On the Scent for Whiskey

On the Scent for Whiskey

During the third week of October of 1861, the soldiers of the 8th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment found themselves as honored guests among the citizens of Jamaica on Long Island, New York. From the perspective of Company A’s Private Oliver Cromwell Case, he experienced the people of New York as “very familiar (much more than Conn. People) [and] I should also say generous and hospitable.” 

His description of their hospitality continues in a letter to his sister, Abbie:

They gave our Regt. over a thousand  loaves of bread last week besides giving us many apples and welcoming to their houses all who are so fortunate as to get out side of guard.[1]

While the local populace made Oliver and his comrades feel welcomed, the leadership of the regiment made their best efforts to both improve morale and suppress undisciplined behavior during the time at the Camp of Instruction on Long Island.

The morale of the regiments was correspondingly raised. Gambling and liquor-selling were suppressed; offenders being severely punished, and their stakes and stock confiscated for the regimental fund. Profanity was rebuked. Unnecessary Sunday labor was avoided. Religious meetings were frequent…[2]

In spite of these efforts, there were always the few soldiers in the ranks who managed to indulge in the vice of drinking whiskey. This was not unique to the one unit as every Civil War regiment seemed to have a group of soldiers that did not know when to say when with the whiskey. In his famous work about the everyday experiences of the soldiers, Union soldier John D. Billings captured the common experience with alcohol in the army: 

The devices resorted to by those members of the rank and file who hungered and thirsted for commissary to obtain it, are numerous and entertaining enough to occupy a chapter but these I must leave for some one of broader experience and observation. I could name two or three men in my own company whose experience qualified them to fill the bill completely. They were always on the scent for something to drink. Such men were to be found in all organizations. [3] 

Although the fledgling soldiers of the 8th Connecticut had quickly settled into the routine of camp life in New York, it didn’t take them long to prove Billings’ assertion regarding problems with drinking alcohol in every unit. They discovered that alcohol and soldiering don’t always mix. During Civil War times, a drunk soldier was often referred to as being “shot in the neck” or to have “a brick in his hat.” One young corporal in Oliver’s company is reduced in rank and returned to the junior enlisted ranks for his crime of public intoxication John F. Saundbaum of Hartford required to forfeit one month’s pay as part of his punishment. A few weeks later, Saundbaum would be rejected for continued service in the 8th Connecticut following a new round of medical exams possibly as a result of his fondness for spirits.

The “Wooden Overcoat” was one of the possible punishments for drunkenness [4]

Drunkenness was not limited to the enlist ranks as the officer corps was occupied by many officers of various ranks who overindulged in strong drink. In fact, Billings recounts that “officers who did not drink more or less were too scarce in the service.” Possessing a much greater level of freedom gave occasion for a number of those officers, especially those senior in rank, to find opportunities to source whiskey for personal consumption. According to Billings, this led a significant number of officers to imbibe in drink when the situation demanded sober thought.  

They had only to send to the commissary to obtain as much as they pleased, whenever they pleased, by paying for it… there was nothing but his sense of honor, his self-respect, or his fear of exposure and punishment, to restrain a captain, a colonel, or a general, of whatever command, from being intoxicated at a moment when he should have been in the full possession of his senses leading his command on to battle ; and I regret to relate that these motives, strong as they are to impel to right and restrain from wrong-doing, were no barrier to many an officer whose appetite in a crisis thus imperiled the cause and disgraced himself. [5]

For Oliver Case and the 8th Connecticut, this would not be their last encounter with the effects of alcohol consumption in the ranks. Other soldiers would succumb to the temptation to drown their fears in a bottle of spirits. 

ENDNOTES:

[1] The Letters of Oliver Cromwell Case (Unpublished), Simsbury Historical Society, Simsbury, CT, 1861-1862. (20 October 1861)

[2] The Military and Civil History of Connecticut: The War of 1861-1865, W.A. Croffut and John M. Morris, Ledyard Bill, New York, 1868

[3] Hardtack and Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life, John D. Billings, George M. Smith and Company, Boston, 1887

[4] IBID.

[5] IBID.

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A Prized Possession

155 years ago today, a naive, idealistic young man from Connecticut acting upon his aspirations of becoming a soldier lifted his pencil stub to place his mark on his most valuable piece of personal property. Private Oliver Cromwell Case had received this 1854 edition Thomas Nelson and Sons pocket Bible likely as a gift from someone in his family possibly his sister Abbie. With that pencil, Oliver inscribed these words on the inside of the front page:

If you die, die like a man.

 Oliver C. Case

Co. A. 8th Reg’t

C.V.

If we suffer, we shall also reign with Him. If we deny Him, He will also deny us.

