Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

Army letters of Oliver Willcox Norton (Eighty-third Pennsylvania Volunteers)

Chapin’s Farm, Va.,
November 11, 1864.

Dear Sister L.:—

This afternoon I rode down to see Lieutenant Ellinwood, Nineteenth Wisconsin, a cousin of Captain Dickey’s. He was out in charge of the picket line, so I galloped out there, and as I pulled up at a squad by the roadside a man just a little way ahead sung out, “Take that horse back.” The lieutenant got up from beside a stump and I asked him if that was an outpost of his. “That is a Johnny,” said he, “here is my line.” I sent that horse back. The reb did not shoot, but I did not want to give him too big a temptation. He was so near I could hit him with a stone, but he seemed very peaceably disposed.

I am not yet able to say that Alf Ayres is second lieutenant of the Eighth, but I hope to be able to do so in my next. I think all that is necessary is for him to come over and see our colonel in order to be recommended, which amounts to success.

I am running the quartermaster’s department of the Eighth very much to my satisfaction and so far as I know to that of the others.

My health continues so-so, able to be around all the time.

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Chapin’s Farm, Va.,
November 9, 1864.

Dear Sister L.:—

My position in the quartermaster’s department does not afford the leisure I used to have when my business was to blow “Dan! Dan! Butterfield,” or even when I was in the company with the captain there. There is forage to haul and rations to issue. The colonel wants me to go to Bermuda Hundred for axes; the colonel wants logs hauled to build him a house, and he wants this and that, and the status of the poor quartermaster may be graphically described as “on the bob” from morning till night, and his letter writing must be put in edge-wise to all this work.

My experience is that there is a difference between navigating a ship on the ocean and guiding a mule team through Virginia woods and over Virginia roads, and the difference is in favor of the ship. There is a significance in the “Ya-a-a-e mool” and “Now git” of the American teamsters of African descent, that to a novice is unintelligible, but the animals with the ears seem to understand the animals with the gum and ivory, and from the mutual understanding results much good to the animals with the muskets.

I have a very limited idea of what is going on over at the Weldon railroad, but in this part of the army everybody is going into winter quarters. To be sure they are under the old orders to be ready to move at a moment’s notice, and line of battle is formed every morning an hour before light, but log houses continue to grow like mushrooms on a damp night. Generals and “two rows of buttons” generally are demolishing the residences of the “F. F. Vs.” and working them in with logs into cozy quarters. There is no certainty of their being occupied any length of time, but there is a possibility of it, and so they are built. Lieutenant Burrows and myself have been putting up a log stable for the brigade teams one hundred and eighty feet long, with two wings of forty feet each. It would not be considered in Broadway an imposing edifice, but it will impose an amount of comfort on the poor mules that they never dreamed of in connection with their fate in the army as “means of transportation.”

My health is not what it used to be. I am not sick abed any of the time, but I feel weak and lack energy. Any unusual exertion tires me out. My stay in the hospital did not seem to do me much good.

To-day I suppose there is almost as much excitement as yesterday. The returns from elections will be known, and at telegraph stations they will have the news—of Abraham’s election. We believe it here, but it will be vastly consolatory to have our belief confirmed.

I may have mentioned to you that I was trying to get Alf Ayres into the Eighth as second lieutenant. If he is as competent as I think he is, I could get him appointed on sight, if he could only come over and see our colonel. The colonel’s recommendation would secure his promotion, and I would like to see him in the regiment.

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Deep Bottom, Va.,
October 22, 1864.

My Dear Sister L.:—

You are the most faithful correspondent I have, but your letters are as unfortunate in their travels as any that start me-ward. Your detained letter of the 2d, with P. S. of the 14th, arrived last night. It found me making myself comfortable. Do you remember the extract from the “C. S. Catechism,” in which it was laid down as the first duty of a quartermaster to make himself comfortable, and the second was like unto it only more so? I have my wall tent nicely floored and a jolly fireplace in it, my bed and mattress with sheets and blankets, my arm chairs and my desk. Burrows, the brigade quartermaster, with whom I mess, goes a step ahead of me. He has his floor nicely carpeted and a rug before the fireplace.

