A Dry Place and My Knapsack for a Pillow

It was long dark by the time the ship transporting the men and equipment of the 8th Connecticut entered the Long Island Sound at the mouth of the Connecticut River. After several hours of excited chatter among his mess mates, Oliver Case had finally managed “to get a dry place…with my knapsack for a pillow” and closed his eyes for what seemed like only a moment but was more like two hours “when I heard my name called loud enough to start any living person…”[1] Private Case had drawn the midnight shift for guard duty and now possessed the privilege of standing watch over the personal equipment, known as traps, and the weapons of the regiment. Guard duty for most of these still inexperienced citizen-soldiers would have been an extremely tedious and pointless activity likely dreaded and maligned in the ranks. As most soldiers learned early on in their guard duty careers, failure to properly perform your duties when on guard could result in punishment such as double shifts that no man wanted to face.

On this first night of shipboard guard duty, Oliver was fortunate that his guard shift lasted only one hour in instead of the normal two-hour tours as was common practice among most of the Union regiments in the Civil War. By the time his relief arrived, Friday morning was already thirty minutes old and the crowded decks had become relatively quiet other than the sounds of the sleeping soldiers. Oliver was forced to make his way carefully through the mass of humanity to avoid the wrath of a disturbed soul roused from slumber and throwing spewing curses at the offender. After finding his previous “dry place” on the floor with his company mates, Oliver was not able to return the restful sleep he enjoyed prior to his guard duty caused by the combine effects of anticipation and the cramped quarters. His inability to sleep was not without some reward as Oliver found himself treated to a spectacular sight at four o’clock in the morning. As the ship made its way out of Long Island Sound and down the East River, the early morning fog began to break up and the lights of New York City came into full view off the starboard side. Oliver expressed his disappointment that the ship will not stop at New York or Brooklyn which also came into view on the port side. Rather, the transport continued southward into the New York Bay and two hours later it seemed that the regiment may have reached its destination as the ship approached a landing on the opposite side of the bay at Staten Island. However, the vessel was not allowed to dock and placed in a holding pattern to wait for another ship to pass that Oliver names as the “Granite State.” There is some historical ambiguity about the identification of this vessel as the U.S.S. Granite State was a wooden ship dating back to 1825 that was not actually placed into operation until the Civil War. Many sources claim that this vessel wasn’t placed into service until 1863 or 1864.

Whatever the name of this ship may have been, it finally passed by Staten Island and the transport carrying the soldiers of the 8th Connecticut was given clearance to put ashore on the island. There arose a great sense of excitement and anticipation throughout the ranks with the possibility of leaving the cramped quarters and returning to dry land. For what may have been the first time in their military service, Oliver and the other troops learned a hard lesson about “hurry up and wait” in the life of a soldier.

Then commenced a great rush for knapsacks, haversacks etc. which was kept up for an hour but no signs of getting off. We stood for two or three hours with our knapsacks on when one by one they commenced to drop off and by nine o’clock they were all lying in piles again. There was strict guard kept so we could not get off the boat.[2]

While the horses were temporarily allowed off the ship, the soldiers remained in position and waited for orders from their officers which they hoped would soon be the command to disembark. The delay would come to end, but not to the satisfaction of the disgruntled troops as the horses were reloaded onto the vessel and the order was given to cast off. The ship, which Oliver now described as a steamer, pulled away from Staten Island and slipped back into the mid-morning sunshine of New York Bay, this time headed north toward the mouth of the East River from which they had traveled just three hours earlier. The full light of midday revealed the entirely of New York with “a splendid view of its shipping, and such steam whistling and cheering I have seldom heard.”[3] The steamer continued back up the East River finally landing at Hunter’s Point on Long Island about three o’clock in the afternoon where the soldiers of the 8th Connecticut were finally allowed to disembark.

 

ENDNOTES:

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

[2] (Case)

[3] (Case)

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