2 Tim. 2 [verse 12]

[unreadable] OCT. 13, 1861

Hartford, Connecticut 

Oliver Cromwell Case had originally enlisted in Company B of the 8th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment but at some point prior to October 13, 1862 and for unknown reasons, Oliver Case was transferred to Company A, 8th CVI while still training at Camp Buckingham in Hartford. Only one other soldier from Simsbury, George W. Lewis, appears on the rolls for Company A. As indicated by many of his letters, Oliver seems to have adapted well to the new company making friends and joining in the extracurricular activities of the troops. He also appears to have maintained a very positive relationship with the officers of his new company mentioning them positively throughout his correspondence.

case-bible2-2

One Evening in October 1861

Many of you know that the plan for the Burnside Expedition to North Carolina was hatched by George McClellan and Ambrose Burnside then presented to the Secretary of War before being reluctantly approved by President Lincoln.

What you may not know is the flippant manner in which Burnside described the formation of the plan almost twenty years after the fact. It is somewhat surprising that Burnside remembered the occasion as an almost “by the way, I’ve been thinking about this plan” moment between the two famous Union leaders. Clearly, Burnside had put great thought into the plan that would become the largest amphibious operation to that point in American history. But, looking back on it, the general remembered it as such:

One evening in the following October, General McClellan and I were chatting together over the affairs of the war, when I mentioned to him a plan for the formation of a coast division to which I had given some thought. After giving him a somewhat detailed account of the plan, he asked me to put it in writing as soon as possible, which was done. The next day it was presented to him, and it me his approval. He laid it before the Secretary of War, by whom it was also approved. The general details of the plan were briefly as follows: To organize a division of 12,000 to 15,000 men, mainly from States bordering on the Northern sea-coast, many of whom would be familiar with the coasting trade, and among whom would be found a goodly number of mechanics; and to fit out a fleet of light-draught steamers, sailing vessels, and barges, large enough to transport the division, the armament and supplies, so that it could be rapidly thrown from point to point on the coast with a view to establishing lodgments of the Southern coast, landing troops, and penetrating into the interior, thereby threatening the line of transportation in the rear of the main army then concentrating in Virginia, and holding possession of the inland waters on the Atlantic coast.[1]

Burnside would move out quickly on executing the plan by acquiring the vessels, organizing and the training the troops, and establishing a training base at Annapolis, Maryland. By the first week of January 1862, the troops were loaded on the ships and headed south.

But, it all began on one evening in October 1861…

A “chat” one evening in Washington led to the creation of Burnside’s Coastal Division that would invade North Carolina in early 1862.

Also overheard that evening at dinner, “Burney, this Army’s not big enough for two Napoleonic posers!” (I apologize…that was too easy to pass up!)

ENDNOTES:

[1] From Leaders and Battles of the Civil War, Volume I, The Century Company, New York, 1887 (pages 660-661). Previously from a paper read by Burnside before the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Historical Society of Rhode Island, July 7th, 1880.

A Request for Connecticut Regiments

1 Oct 1861

As the newly formed 8th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment continues to organize and train in Hartford, the United States Secretary of War Simon Cameron requests that Governor Buckingham send two Connecticut regiments preparing for service to Camp Hempstead, Long Island, with instructions to report to Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside for orders. Eventually, the 8th and 11th Connecticut regiments will be provided to fill this request from the federal government. However, the 8th Connecticut remains at Camp Buckingham in Hartford for two and one-half more weeks as Burnside and his staff make arrangements for the reception of the fresh troops on Long Island. It is a time of both excitement and great preparation for the state of Connecticut as the governor and other leaders struggle to properly equip the influx of volunteers before sending them into federal service.

william_a-_buckingham

Governor William Alfred Buckingham of Connecticut

“Then came the endless work of mustering, equipping and drilling recruits, before they could be sent into the field. Camps were established at Hartford, New Haven, Norwich and Meriden. Every city government and the selectmen of every town were enlisting men, and stimulating enlistment by generous bounties and promising to take care of families that were left behind, engagement that were well kept. Everything was to be provided.”[1]

Although Burnside was a West Point graduate, his leadership of a brigade at Bull Run was somewhat less than impressive. His pre-war business connections with the newly appointed commander of the Union armies, Major General George B. McClellan, land Burnside a plumb job training and leading an expeditionary force to invade North Carolina. It is this expeditionary force that the 8th Connecticut will be assigned to upon arrival at Long Island. Burnside would continue to lead many of these same troops as a corps and wing commander through the Maryland Campaign in September of 1862.

Burnside wearing a presentation sword

Ambrose Burnside

President Lincoln would go on to select Burnside as the commander of the Army of the Potomac after McClellan’s inability to defeat and destroy Lee’s army during and after the battle of Antietam. Burnside’s stint as the AOP commander would end soon after the humiliating and costly defeat at Fredericksburg in December of 1862 followed by the infamous “Mud March” through northern Virginia.

ENDNOTES:
[1] Buckingham, Samuel G., The Life of William A. Buckingham, Adams Company, Springfield, 1894.