You have often wished to send me something good, and I have concluded to give you the opportunity. If you have a pair of sheets that are rather old and not too much so, they would just suit me to a T. These I am using now belong to our surgeon, who is home on furlough, but he will want them when he returns. I am in a position where I can carry a few such things now, and I think it will pay to have them, but do not go to sending me a pair of new sheets now. Then, if you are running over with dried berries, etc., if you could stow in a few of them in a little box beside the sheets, it would help me to make a nice supper several times. I hope you won’t do as some people do who send boxes to the army—put in a lot of sweet cake that will spoil before the box is delivered—and don’t send me any peaches. I am cloyed on peaches, and as soon as I get over it there are plenty here that I can get. I have so little doubt that you will send it that I will tell you how to direct it—Lieutenant O. W. Norton, Eighth United States Colored Troops, Third Division, Tenth Army Corps, Bermuda Hundred, Va. The charges will have to be prepaid and I will send you the money when you let me know the amount.

Your letter was the first intimation I had had of Conway’s death. I received one from Alf at the same time and one from Lucretia. She spoke of it as though she supposed I knew it. What a shame it is that Charlie B. could allow himself to get drunk under such circumstances!

You may have noticed often in my letters that I have spoken of my captain as a good man. He was killed in the engagement on the Darby Road, on the 13th, shot through the head. I had spent more than an hour with him on the very spot where he was killed, and had but just left him when a ball came along and struck him down. He was the best friend I had in the army and was almost a brother to me. I had only known him since last fall, but there was time to learn to love him. I am not accustomed to weep at the sight of death, but I shed some tears over his body. He was a widow’s only son, and it will be a terrible blow to her. I had the body embalmed and sent to her, the officers paying the expense. We had four officers lost then, or lost to us for the present. One captain lost an arm, another wounded in the abdomen, a lieutenant in the hand, and Captain Dickey killed.

There is a captaincy waiting for me in the regiment, but the idea of stepping into a dead man’s shoes is not pleasant to me. If my health would permit of my roughing it as I used to do, I would accept it, though, but as it is I shall hesitate some before doing so. I have some hopes of getting Alf Ayres into the regiment as second lieutenant. I think he has served in the ranks long enough to deserve promotion.

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Jones’ Landing, Va.,
October 17, 1864.

Dear Sister L.:—

I am just as busy as I can be all the time now; not much time to write letters. The trains are some nine miles in rear and I have to go to the front almost every day. I have no clerk and have all the office business to do myself, which is no light job.

I am happy to say my health is first rate now. Riding and exercise seem to agree with me.

Since I wrote you last we have had another battle and more loss in the regiment. Forty-seven men and four officers are the casualties, and the saddest part of all to me is that Captain Dickey is among the killed. I spent an hour during the fight on the very spot where he was struck. I had no business there, but I did not consider it dangerous, and I wanted to see how the fight was going. Soon after I left, while the regiment was being relieved, a shot passed right through the captain’s head. He continued to breathe for thirty-six hours, but was unconscious all the time. I took his body to the embalmer’s and to-day have been down to send it to his mother. His death is the saddest loss I have known in the army. He was almost a brother to me, and was beloved and respected by all who knew him. His loss to the regiment is irreparable. Another of our best captains was wounded, mortally, I fear. Another lost his left arm and will probably never come back. We have less than one officer to a company now, and when we came out we had three.

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Jones’ Landing, Va.,
Sunday, October
9, 1864.

My Dear Sister L.:—

You will be glad to know that I am out of the hospital. My adventures in getting away ought to form a chapter in the secret history of the war, that the people may know how rascality flourishes in high places. They were making about fifty cents a day out of me, and of course did not want me to leave, and I was a full week in settling up. First, my bill must be paid, but when I applied for the papers to enable me to get my pay, they put me off with trivial excuses time after time, till at last I got my “back up” and told the surgeon that if my papers were not forthcoming by the next morning (Wednesday) I would desert to my regiment, report to General Butler, and learn why an officer must be detained after he wished to join his command. I went back to my room and in five minutes after, an orderly appeared with my papers all ready and signed.

Wednesday I started for the front, reached the regiment at noon of Thursday. Found them occupying a line of works about five miles from Richmond on the left of the Tenth Corps. They seemed very glad to see me. The regiment is very short of officers. Three were wounded in the battle of the 29th, Captains Cooper and Richardson (late Adjutant) and Lieutenant Cone. He, poor fellow, lost his leg. I found Lieutenant Evans in the adjutant’s place. Had I been two days earlier, I would have had it, but now I have something full as good while it lasts, of which more anon.

