Thanks to John Banks for helping honor Oliver’s sacrifice.
I’m sure Oliver wouldn’t be offended by a small diversion from his story for a little Gettysburg report in honor of those who gave their “last full measure” on what is quite possibly the world’s most popular battlefield. It’s about noon on Memorial Day 2012 and there is a nice crowd here at Gettysburg which I find somewhat refreshing. Most don’t wander far from the comfort of their vehicle or bus (there are some tour groups moving through). Only a few are crazy like me and strap on a backpack to head out on the trails. It’s a beautiful day but humid and in the upper 80s as I hike through legendary places like Devil’s Den, Little Round Top and Big Round Top. In addition to the physical fitness training aspect, I’m working on a reconnaissance for a future staff ride focused on the 20th Maine and COL Chamberlain. I need to walk the ground again and attempt to gain some empathy for those boys from Maine and Alabama.
As I move up the face of Little Round Top, the same question returns to me…how did the officers get the men to do it? By it I mean, following them into a hail of bullets. Attacking up the steep, rocky slope or charging the attacking enemy with only your bayonet. It doesn’t matter how, it’s just the why that distresses me. But, it’s the same answer every time; they followed their officers and stood beside their friends. They trusted Colonels Chamberlain and Oates as competent officers. Most soldiers would have preferred death to leaving their friends on the left and right then being branded as a coward. Oliver’s letters have made this clear.That’s the significance of Memorial Day that so often is missing in the popular culture. It is a day of death or dying to be more accurate. Trusting the men on your left and right not to leave you in the midst of the fight. Following the man leading you even if it means never seeing home again. Willing to march forward into the hellish storm of shot and shell and, if necessary, die for your country. That’s what Oliver Case envisioned in his words…die like a man.
I returned to my comfortable car and moved on to stop and pay tribute to my direct ancestor who fought here. In doing so, I found a surprise little tidbit of Gettysburg history that probably isn’t covered in any of the standard tours. In fact, you’ll have to go deep to find much written about it.
My g-g grandfather’s brigade, Wright’s Georgia Brigade, penetrated to within a stone’s throw of the famous copse of tree along Cemetery Ridge, not on Day 3 during Pickett’s Charge, but on Day 2! An almost hidden tablet marks the spot where the brigade took advantage of a seam in the Union line of General John Gibbon’s division of troops operating as part of General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps. Gibbon recalled Wright’s men charging through what he called a “vacancy in our line to the left of my division.” The dilemma for Wright was that no other Confederate forces had moved with his brigade and he could hold the high ground his men had fought to win. Wright soon ordered the regiments of the brigade to retire back to the Confederate line near the Bliss farm.
For more detail on Wright’s Brigade at Gettysburg:
Colonel Wright’s report
Battle of Gettysburg: Fury at Bliss Farm from Historynet
3rd Georgia (part of Wright’s Brigade) at Gettysburg with description and photos
Inscribed in pencil inside the Bible of Oliver Cromwell Case are these words, “If you die, die like a man.” [emphasis in original] I’ve often wondered why Oliver (I believe it to be his handwriting but have never definitively proven it) included this particular phrase inside the front cover of his Bible.
Did his father or brothers or someone say this to him as he departed to serve in the 8th Connecticut?
Was this a popular saying among the troops to keep them from cowardly behavior?
I may have discovered a possible answer to this mystery; at least it’s a plausible theory.
In October of 1859, the radical abolitionist John Brown led a force of 18 men in an assault against the U.S. Armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in the hopes of starting a slave uprising to force an end to slavery in the southern states. Although initially unopposed, Brown’s raid was eventually met by force from local farmers, a local militia company and, finally, a force of Marines commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee, U.S. Army. By the end of the second day, Brown and his remaining men were surrounded in the engine house of the armory where a firefight wounded several of Brown’s raiders including his son, Oliver. Oliver begged his father to shoot him and end the suffering caused by his injuries. In response, John Brown told his son, “If you must die, die like a man.”
Brown’s words to his son were widely reported in the popular media of the day and, in the 20th century, were codified in Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem, John Brown’s Body.
John Brown did not try to sleep,
The live coals of his eyes severed the darkness;
Now and then he heard his young son Oliver calling
In the thirsty agony of his wounds, “Oh, kill me!
Kill me and put me out of this suffering!”
John Brown’s jaw tightened. “If you must die,” he said,
“Die like a man.” Toward morning the crying ceased.
John Brown called out to the boy but he did not answer.
