Service to the soldiers in the Civil War and the USO connection

Most folks are familiar with the work of the USO or United Service Organizations. No, I didn’t misspell the name. The organization that provides such wonderful support to our service members today in dozens of locations around the world began its work just prior to World War in 1941 as an attempt to mobilize the efforts of groups providing the “emotional support” needed by the troops. The Salvation Army, Young Men’s Christian Association, Young Women’s Christian Association, National Catholic Community Services, National Travelers Aid Association and the National Jewish Welfare Board joined together to form the United Service Organizations known today simply as the USO. The USO mission quickly expanded to create “new programs and services to meet the ever-changing needs of the troops and their families, while holding fast to the original mission.” The USO’s work continues today “to lift the spirits of America’s troops and their families, and will continue to be there for them until every one comes home.” [1]


The colors of the United Service Organizations (USO)

So, how is this related to Oliver Case and the 8th Connecticut? Glad you asked…

A little passage from Oliver’s letter of November 3, 1861 triggered me to dig a bit deeper into the story of his one and only visit to the city of brotherly love:

We were got upon the cars with but little delay and tried to start for Philadelphia which was not so easy a job as you might imagine as we had on 19 passenger cars, but with the help of another engine we got under way and arrived safely at ½ after eleven o’clock where we had a huge dinner and if anyone ever did justice to a dinner, we did to that. I think I never tasted anything so good in my life. We stayed there until nearly five talking and shaking hands with everyone.

On November 2, 1861 from 11:30 in the morning until 5 o’clock in the afternoon, Private Oliver Cromwell Case and his fellow soldiers were hosted by the citizens of Philadelphia. My twenty-five years of service as an Army officer has taught me well that Soldiers with free time in a major population center can spell trouble if not properly occupied and supervised. Chief among the activities of these Soldiers is always the pursuit of food. In fact, when serving as a young lieutenant in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, I was told that one of the rules of the Cavalry Trooper was “never pass up the opportunity for a meal because you never know when you might eat next.” So it was with the nutmeggers on that November day. When Oliver writes that “we had a huge dinner” after arriving in Philadelphia, it’s likely that he had no idea that the keen observations of one of the city’s businessmen and the efforts of a group of ladies was to thank for that meal.

Only six months prior to the arrival of the 8th Connecticut, the citizens of the Philadelphia took action to support the growing number of troops transiting the city. During the closing week of April and the first week of May, Union regiments from the New England states began arriving by both ship and train. Most of these troops proceed along Washington Avenue to board trains bound for Perryville, Maryland, the southernmost location in Maryland accessible by railroad. After noticing the hundreds of soldiers sitting along the streets of the city waiting for their trains, a group of women in the city “formed themselves into a committee, and, with the assistance of their friends and neighbors, distributed coffee and refreshments among the hungry and grateful troops.”[2] These modest efforts to provide refreshments continued for several weeks until the last week of May 1861 when a Philadelphia businessman became involved.

William M. Cooper was a merchant with a store located on Otsego Street just off Washington Avenue when he also noticed the large number of soldiers lounging on the streets of Philadelphia. He managed to convince his partner, Henry Pearce, that their barrel making business could be used to advance the mission to the soldiers started by the ladies of the city. As a result, on May 26, 1861, the Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon opened its doors to serve the Union soldiers passing through the city. Mr. Cooper took the lead role in the effort and served as the committee’s president and chief fundraiser for the duration of the war. A friendly rival, the Union Volunteer Refreshment Saloon, began operating nearby shortly after the establishment of Cooper’s saloon.

The two refreshment saloons provided a welcomed relief for the weary soldiers. As the ladies had first realized, a soldier’s first longing after the long boat or train ride was a cup of hot coffee and so Mr. Cooper converted the large fireplace in his shop into an enormous stove. With this setup, it was possible for the volunteers to brew one hundred gallons of coffee per hour! According to a history of the saloon written immediately following the war, the “coffee was made good and strong, and served up in a purely democratic manner.”[3] I would assume this means that it was one cup for each man.

Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon LOC (exterior view)

Exterior view of the Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon (Library of Congress)

According to the records of the saloon, the soldiers of the 8th Connecticut were divided equally between the Union and Cooper saloons. Oliver does not indicate in which establishment he partook of the “huge dinner” but when he entered the building, he found:

…each table was laid with a clean white linen cloth, on which were arranged plates of white stone china, mugs of the same, knives and forks, castors, and all that was necessary to table use. Bouquets of flowers, the gifts of visitors, were frequently added, and lent their fragrance to the savory odors. The bill of fare consisted of the best the market could supply, and was not, in the articles provided, inferior to that of any hotel in the country. At all meals the fare was abundant; consisting of ham, corned beef, Bologna sausage, bread made of the finest wheat, butter of the best quality, cheese, pepper-sauce beets, pickles, dried beef, coffee and tea, and vegetables. [4]

 Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon LOC (inside view)

Interior view of the Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon (Library of Congress)

The Cooper and Union saloons provided an incredible setting for the soldiers to enjoy their meal. One Union Army surgeon provided a detailed description his experience at the Cooper saloon:

We are stopping over Sabbath in Philadelphia, at the above named saloon, where we have been treated with the kindest hospitality. We were met at the ferry by one of the committees, who conducted us to the saloon, where we found tables groaning beneath the real substantials of life. The hall is 150 feet long, by 30 wide, and will accommodate about 350 persons at a time. It is splendidly decorated with wreaths of evergreens, and a great variety of paintings and flags, and is well lighted with gas. At the further end of the hall is a large eagle, stuffed and perched upon a frame enclosing the Declaration of Independence. We were supplied with every thing we could possibly wish.[5]

In September of 1990, I found myself in much the same position as Oliver and the Connecticut boys…waiting around for transportation on my way to war. The USO with many volunteers had established a “saloon” at Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt, Germany providing food, entertainment and, yes, coffee for soldiers deploying to Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Desert Shield. The facility was operated in a German “feast tent” just off the tarmac of the airbase. I don’t believe we enjoyed the same meal as Oliver, but the food was fantastic and represented the last taste of home for many months. Upon return to the United States after the conflict in 1991, we found the same reception waiting for us in both New York and our home base in El Paso, Texas. Today, a USO reception center is found in every major airport in the country and at United States military airbases around the world providing that same warm welcome and food (among many other services) that greeted Oliver Case and the soldiers of the 8th Connecticut in Philadelphia over 150 years ago.

The facility at Cooper expanded to include a hospital on the second floor of the building and both saloons hosted upwards of one million troops during the four years of the war. Mr. Cooper poured his heart, soul and finances into the venture. Sadly, in March of 1880, he died in a condition of debt so abysmal that friends and former soldiers assisted by the Cooper saloon had to come to his rescue to prevent his home from being sold at public auction. William Cooper was fondly remembered as the man who “used his private mean liberally, and no soldier was ever turned away hungry.”[6]



In addition to the History of the Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon by James Moore written in 1866, the following sites provided useful background information on this subject:

The House Divided site of Dickinson College Essay on Philadelphia

Civil War Philadelphia – Volunteer Refreshment Saloons

[1] History of the USO from the USO website,

[2] History of the Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon, James Moore, James B. Rodgers, Philadelphia, 1866.

[3] (Moore, 1866)

[4] (Moore, 1866)

[5] (Moore, 1866)

[6] “A Patriot’s Family in Distress,” New York Times, March 18, 1880.

The End of a Very Pleasant Trip Down the Chesapeake

So, it was indeed a “very pleasant trip down the Chesapeake” for Oliver and the other 999 boys from Connecticut for two days during the first full week of November 1861. The Nutmeggers were again of cheerful hearts when their steamer tied up to the pier in Annapolis, Maryland on Tuesday evening, November 5th.  As Private Oliver Case and the 8th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment disembarked at Annapolis on November 5, 1861, they found a city pulled between southern loyalty and northern military force much like their previous transit point in Perryville. This time, they would be more permanent residents. As Maryland and its governor were struggling with the decision against secession only eight months before, the first Union soldiers, in the form of the 7th New York Infantry, arrived in the capital city.