The accession of several new regiments of colored troops to our division made the formation of a new brigade necessary, and it was made of the Eighth and Forty-fifth United States and Twenty-ninth Connecticut Colored Troops. Colonel Ulysses Doubleday of the Forty-fifth commands. Burrows, our regimental quartermaster, was appointed quartermaster of the brigade, and yours truly was selected to fill the vacancy made by the promotion of Burrows, and now I am Acting R. Q. M. of the Eighth United States Colored Troops. These capitals I suppose are unintelligible to you and I will tell you about them. R. Q. M. is Regimental Quartermaster. His duties are to supply the regiment with rations, forage and clothing, take charge of the officers’ baggage and attend to the transportation for the regiment. Of course he is mounted, a fine thing for me, and a fine thing for my friends is that a quartermaster is not a fighting man. His duties faithfully done are as necessary to success as those of any branch of the service, but they are not dangerous and he does not receive the credit for it that a fighting man does. I have had a good share of duty in the line and can afford to let some one else win the glory now while I take it easy.

It will be a relief to you to think you can read the lists of casualties after a battle without the dread of seeing my name among the killed or wounded. I mean to master every detail of the business if I remain in it any time. You will notice that I am only “Acting” quartermaster. Burrows still holds his appointment of R. Q. M., but is acting in his new capacity. I cannot get the appointment of R. Q. M. till he vacates it by promotion or otherwise, but while acting I have all the privileges and immunities of a full quartermaster. One of the former is being nine miles in rear of danger, seated in my tent by a good fire—a big thing on such a day as this.

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Chesapeake Hospital,
September 28, 1864.

Dear Sister L.:—

I am getting some better, not much, but some, and I am going to the front soon now. I have stopped taking medicine and attribute my gain to that. The last prescription was soap pills. ( ?) Think of that! “Throw physic to the devil.” “Overhaul your catechism for that,” my dear, “and when found, make a note on.” I did, and my “promise to pay” relates to my hospital bill and my respects to our new colonel. I took only one of the “soap pills.” It started me.

Another motive to hasten my return is the prospect of a horse to ride. There have been several promotions lately among the “straps” “of ours,” including the quartermaster and adjutant to captains. Both the desks are vacant and my chance for one of them is good, better if I’m there to take it.

You will be glad to hear that I have a horse, when I do. So will I. I prefer the adjutant’s, but will not decline the quartermaster’s. The pay is $10 better, promotion from the line to the staff. Both are First Lieutenants.

I have just come back from a trip to Norfolk. I left at 9 o’clock yesterday on the Baltimore boat. Arrived at 10:30. I rambled round the town some till I got tired. The main street reminded me of Canal street, New York. Do you remember how that looks, crossing the others obliquely? It used to be quite a town. Intensely secesh, it shows the fruits of rebellion.

In the evening I attended the theater to see “Faust and Marguerite,” a German drama. Do you know the story? How the old philosopher, Faust, sold himself to the devil for a new lease of youth? Mephistopheles gave him youth, beauty and riches, and assisted him to win and ruin Marguerite, an orphan, and finally claimed him as his own. It was tolerably played. The devil was on hand in person pretty much of the time and played some queer tricks. At the finale, he seized Faust with a horrible leer and descended into the pit amidst lurid flames and smoke, while Marguerite was borne aloft on angels’ wings. I send you the picture— a black impression. The scenery was beautiful, but the angels traveled by jerks. The machinery was a little out of order, and instead of sailing grandly through the heavens, they went up like a barrel of flour into a storehouse.

Coming back I saw the captured rebel ram, Atlanta. She looks like a vast turtle on the water.

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Chesapeake Hospital,
September 11, 1864.

