Oliver…the Writer

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.

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