Return Home with Honor (Evening September 17 – December 1862)

Honor blossoms on the grave.  – French Proverb

Wednesday 17 Sep 1862 Evening   

Having witnessed the advanced position of the 8th and the intensity of the fighting, Alonzo and Ariel Case are greatly concerned about the welfare of their younger brother. They find the remnants of the 8th to seek out information on Oliver from the other soldiers of the regiment. The Case brothers find a friend of Oliver in the significantly reduced ranks of the 8th who relates the story of the battle to them. This unknown friend tells Alonzo and Ariel that he witnessed Oliver fall to the ground during the final assault and called out his name, but Oliver did not respond. Major Ward leads the regiment away from the high water point to the safety of the Otto farm without Private Oliver Cromwell Case. The brothers’ hopes are dashed for finding their younger brother alive. Now they can only wait for the opportunity to search for him.

These 17 days in September have ended for Oliver.

Thursday 18 Sep 1862         

Sunrise finds a haze of smoke and fog drifting over the field now under gray skies. Although most troops on both sides expect a renewal of fighting, a stalemate sets in over the battlefield. General Lee has his decimated Confederate forces attempt to strengthen their defensive positions to the maximum extent possible, but the losses of the previous day have left the Army of Northern Virginia struggling to survive.

General McClellan is hesitant to initiate a new assault at any point on the field even though he holds a significant numerical advantage especially in fresh troops held in reserve from the previous day’s action. The previous night, McClellan has issued preliminary orders for a new attack, but has second thoughts in the light of day.

Although some wounded troops are able to be rescued, many of these soldiers from both sides are trapped in a no-man’s land suffering greatly during the day and through the night. Many soldiers write later of the dreadful cries for water coming from the wounded that can be heard along the lines of battle.

For Ariel and Alonzo Case, there will be no new information about the disposition of their brother and no opportunity to search the area now controlled by the Confederate troops.

Friday 19 Sep 1862 9:00 am

Daylight reveals the gray skies of the previous day are gone and McClellan has missed his opportunity to renew the attack against Lee’s battered army. During the night, General Lee has moved his entire force away from Sharpsburg in a retreat across the Potomac and back into Virginia. The Army of Northern Virginia has slipped away leaving the field to the Union forces. This is cause enough for “Little Mac” to claim a great victory for his army and salvation for the Union. President Lincoln is not fooled by the flowery rhetoric of the young general who will eventually be relieved of his command for failing to pursue Lee’s greatly reduced army as they escaped back into Virginia.

With the Confederate forces gone from the field and moving across the Potomac, Union units now begin to enter the contested ground from Wednesday’s battle in order to evacuate the wounded and bury the dead. While details are assigned the duty for each unit, many individual soldiers begin looking for their friends and relatives. On the Union left, it is a gruesome scene with hundreds of dead and dying of both sides strewn across the rolling hills between the Antietam Creek and the Harpers Ferry Road.

It becomes clear that the fight between the 8th CVI and the Confederate troops was as severe as any of the action on other parts of the battlefield that day. The intensity of the fight in this area of the field is captured by Chaplain Morris’ description of the scene on the 19th as the search for remains was conducted:

“In passing over the hill,” wrote Chaplain Morris, “we pause amazed when we reach the point where the Eighth met the enemy, and delivered their first tremendous volley at a distance of five or six rods. In a short lane running down to a little house near the road, within a space of a dozen rods, I counted one hundred and four dead rebels.”[232]

Captain Wolcott P. Marsh, Commander of Company F is assigned to lead the remains recovery detail for the 8th CVI. Marsh will be the first member of the regiment to learn Oliver’s disposition:

We stacked arms and details were sent from different to pick up the dead so that could be buried together. I went up where our regit. was engaged and there what a sight. 30 men from our regit. alone lay dead in a little field and near by was 42 Zouaves (9th N. Y.) and many more from other regit. The first man I came to of my company was Charles E. Louis my acting orderly. Then Corp. Truck my color corporal and close by them lay Dwight Carry, Herbert Nee, Horace Rouse and Mr. Sweet all of my company then passing on to Co. A. were the body’s of Olive[r] Case, Orton Lord, Martin Wadhams and Lucius Wheeler then to Co. K. saw Jack Simons body the only one whose name remember…[233]

These soldiers of Company A are well known to Captain Marsh from his tenure as a lieutenant of the Company prior to being promoted and transferred to Company F. Captain Marsh’s detail goes about their work and the commander “had all body’s brought from hill down by several straw stacks.”[234]

This description taken with Marsh’s report of the unit positions on the day of the battle make it clear that the remains were removed from the “high water mark” area near the present-day monument. The area of the hay stacks is located to the north John Otto’s 40-acre cornfield in the area where the 8th regrouped for the final assault on the day of the battle.

Afternoon     

Ariel and Alonzo Case of the 16th CVI are given permission by their commander to search for the body of their brother Oliver Case of Company A, 8th CVI. The brothers believe that Oliver was killed in action based on the conversation with Oliver’s friend onthe night after the battle. Despite their ominous feelings about the fate of their younger brother, Alonzo and Ariel fill their canteens prior to starting the search.