Dear Sister L.:—

I received a letter to-day from Captain Dickey dated “In the trenches before Petersburg. September 7th.” He says the regiment is forty-eight hours in the outer line and forty-eight off alternately. It is certain death to show a head above the works. Some one is killed almost every day. Captain Walker, a particular friend of mine in the Seventh, was killed by the sharpshooters a few days since. We have lost one killed and four wounded in our company. It is a pleasant thing to have the respect and good will of your comrades. I will give you an extract from the captain’s letter. After speaking of Lieutenant Thompson’s being detached as Ordnance Officer, he says: “So you see, I am all alone, and a sweet time I’ve had of it, making muster rolls (they were finished an hour since), monthly returns, etc., with my books and papers all locked up in Norfolk. Hasn’t it been a delightful job? But with you matters seem less promising. I am sorry to hear you improve so slowly. Seems to me a milder treatment would be better, but a man in the doctor’s hands must follow prescriptions. But keep a cheerful tone of mind. There is no necessity for you to fret or worry the least about your duties here. You have the sympathy of all the officers. No one intimates that Norton is ‘playing off.’ No one intimates but that you did your duty and your whole duty. On the contrary, many are of the opinion, and among them your humble servant, that it would have been better for you if you had left your post sooner. You ought to have done it, and yet I know very well how you felt. I know one is loth to leave his command during active operations, and is perhaps as unwilling to trust his judgment then as under any imaginable circumstances. I have no doubt you felt unfit for duty long before you left it. Norton reasoning with Norton, thought himself sick, but declared he wouldn’t be sick. Felt that he ought to be excused, but resolved not to be excused.”

The captain is nearly or quite right in that last remark. Still, where so many “play off,” a man’s character is worth a good deal, and I am not very sorry I did not give up immediately, though it might have been better for my health. I think I am on the gain slowly.

I was writing to H. on the morning of the 7th, when I had an interruption. It came in the shape of one of Uncle Samuel’s rebellion smashers, called for short “E.” He was on his way home, and while the boat stopped at the fort for coal he came up here to see me. I was “tolable” glad to see him. He looked quite like a “vet.”—a little thin and very dirty, perfectly soldierly. He says Phillips will give him $600 a year to come back in his store, and it’s my opinion he will accept that as quickly as the good Lord and his parents will let him get to Toledo. If P. backs out he won’t lack employment. Barker, of Ketchum & Barker, spoke to him of coming into his store again, but I think Mr. P. will be glad to get him.

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Chesapeake Hospital,
September 1, 1864.

Dear Mother:—

I was very much surprised to hear that E. had not got home, but was to stay here till the 7th of September, and I don’t begin to understand it yet. The One hundred and forty-second Ohio National Guards, which must have been formed after his regiment, has gone home, and I was sure the regiment that passed us that night answered “One hundred and thirtieth Ohio—hundred days’ men.” “The Norton” which was heard might have been imaginary. I may see him yet before he goes.

I am glad to report that I am getting better. I was out yesterday, went down to the fort in the horse car, weighed myself and found my “mortal remains” to be just 109 pounds avoirdupois.

We had a change of surgeons a few days ago, and the new one said my liver was out of order and gave me calomel, salts, quinine, whisky, fever pills, sulphuric acid, etc., enough to kill a man with a less vigorous constitution, but I really believe it did me good. He has stopped all but the quinine and whisky now, and I feel a great deal better. I have gone to the “full diet” table now, with an appetite like a horse.

I am very glad to hear that you have succeeded in getting a roof between yourselves and “the starry decked heavens above you.” Father was quite anxious about that when he wrote, and I cannot see how you do manage to live on his slender salary. I can’t support myself in my present position on that. My full pay is about $100 a month; $11 of that is allowance for a servant, which I get if I have the servant. If I get a boy he will eat more than he earns and in the first battle throw away my overcoat and blankets. If I get a man over sixteen, Butler or some other man will take him away for a teamster or soldier. If I employ a soldier, I must pay $25.50 per month, or just what it costs the United States. $13 wages. $9 subsistence and $3.50 clothing.

Since January 1, Captain Dickey has employed one of the company as servant and the amount was stopped from his pay. Lieutenant Thompson and I had the benefit of his services and shared the expense till June. Since then, Thompson has been detached and the captain and I have stood the whole.

We have not settled for July and August yet, but we cannot employ a soldier any more. It is the general custom in the army for officers to employ soldiers and then certify on their payrolls that they have not done so and draw their full pay. It is done in every regiment and has been ever since I’ve been in the service. In that way some officers send home an immense amount of wages.

It costs me $1 a day for board, saying nothing of clothes or servant. If I want a coat, it costs from $25 to $30, pants $15, boots $12 or $15, hat $10, shirts $10 a pair.

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Chesapeake Hospital,
Sunday, August 28, 1864.

My Dear Sister L.:—

I have passed the week mostly on my bed—been out of the house but once. That was yesterday, when I went down to the fort (in the cars) and that little exertion was almost too much for me. I am very comfortably sick— have no pain except an occasional headache, but spend most of my time quietly, feeling a great aversion to the least exertion.

