However, the brief layover in the key transportation hub of Perryville gave the soldiers of the regiment an opportunity to stretch their legs and, as in Oliver’s case, write letters to family and friends. In the first year of the Civil War, Perryville, Maryland was a divided town in a divided state with over 800 slaves in Cecil County and a definitely strong contingent of Confederate sympathizers. The tensions in the eastern portion of Maryland rose considerably after Confederate supporters attacked Union soldiers as they passed through Baltimore on April 19, 1861. Railroads were destroyed and bridges were burned crippling ground transportation to areas south of the city. As a result of this incident and the increased concerns of the federal government, Perryville became a major staging and transportation nucleus for Union material and soldiers moving to Annapolis and other points south. In fact, the city was the southern terminus for the Union-controlled rail transportation network. Upon reaching Perryville, supplies and troops were transferred from rail to water transportation. By the time Oliver Case and the troops of the 8th Connecticut reached the city just before midnight on November 2, 1861, the transportation cross-docking system had become firmly established.
In November of 1861, Maryland was far from being firmly in the control of the Union. It had been a stormy eight months for the border state with Governor Thomas Holliday Hicks attempted to steer the state through the political minefield of a state with divided loyalty. Thomas Hicks was sworn in as governor of Maryland on January 13, 1858 having been elected the previous fall as the nominee of the Know Nothing Party which was also known as the Native American Party for its espousal of an anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic positions. As the oldest of thirteen children, Hicks had been born on a farm in Dorchester County Maryland in 1798 and had been involved in political endeavors since the age of 21. He assumed the post of governor, at the time the oldest man to do so, on the eve of the greatest crisis in the history of the state. As early as November of 1860, many prominent Maryland political figures including a former governor, urged Hicks to call a special session of the state legislators to consider the course to be taken by the state in view of the election of Abraham Lincoln as president. The governor rebuffed these attempts and counseled patience to determine the path the Lincoln would follow regarding slavery in general and the Fugitive Slave Law in particular. Hicks had essentially adopted a policy of neutrality for state even as the other southern states began to leave the Union and pressure began to mount for Hicks to take some action.
Thomas Holliday Hicks (1798-1865) Governor of Maryland, 1858-1862
It became clear that Hicks was, at best, a politician who attempted to play both sides of the issues deeply dividing the northern and southern states at the beginning of the war. He addressed the citizens of his state in January of 1861:
I firmly believe that a division of this Government would inevitably produce civil war. The secession leaders in South Carolina, and the fanatical demagogues of the North, have alike proclaimed that such would be the result, and no man of sense, in my opinion, can question it.[i]
His attempts to portray Maryland as a sort of neutral state that would not become involved in the dispute could not withstand the calls to bring the legislature into session. Hicks found that this stance became completely untenable after President Lincoln called for volunteers from the northern states including Maryland in April of 1861. The governor also struggled to maintain his credibility with Lincoln after he appeared to side with Confederate supporters during the aftermath of the Baltimore riots which occurred in the same month. After the war, the Confederate historian and general, Bradley T. Johnson, explained the actions of the Maryland governor:
…for Governor Hicks was no fool. He was a shrewd, sharp, positive man. He knew what he wanted and he took efficient means to procure it. He wanted to save Maryland to the Northern States. He believed the Union was gone. In the Southern Confederacy, Maryland must, in his opinion, play a subordinate part and he, himself, fall back into the political obscurity from which he had been recently raised.[ii]
Governor Hicks dealt the final blow to any chance for Maryland to side with the Confederate States during the same month as the Baltimore riots by moving the General Assembly from Annapolis to Frederick. With this action, he found redemption with the Lincoln administration by ensuring that Maryland would not vote for secession, therefore remaining in the Union. The federal government had already imprisoned many of the supporters of secession from the eastern part of the state. Always the clever politician, the governor claimed that he relocated the assembly to Frederick for “safety and comfort of the members.”[iii] Maryland remained in the Union, but in the eastern side of the state, many southern sympathizers continued to live, work and even served as spies for the Confederate government in Richmond.
Due to the potential threat from Confederate loyalists and the need for operational security, the soldiers of the 8th Connecticut were kept “confined in and about the depot with a guard, some different from what we used to having, that is, much more strict.”[iv] This came as a surprise to the Union soldiers who had been greeted so warmly both in New York and at Philadelphia. The Perryville depot and transportation hub was bustling with activity from Union units and equipment being positioned to support future operations in the south. During his short stay at Perryville, Oliver Case observed:
…a regiment encamped near here beside our camp containing 900 trunks [or troops] and 900 horses. This place is situated upon the NE bank of the Susquehannah, upon the Baltimore, Wilmington and Philadelphia RR about thirty miles from the former place. This is a steam ferry boat which carries over a whole train of cars at once so there is no change of cars at this place for the south.[v]
While Oliver was “writing standing amid a great deal of noise” and the soldiers were waken from just a few hours of sleep in the depot in Perryville, the command to “fall in” was given signaling that it was time to board the transport ships for the trip down the Chesapeake. The Connecticut boys were “never…in better spirits than we are at present” and there was “great excitement and cries of ‘fall in’ [with] almost everyone…strapping on their knapsack.” The soldiers of the 8th Connecticut had now been told that “Annapolis [was] suppose[d] to be our destination” and “[w]e expect to leave on the boat every minute.”[vi] For the third time since they were mustered into federal service just over one month earlier, the soldiers of the regiment were herded into a crowded a vessel for a journey across a body of water. The weather was much better than the previous trip from Hunters Point to South Amboy two days earlier and Oliver describes this voyage as “a very pleasant trip down the Chesapeake.”[vii]
While the passage may have seemed “pleasant” to Oliver and his comrades, the Chesapeake Bay was far from securely in Union control at this point in the war. In May of 1861, the United States Navy had created the Potomac Flotilla or Potomac Squadron to help root out Confederate gun boats and shore gun emplacements that threaten Union shipping along this vital waterway. Secured lines of communications along the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River were absolutely essential for Union commanders to carry out operations in Virginia and other points to the south. It was impossible to provide the logistical support required for Union armies to threaten the Confederate capital of Richmond without clear sailing on the bay. In November of 1861, Union Navy Commander Thomas Tingey Craven led a fleet of approximately six ships charged with the security of cargo and personnel moving up and down the bay. The Potomac Flotilla ensured that vessels like the one carrying the soldiers of the 8th Connecticut could make it safely to their destination along the Chesapeake Bay.
USS Yankee, a ship of the Potomac Flotilla in 1861