The Case brothers find Oliver on the battlefield likely near the haystacks where Captain Marsh’s detail moved the bodies earlier in the day. Alonzo assesses that Oliver was “no doubt killed instantly the bullet having passed through his head just about the top of his ears.” The brothers evacuate his remains to an area where the 16th CVI is gathering their dead. After obtaining permission from both regimental commanders, Ariel and Alonzo bury their younger brother with members of the 16th on the hill behind John Otto’s farmhouse and orchard. To ensure he can be properly identified, they write a note containing Oliver’s identifying information and pin it to the inside of his coat. Members of the 16th “put up boards to each with name and Regiment on them.”[235]

John M. Morris, chaplain of the 8th CVI, says that “the dead of the Eighth and the Sixteenth were laid side by side on the ridge just above the point where the gallant charge began…” He continues, “The graves were marked with pine headboards, to tell where each patriot rested.”[236]

Private Oliver Case would now lie silently behind Otto’s farmhouse awaiting his final journey…home.

Plundering was apparently wide spread during the night of the 17th and during the day of the 18th when the Confederates controlled the terrain where the 8th fought the most intense part of the battle. It is evident that the Confederates have picked the Union dead clean of any possession considered to be of value. Morris depicts the outrageous acts of plundering from the previous day:

Many of our dead were stripped and plundered. The swollen fingers of some had been cut off to obtain the rings; and the wounded had received treatment ranging from kindness to cruelty and outrage.[237]

This leaves scant doubt that the Bible of Oliver Case was likely taken from his body during this period by Confederate soldiers and later left in Maryland. His personal belongings may have been pilfered shortly afterward by the Confederates who retook this ground upon which the 8th fought so bravely. I believe Case’s Bible was likely taken by a Confederate soldier who later traded it for food or other items to someone living in or around Sharpsburg. I believe that had the Bible been on his person when his brothers found his body two days later, they would have kept it for the family. From there it somehow found its way to a yard sale in Germantown, Maryland in 1993. This is only a theory.

It is also possible that Oliver dropped it on the far side of the Antietam Creek on the 16th or 17th of September to be found later by a citizen of the area. It could have also been dropped somewhere along the route of march from Washington which, interestingly, would have passed nearby Germantown. However, the excellent condition of Bible tends to support the former scenario.

27 Sep 1862

On September 27, 1862, the Hartford Courant published an article about the battle of Antietam focused on the 16th CVI along with a listing of all Connecticut causalities from the battle of Antietam. From this article it is clear that this was likely not the first time that Job Case and his family discovered that Oliver had been killed in action. The article alludes to prior public knowledge of the battle via unidentified “letter writers” and the common practice of the day was to post (or read) the casualty list in a public place. Also, Ariel and Alonzo may have written letters home that arrived in Simsbury prior to this date.

30 Sep 1862

The Hartford Courant published a letter written by the adjutant of the 16th Connecticut, Lieutenant John Burnham. In his letter, Burnham provided a detailed account of the grave sites of all the soldiers in his regiment buried on the field at Antietam. Among these soldiers of the 16th CVI was the body of Oliver Case buried by his brothers in the same location on September 19th.  Burnham noted that each grave was carefully marked by a headboard containing the name and the unit of the soldier.

Dec 1862        

From Alonzo Case’s recollections written after the war, we know that in December of 1862, Oliver’s father, Job Case traveled from Simsbury to the battlefield at Antietam for the purpose of recovering the remains of his son. The elder Case may have enlisted the services of a well-known Hartford undertaker, William W. Roberts, who assisted many Connecticut families with returning the remains of their loved ones killed at Antietam.[238] Job Case had the remains of his son exhumed from the temporary grave on the Otto farm and returned his body to Simsbury. Oliver was laid to rest with multiple generations of his ancestors in the Simsbury Cemetery located in the heart of town.

Nearly 15 months after he departed his hometown, Private Oliver Cromwell Case had now returned home to rest with honor.

In modern times, two gravestones stand for Oliver Cromwell Case, one at the Antietam National Cemetery and the other at the Simsbury cemetery. It is possible that after Job Case removed his son’s remains from the burial site on the battlefield in December of 1862 that the temporary grave marker was left in place. Hence, when the removal of the dead soldiers from their battlefield gravesites to the new national cemetery began in October of 1866, the workers may have found this marker and established a grave in the new cemetery even though remains were not present. As described by those who traveled over the battle in subsequent years, many of the dead soldiers’ remains were dug up by swine feeding in the fields. This means that the absence of actual remains may not have been considered unusual by those teams exhuming the bodies for burial in the national cemetery. In fact, the remains of an unidentified New York soldier were discovered by a park visitor in October of 2008.

However, the official report on the establishment of the cemetery creates the impression that each deceased soldier was properly identified before his internment in the cemetery.

They were exhumed, placed in coffins, and delivered to the Superintendent, who buried them at the expense of the Association. In the burial of the dead every coffin was numbered, and a corresponding number entered in a book kept for this purpose, with the name, company, regiment and State, when they could be ascertained, so that, at any time, by reference to the records, the location of any grave can at once be found. The dead were buried under the immediate supervision and eye of the President, who held the tape line over every coffin deposited, and entered the name, number and company in his field-book, before any earth was replaced. By his record, therefore, any body can be identified at any time, when called for.[239]

 

ENDNOTES:

[232] Croffut and Morris, 1868.

[233] Marsh letters.

[234] IBID.

[235] Recollections of Alonzo Case (full citation pending)

[236] Croffut and Morris, 1868.

[237] IBID

[238] Adapted from John Banks’ Civil War Blog, http://john-banks.blogspot.com/

[239] History of the Antietam National Cemetery, Woods, Baltimore, 1869.

 

 

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