“I guess he’s dead,” said John Brown.
Obviously, Oliver Case or anyone else who might have written in the Bible would have been familiar with John Brown’s words to his son. Many in the northern states, including several famous men of the day, lamented Brown’s conviction and subsequent execution in Virginia honoring him as a martyr in the cause of the abolition of slavery. I’ve been unable to determine the political leanings of Oliver Case and his family, but it is possible that there was sympathy for abolitionists and they could have used Brown’s words to his son as an inspiration to have courage when facing death in battle.
The transcription of 28 of the 32 letters of Oliver Cromwell Case written to his sister Abbie found in their original form in the collection of the Simsbury Historical Society are now posted on this site. Simply click “The Letters” tab above.
In one of those ironies of the Civil War, thousands of Union soldiers including Oliver Case were much more comfortable in their camps thanks to an invention by a Confederate general.
Oliver’s letter of May 8, 1862 includes this paragraph:
We received our new Sibley tents yesterday and are much pleased with them. They are perfectly round with a center pole about twelve feet high and a ventilator at the top. The diameter of the tents at the bottom is about twelve feet and they accommodate only twelve.
As the soldiers of Burnside’s Expedition including the 8th Connecticut moved into more permanent camp operations near Newbern, North Carolina, they were excited over receiving new Sibley tents for lodging. These tents offered numerous advantages for camp life including, as mentioned by Oliver, lowering the ratio of soldiers per tent.
A former U.S. Army officer and Confederate General Henry Hopkins Sibley invented the Sibley tent in the 1850s obtaining a patent in 1856. While other conical-style tents existed during the Civil War, Sibley’s design was the first to use a central pole support system that was telescopic with a tripod at the base. This design feature allowed for building a fire-pit inside the tripod that could be used for both cooking and as a heat source. Additionally, as Oliver states in his letter, the tent was equipped with a ventilator at the top providing an escape for the smoke and making it more comfortable for the soldiers. Another innovative feature of the tent was that it did not require the use of guide ropes relying on 24 pegs around its base.
Interestingly, Henry Sibley was obviously a better inventor than military commander. In operations in the New Mexico and Arizona area, Sibley struggled to find success in battle and would eventually be reassigned to serve out the balance of the war in minor positions. Still worse, Sibley would never know financial success from his tent and other associated inventions dying penniless in Fredericksburg, VA in 1886.
Over the past year, I have plodded through the “re-transcription” and analysis of 28 of the 32 letters of Oliver Cromwell Case written to his sister Abbie found in their original form in the collection of the Simsbury Historical Society. A common thread runs throughout all of those 28 letters (and I’m sure in the remaining four)…Oliver’s mastery of the English language and his skill as a writer. There are very few grammatical errors in his letters and most of the errors I’ve found may be a result of the original transcription done in the 1980s or Oliver’s trembling hand during periods he suffered from fever. Oftentimes, his language and phrasing creates absolutely beautiful prose and the letter of May 8, 1862 is an excellent example.
Oliver writes from Newbern, North Carolina:
When I last wrote you, we were among the sand hills of Bogue Island where a spear of green grass was a curiosity and where sand flies and fleas seemed as if to foreclose mortgages upon your carcass, but now “thank fortune” we are once more in an inhabitable country where everything is calculated to make one enjoy himself. The ground is carpeted, the trees are covered with foliage and both upon the ground and trees abound. [underscore in original]
The first sentence also made me think for a moment that Oliver possibly possessed a little Nostradamical prognostication ability to look into our current mortgage crisis in America. Of course, anyone who’s been the victim of sand fleas and flies certainly understands Oliver’s desire to evacuate the confines of the Bogue Banks.
But, back to Oliver the writer. Most soldiers during the Civil War wrote letters to family and friends during the war. However, misspellings and grammatical errors were commonplace in letters of the enlisted soldiers who tended to have less education as a group. The officers’ letter-writing skills benefited from more advanced educational opportunities. Oliver’s skill as a writer is the direct result of the Case family’s emphasis on education. The historical record shows that Oliver’s older brother, Alonzo, spent his early years in a one-room schoolhouse near the family farm in Simsbury. Alonzo moved on to continue his education at the prestigious Connecticut Literary Institute, Suffield and Wilbraham Academies. Even though I’ve been unable to confirm it, Oliver probably followed much the same educational path as his older brother.
