Twenty three years ago this spring, I stumbled upon a bargain I couldn’t pass up. Little did I realize the power of the story behind my three dollar purchase. As I walk the fields of America’s bloodiest day this Saturday, I’ll be constantly reminded of the man, the soldier behind that yard sale bargain and what he endured 154 years ago. The story is worth telling again.
People will buy anything that is one to a customer. –Sinclair Lewis
The noise of the crowd faded away as my eyes sharpen focus on the rough, but ornate brown leather marred by a small repair in the upper right corner. I forgot my paternal duties as I lifted the book from its resting place on the blanket to perform a close examination. Having now summoned the powers of both sight and feel, I immediately gained a sense that this was no ordinary yard sale artifact. At the time, I could not appreciate the understatement of that thought.
Some bargains gain value over time. Other bargains have their true value hidden in the history of the item. So it would be for this bargain of an artifact discovered a sunny Saturday morning in Germantown, Maryland. Simply along for the ride with my wife as we moved from neighborhood to neighborhood, we were in search of bargains for the immediate needs of our young family. As she searched for children’s clothing in one multifamily yard sale, my eye caught a glimpse of two items that were out of place. One was an old violin, but it was the beautifully aged leather cover of a small book of some type that fixed my interest.
My interest and expertise, such as it was, would not let me turn away from the book. The visual appeal was enhanced by the feel of the old leather cover in my hand as I examined it closely. Realizing this small book must be an old bible, I carefully opened the cover in an effort to confirm my assessment and determine its age. As I turned to the title page, my initial evaluation was validated. In fact, this was an 1854 edition of a King James Bible printed by the famous Thomas Nelson Publishers in London.
“How much for this?” I asked the proprietor of the collection standing by his goods laid out on the front lawn. His response of three dollars stunned me for a moment but I worked my best yard sale face not to reveal it. Considering the fact that this almost hundred and forty year old bible had to be worth much more than the asking price, I determined to forgo the normal haggling routine and quickly accept the price. As I handed over the three greenbacks and firmly gripped my new possession, I had no foreshadowing of the journey upon which I would now embark, making the purchase price seem even more of a yard sale bargain.
The rest of that Saturday was spent at dozens of other yard sale locations. After arriving home in the afternoon, the cares of family life quickly supplanted my curiosity about the new purchase and I put the bible aside with the resolution that I would explore it when time permitted. Time would not permit a proper examination of the artifact for another two weeks.
When the moment came to again pick up the bible, I careful began to turn through the opening pages which are normal left blank by the publisher. In this case, someone had written in script on some of these pages. My heart leaped as I read the words on the first page with writing:
Oliver C. Case
Co. A. 8th Reg’t
If we suffer, we shall also reign with Him. If we deny Him, He will also deny us.
2 Tim. 2
[unreadable] OCT. 13, 1861
Well, I now knew this belonged to a soldier likely of the Civil War era based on the publication date of the bible. The following page revealed additional writing in another hand:
If you die, die like a man.
Miss Abbie J Case
Miss Jennie A Hartford
Oliver C. Case
The first words on this page would hold my curiosity captive for years to come, “If you die, die like a man.” Who could this person be, Oliver C. Case? Who would write should a phrase? As an Army officer who had just returned from war only two years earlier, I could not imagine using these words to encourage a modern American soldier. I had to find out more about this man and his story. It was the beginning of my calling that would only grow stronger with the passage of time. One factual discovery would beg for two more. Never satisfied to accept that learning about this man and his bible had reached their terminal point, I pressed on.
“If you die, die like a man.”
These are the prophetic words written inside the front cover of Oliver Case’s pocket Bible that he carried into battle as he ascended the rolling hills toward the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland on September 17, 1862. Oliver and many of his fellow soldiers in the 8th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry would die on those hills just short of the Harpers Ferry Road at the end of the bloodiest day in American history. But, as Lincoln put it, “these dead shall not have died in vain” and this site is dedicated to the memory of one of those “honored dead,” Private Oliver Cromwell Case of Simsbury, Connecticut.
The chroniclers of Connecticut’s involvement in the Civil War, W.A. Croffut and John M. Morris, envisioned the challenge in telling the stories of the foot soldiers:
…there is a sense of pain and profound sorrow in the consciousness that it is impossible to render justice to the nameless rank and file who never wore even a corporal’s chevron, but held to their duty with sublime patience. The last of the color-guard, who seized the standard that had dropped from the relaxed grasp of his 3 comrades, and bore it on, and planted it and stood by it on the edge of the rebel rifle-pit; the martyr who perished in prison, and ever since has been marked “missing” upon the roll of regimental casualties; the thousand glorious obscure, who were mown down by the flaming blade of battle, and died singing songs of triumph, and praying for the establishment of Liberty and Law, — these are the true heroes and martyrs of all the wars of the world.1
The great American poet and volunteer Civil War nurse in the Union hospitals of Washington, D.C. was moved to tell the world of this kind of soldier. On August 10th of 1863, Whitman sat down to compose “a few lines” to the parents of Erastus Haskell, a soldier of Company K, 141st New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The poet wanted to relay information about their son who had recently died in the Armory Square Hospital where Whitman had provided him comfort, care and companionship during his last days. One line in his last paragraph gives voice to my purpose in telling the story of Oliver Cromwell Case. Whitman writes, “He is one of the thousands of our unknown American young men in the ranks about whom there is no record or fame, no fuss made about their dying so unknown, but I find in them the real precious & royal ones of this land, giving themselves up, aye even their young & precious lives, in their country’s cause…”2
So, I tell the story of Private Oliver Cromwell Case, one of the real precious and royal ones of this land…
For more on info, please visit John Banks’ excellent blog and the interview he did with me in January 2012.
Also, watch the YouTube video: Return of Oliver Case’s bible to the place where he died.
(1) Croffut, W.A. and Morris, John M., The Military and Civil History of Connecticut: The War of 1861-1865, Ledyard Bill, New York, 1868.
(2) Letter of Walt Whitman to Mr. and Mrs. S.B. Haskell, dated August 10, 1863, access from the Walt Whitman Archive, http://whitmanarchive.org, January 23, 1863.