At 4 o’clock P.M. of Monday, April 22, the Seventh Regiment first landed in a hostile State on a military errand, and was disembarked at the dock of the Naval School at Annapolis. The men marched ashore by companies in good order, and formed in regimental line on the beautiful parade-ground in the rear of the Naval-school buildings.[i]

Now the arrival of Burnside’s expeditionary force in the capital city became a continued guarantee of Maryland’s place in the Union. As they had when Union forces first landed in Annapolis earlier in the year, the citizens of the city watched the soldiers arrive by the thousands as both an occupying force and to train the green regiments for future operations deeper in Confederate territory. The most recent occupation of the city by Union troops under the command of Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman had been designed to equip and train an expeditionary force comprised of three brigades of 13,000 troops. The objective of this new expeditionary unit was to capture one of the important port cities along the lower South Carolina coast in order to give the Union Navy a base of operations for blockading operations. Only days before the arrival of the first units of Burnside’s expeditionary force, Sherman’s brigades had departed Annapolis with a combined naval force under the command of Flag Officer Samuel F. du Pont. On November 7, 1861 just two days after the 8th Connecticut arrived at Annapolis, the Sherman/du Pont expeditionary force attacked and captured both Fort Walker and Fort Beauregard gaining control of Port Royal Sound, South Carolina.


General Thomas Sherman conference

General Thomas Sherman and Flag Officer Samuel du Pont confer on the Great Naval Expedition, November 1861

The “Great Naval Expedition” as it was often referred to in contemporary accounts provided invaluable lessons for Burnside’s expedition that would follow just two months later.[ii] Thomas Sherman and his staff conducted detailed planning with the naval staff of Samuel du Pont ensuring a well-coordinated joint operation between the two services. Logistical challenges associated with moving 13,000 soldiers with their supporting equipment and horses over hundreds of miles of storming seas were addressed and overcome. Most importantly, the tactics and techniques required to successfully employ this joint Army-Navy force against Confederate shore fortifications were developed through a process of trial and error during the Battle of Port Royal. All of these lessons would provide Ambrose Burnside a head start when planning and executing his expeditionary operations against the North Carolina coast in January of 1862.

As General Sherman and his troops were wading ashore in Port Royal, South Carolina, the city of Annapolis was again preparing for occupation by soldiers dressed in Union blue. In April of 1861, Governor Hicks had expressed concerns that the southern sympathies of eastern Maryland combined with the displeasure of the citizens at the military occupation of the city would have a detrimental effect of his efforts to have the state remain in the Union. Hicks’ leadership in keeping Maryland in the Union had not found approval by most of the residents on the east side of the state. By November, Hicks’ concerns remained regard the disposition of the citizens of Annapolis, but the earlier occupation by Sherman’s regiments had gone without major incident. Now, Burnside’s crop of fresh Yankees including Oliver Case would find themselves on the front line of the efforts to improve relations between the citizens of Annapolis and their Union occupiers.

During their first two nights in Annapolis, Oliver and the other soldiers of the 8th Connecticut were billeted on the campus of St. John’s College. The college was originally founded in 1696 as King William’s School only two years after Annapolis was designated as the capital city for the colony of Maryland. The institute was established as a preparatory school, but when it received its charter in 1784 it included a name change to St. John’s College. The college was notable and unique for its time because it espoused a policy of religious tolerance where “youth of all religious denominations shall be freely and liberally admitted” with a focus on rigorous academic pursuits. With the onset of the Civil War, many students departed the school prior to their maturation in order to join either the Union and Confederate armies reflecting the divided loyalties of the host city and state. With most of students gone, the Union army, which had begun to arrive to secure the strategically important city, soon occupied the grounds. College officials watched helplessly as the army established a firm presence in many of the building on campus. By November 1861, the great number of troops landing in Annapolis requiring housing arrangements forced the establishment of large tent cities on the grounds of St. John’s.

When the troops of the 8th Connecticut arrived on the night of November 5, 1861, they were given quarter in the buildings across the St. John’s campus as a temporary housing arrangement until the tent city was operational. Oliver wrote to his sister that “we were quartered in a college where we stayed two nights and one day.”[iii] The campus was comprised of several building that would have been available to house the soldiers of the regiment. McDowell Hall, opened in 1742, was originally built by the Maryland Governor Thomas Bladen to be used as a residence for the state’s executive. However, after the Revolutionary War in 1784, the state gave the yet unfinished building to the newly chartered St. John’s College. The school completed the building including the addition of a bell tower, still in use today, along with a third floor. Although the building was significantly damaged by fire in 1909, it was reconstructed to its original specifications. It was named for the first principal of King William’s School, John McDowell.

[i] (Our War Pictures, 1861)

[ii] (The Great Naval Expedition, 1861)

[iii] (Case)