To close, a few other examples of Oliver’s skill as a writer:
We are very pleasantly situated, much more so than at Hartford, the ground being slightly sloping to the south making it quite dry and pleasant with the exception that it is a very windy location outside of the camp streets so there is not much danger of getting asleep of guard although we have a large camp fire burning continually. [28 October 1861]
When we are not out on duty we go when and where we have a mind to! So you perceive that we are privileged characters. This city in the north would hardly get the attention of a village; there is not a name to a street or number on a door in the city; the streets are overgrown with grass and overrun with rubbish except the ones that lead to the camp, those are traveled by army wagons. [11 November 1861]
Probably my favorite passage in any of Oliver’s letters:
I attended colored church Sunday evening and if there was ever enthusiasm in any place, there was there. Whilst the minister was preaching there was much shouting and clapping of hands. His subject was the readiness of Christ to receive all sinners; he was quite eloquent, but he handled the subject different from what we usually hear it, making some of the most singular comparisons that I ever heard. After the sermon there was delivered such prayers accompanied by such yelling and groaning as you never heard, but the climax was not reached until they commenced to sing, each one singing to suit him or herself using same repetition (to suit his taste) after every line. The other words appeared to be composed for the occasion; they kept time by snapping fingers, stamping, rocking their bodies too and fro. Every little while such unearthly shouts were made that it really reminded me of a mad house. There was a little negro sitting by the side of me, and seeing that I was pleased said, “You ought to hear them, some nights they make a heap more noise than tonight, sometimes they knock down the stove by their stamping.” [13 November 1861]
Only a true writer would attempt to describe a cough:
There are all kinds of coughs here from the common cold, cough to the consumptive and from the whooping cough to the crazy hack. It is amusing to be awake and hear the different kinds of hack and to count them. [3 January 1862]
Oliver poured out his heart over the death of his friend, Henry Sexton, in what is the saddest letter of the collection:
I never felt so bad in my life as when I saw that here was no hopes of his recovery. It seemed as though I had lost the only friend I had with me. But thanks be to God what is our loss is his gain. He was prepared for the final change. [7 January 1862]
And so, it is my great privilege and duty to handle the letters of the writer, Oliver Cromwell Case.
Referring to the election of Abraham Lincoln two days earlier, the editors of the Charleston Mercury declared on November 8, 1860 “The tea has been thrown overboard. The Revolution of 1860 has been initiated.”
Next to the fight for independence from Great Britain, the American Civil War marked a defining period for us as a nation. That’s why many politicians and military leaders in the south referred to it as the Second War of Independence or the War for Southern Independence. In the north, disunion and slavery were unacceptable terms of existence and could not be allowed to remain. For young men of this generation both north and south, military service was a mark of patriotic duty for your country. Those who purposely avoided service were often ridiculed although conscription would become necessary for both armies to meet manpower requirements later in the war.
The question of why soldiers on both sides of the conflict chose to enlist and fight has long been the subject of discussion among historians and philosophers. Civil War veteran of the 12th Connecticut and post-war novelist John W. De Forest captured one of the primary reasons men not only enlisted, but were willing to march into what seemed to be certain death in spite of their natural instincts:
Self-preservation is the first law of nature. The man who does not dread to die or to be mutilated is a lunatic. The man who, dreading these things, still faces them for the sake of duty and honor is a hero.
In keeping with this line of thought, I’ve often pondered Oliver Case’s motivation for joining and fighting with the 8th Connecticut. By studying his 32 letters to his sister Abbie plus the post-war writings of his brother Alonzo and other sources, I’ve developed a short list of possible reasons. I’ve chosen to compile this list now because of my study of his letter from 28 April 1862 during which Oliver opines of the prospects of being discharged from the Army due to his recurrent episodes of fever.
Possible reasons for Oliver Cromwell Case’s decision to join (and continue serving) the 8th CVI:
1. Patriotic Fervor: Immediately following the July 1861 Union defeat at Bull Run as many politicians, generals and citizens began to realize that this would more than a one-battle war and that sacrifice in serving the nation would require more manpower. The shocking defeat of the first battle in Northern Virginia has only served as a rallying cry for renewed support of the war. President Lincoln’s call for additional volunteers was followed by stirring speeches and rallies in towns across the north. On August 15, 1861, Connecticut Governor William A. Buckingham issued a general call for volunteers to make up the four additional regiments from his state required to answer the president’s call. Enthusiasm for the war effort in Connecticut was running high and the citizen support the governor’s attempt to meet the state’s quota for troops.
Meetings were held in the different towns, at which the citizens flocked to listen, to applaud, to encourage enlistments, and to contribute to the volunteer fund. Immense mass-meetings were held in the cities, — the largest and most excited gatherings ever seen in the State.
