if road it could be called) that I ever saw.
The units saw little enemy activity during on the first day of the campaign, only evidence of their former presence in the area. Oliver observed the abandoned enemy camps and fortifications realizing that the soldiers of Parke’s Brigade may have dodged the bullet for this day.
About the middle of the afternoon we came to the first battery, which had just been evacuated and the barracks set on fire, which were still burning as we passed. We found out afterward that if we had been a day later the rebels would have had their forces there and mounted and it would have taken the lives of many men to have dislodged them for it is a very strong point. The fortification is a mile long, with a large ditch in front protected in the rear by breast works of huge trees felled top of one another. It would have been almost impossible to have flanked them and they would undoubtedly have had to be charged upon to have dislodged them.
After struggling against the terrible road conditions, the troops were allowed to make camp for the night to include building fires using the available pitch pine wood which burned even in the wet conditions. That night, the rain “commenced in good earnest” creating miserable conditions for the soldiers who found that “after 12 o’clock very little sleeping was done by the soldiers in this division.” Oliver observed that the milder southern climate granted some relief when the order to move out came at 6 am, although “our blankets were as heavy as 8 ought to be.”
The regiments and brigades of Burnside’s expedition were up and moving again on the morning of 14 February 1862 advancing toward Confederate breast works that, unlike those of the first day, were occupied by soldiers in gray and butternut. As his regiment approached the works, it was the moment of truth for Private Case as “the balls rung tunes over our heads and occasionally played a little nearer our heads than we cared for.” It was the beginning of his baptism of fire.
One of the phenomenons that are difficult to understand for those who have never experienced it is that in the midst of battle there is still room for humor. So it was for Oliver Case and the soldiers of Company A, 8th CVI:
Philo Matson, from out on Firetown mountains, was in the rank ahead of me and was much frightened; he would have fell out if possible. The orders were given to fall down, right up, fix bayonets, fire. As soon as I had fired, I heard Philo say, “Oh, I’m killed”, turned and saw a slight flesh wound on the top of his head. I certainly could not help laughing to see him. He turned to the orderly and asked him if he thought he was killed and, when he found out that he was still in the land of the living, took his gun and made himself missing as soon as possible.
Here stands Oliver in the middle of bullets flying over his head, any one of which could strike him and cause instant death, yet he’s laughing. For his part, Private Philo A. Matson of Canton “made himself missing” on a permanent basis being listed as a deserter in April 1862.
The humor was short-lived as some of the Confederate rounds found their mark. Two companies of the 8th (G and H, actually K) were sent out as skirmishers as company A and the remainder of the regiment lay on the ground with the bullets buzzing just above them. Oliver reports to Abbie on the first causalities of the battle:
Capt. Epham [This name was unclear to the original transcriber] of Co. H was wounded in the shoulder at this time; it is feared mortally. Howes Phelps from Co. B was killed.
In fact, there is no record of a Capt. “Epham” in the 8th CVI. The company commander of company H at this time appears to have been Capt. Thomas D. Sheffield of Stonington who had replaced Capt. Douglass Fowler [INSERT LINK]. Sheffield originally enlisted in company G as the 1st Lieutenant and it is assumed he was promoted and transferred to company H upon the resignation of Fowler. He was honorably discharged on January 17, 1863. Rolls of the 8th confirm that Houlsey F.D. Phelps (aka “Howes”) of East Windsor (likely a distant cousin of Oliver), was killed at the Battle of Newbern on March 14, 1862. Capt. “Epham” was likely Capt. Charles L. Upham, commander of company K, who was reported as being wounded in the battle by the account of Croffut and Morris, but this status is not found on the company rolls.
These causalities occurred during the assault of the Confederate battery known as Fort Thompson described by Oliver:
At this time, word came that the 21st Mass. had charged upon the battery and were repulsed. We were ordered on double quick through [word unreadable] until we reached the rail road where was a high embankment where we halted to form.
Moving quietly down the railroad, Colonel Harland had positioned his regiment to assault the battery from the flank. Oliver observed some deception in the works:
We were then ordered to fall and by mistake our colors fell too, and the rebels, deceived by our gray coats, took us to be rebel reinforcements arriving by rail road and ceased firing upon us; this mistake probably saved many lives.
The soldiers were ordered to fix bayonets and the charge was then directed by Colonel Harland:
“…with a clear, shrill voice, and the emphasis of coming victory, rang the orders, “By company into line!” An advancing front of forty men appeared before the astonished rebels. ” Fix bayonets ! ” It was done at a rapid walk. ” Forward into line ! ” Up the embankment, and across the railroad, dashed the rear companies, coming into line within a hundred paces of the works. “Steady, guide center, forward, double quick ! ” [Croffut and Morris]
And here is one of those points of disputed history. From Oliver’s view:
When we started from there we went double quick to charge their battery, but as they did not like the look of cold steel they left in a hurry. The color guard immediately ran up to the battery and planted the colors which were the first upon the battery.
At least three regiments including the 8th CVI would claim the title of “First to Plant the Flag” upon the Confederate works. The 11th CVI and the 4th Rhode Island would also declare that they were the first regiment to the top. Croffut and Morris reported it this way:
The Eighth contests the claim of the 4th Rhode- Island to having first entered the enemy’s works; and it is certain that the flag of the Eighth was first displayed therein.
Of course, the 8th CVI had a significant advantage here as “Morris” was the Rev. John M. Morris who would become the regimental chaplain just over one month after the Battle of Newbern.
To be continued…