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.