Pastors in Connecticut, such Ichabod Simmons of Simsbury, made appeals from the pulpits for young men to do their duty. The 37-year old former cabinet maker has served as the pastor in Simsbury for only about one year coming to the church as his first congregation. In a sermon entitled, Our Duty in the Crisis, Simmons chooses a passage from the Old Testament prophet, Zechariah:
And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried: they shall call on my name, and I will hear them: I will say, It is my people: and they shall say, The LORD is my God. [Zechariah 13:9]
The sermon is not only a call for humiliation, prayer and fasting as President Lincoln intended when he issued his proclamation for a national day of fasting, but Simmons also stirs the citizens with an urgent appeal to sacrifice in the service on their country.
Loyalty is not mere patriotism; that is love of country, right or wrong; but loyalty is love of country kindled into a brighter glow by the love of principle. It is the soul mounting above mere affection, into the atmosphere of heroic sacrifice. Life is not too sacred for its altars and nothing but duty should keep any from the post of danger.
It is unknown if Oliver Case was in attendance, but it would have been possible since he would likely not have been required to report for duty until the following day. Even though Oliver does not specifically mention any of these factors in his letters (surely this would have been discussed with his family prior to his enlistment), this call for young men to serve their country must have impacted Oliver. The tone and words in his letters indicate a strong sense of duty. Sometime prior to October 13, 1861, Oliver received a pocket Bible which he inscribed the following in his own handwriting:
If you die, die like a man.
2. Tradition of military service: Oliver’s genealogy reveals an almost unbroken tradition of service by his direct male ancestors. This includes colonial militia, revolutionary war service and his father’s term as a captain in the local militia. His home in Terry’s Plain was located very near the parade field were Oliver was sure to have observed the militia drills on a regular basis. Although both of them would later join the 16th Connecticut, in 1861 both of his brothers were married with children and heavily engaged in farming operations making Oliver the more logical candidate to enlist in the Connecticut regiment and carry on the family tradition of military service. Preparing to face his first taste of combat, Oliver writes on March 11, 1862, “A man better die fighting for his country than at home.”
3. To make his mark: Oliver lived in the shadow of his older brothers, Ariel and Alonzo, who had already established themselves prior to the war. While he seems to have maintained a good relationship with both brothers, Oliver’s letters to Abbie indicate a strong desire to establish himself and establish his identity. At one point, Oliver even contemplates joining the regular Army:
There has been some talk of enlisting in the regulars. The recruiting officer has been around in some regiments and many have enlisted. He has not been here and probably not in this division, but doubtless will be. I should like very much to enlist but will not until I hear from home, and know what you think about it. As for me, I should like it better than anything else I can do. Write what Father and Mother think about it when you receive this.
Despite his clear desire to serve his country and his proven ability to bravely face combat, Oliver struggles with an old nemesis that has brought him dangerously close to termination of his service before. As he writes to Abbie on April 28, 1862, Oliver expresses doubts about his ability to continue functioning as a soldier due to the return of the feverish condition known as Ague:
I have the Ague about two days out of three; I have an excellent appetite and eat more victuals and “quinine” than two men should. My discharge was made out the Capt. about ten days since; he says he will do all he can to get it through. Don’t think I am hard sick for I am around cooking and shaking, hardly ever contented to be in my tent. Now that I have told you this, don’t think that I am coming for it is not such an easy thing to get a discharge and as far as living is concerned, I could live three years and shake all of the time, but I never should be of any use to the army.
So was life for many a soldier in the Civil War disease often proving more deadly than the enemy’s shot and shell. The aforementioned discharge would never come to realization and Oliver Case would continue to serve with honor right up to the most critical moment of the war paying the ultimate price to help save the Union.
 Quoted from The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union, George M. Fredrickson, University of Illinois Press, 1993, page 167.
 The Military and Civil History of Connecticut: The War of 1861-1865, W.A. Croffut and John M. Morris, 1868
 Our Duty in the Crisis: A Discourse Delivered on the Occasion of the National Fast, September 26, 1861 in the M.E. Church, Simsbury By Rev. Ichabod Simmons, Hartford: Press of Case, Lockwood and Company, 1861.
 Oliver Cromwell Case Bible, handwritten notes inside front cover.
 Oliver Case letter to Abbie Case, March 11, 1862, Simsbury Historical Society.
 Oliver Case letter to Abbie Case, April 28, 1862, Simsbury Historical Society.