My bed is a little iron cot with a mattress on it, my table a light stand. I draw it up beside the bed and write my letters and then lie back and read or sleep. Three times a day my tormentor comes with quinine and whisky disguised as “tonic solution,” and soon after come preparations for a meal from the “low diet kitchen.” This is managed in a way called in military parlance “by detail,” e. g., first installment for dinner (after the “tonic solution”) 10 a. m., nurse with cup and saucer. Then at intervals of half an hour the following articles—10:30, knife, fork and spoon; 11, milk, cup and mug, with one spoonful of sugar; 11:30, teapot and plate of corn starch (good); 12 m., plate with leathery toast, dab of butter, boiled beef and a slice of beet or dried sweet potato. Regularity and system are indispensable in hospitals, so this routine is never departed from, and it is just two hours every time from the arrival of the cup and saucer to “Ready. Sir,” the signal to fall to. I assure you there is no waste of food among the low diet patients. I always take all the sugar to make out. I do not seem to gain strength at all. In fact, I lose strength every day, but I hope to improve soon.

We have a new surgeon—came this morning. The one that left yesterday was a very nice man, and this one seems a good man too, as well as I could judge by ten minutes’ talk.

I used to say that if I ever got in a hospital I should want to get home. So I do now, and I expect—to want. No use in trying that here. But as soon as I am able to travel, I mean to apply to be sent to Annapolis on light duty and from there I think I can get home. I have lost twenty pounds of flesh and I do not intend to go to the field again till I regain that and my full strength. It would be useless and might result in a more serious fit of sickness.

E. had not got home when Father wrote, and I have not heard a word from him since he passed me on his way north. I am not uneasy about him though.

I had a letter from D. F. a day or two since. He said nothing about Etta, but Lizzie and the baby had gone to Maine, so I have strong doubts about your seeing anything of Etta this summer. I wrote to D. to send you “Very Hard Cash” as my birthday present. If you have read it, it will be rather mal apropos, won’t it? I do not think you have, as it has not been out long and novelties don’t find their way out there very fast. You will, if I am not mistaken, find it one of the most absorbing stories you ever read. It is made up almost wholly of impossibles. For instance, his heroine, Julia, is one never seen except in a novel, but she is only an exaggeration of many sweet and lovely women. His best character, I think, is David Dodd, the nearest approach to a possible. Dr. Sampson is well drawn and an original person. I could not succeed in appreciating the saintliness with which he finished Jane Hardie. Her brother’s comments on her diary seemed to me too just, and his motto for the diary might as well apply to her life; “Ego et Deus meus,” or I and my God.

But the lesson of the story is a good one, and the consummate skill with which it is wrought out makes one jealous of the author for being an Englishman. Why have we no one on this side the water to write an American story like that? In one thing he fails. In impossibles he is better than Dickens, but when he caricatures Yankees and negroes, he shows an ignorance of the originals. Vespasian is his poorest impossible, and Fullalove is not much better. But enough of this. When you have read it, tell me how you like it and how you like my comments.

From the front the news is always encouraging. Lee has been making desperate efforts to regain the Weldon railroad and so far without success, and every day lessens his prospects of success. He is reported to have said he must have it if it took every rebel soldier. He is welcome to it at that price. Sherman is waiting for Farragut to take Mobile or draw off a part of Hood’s force to defend it, and things seem to be almost at a deadlock all round.

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Chesapeake Hospital,
August 26, 1864.

Dear Father:—

This letter of yours has been to Hilton Head I suppose, and then to the Army of the Potomac, and next day, by the kindness of Captain Dickey, to me here. He is a captain, that same Dickey. His good qualities wear like steel.

Twenty days old this letter is. In that time you must have received several from me, not all addressed to you, but to the family, some of them, papers for the boys, and one I sent to Mother with a little note about the picture. I don’t believe they can all have miscarried. Well, one thing is certain, it won’t take a month for letters to pass now, and I comfort myself by thinking that you will be reading this about Monday or Tuesday next, and by and by all this arriere will be straightened up.

After hearing what you have had to occupy you lately, I recall my impatient remarks about your want of interest, etc. Indeed, they were not leveled at you. Though you give every other reason I know that you do not like to write letters. You sit down to it as to a job that must be done and I do not expect you to write often.

I had an idea that I had a sister out there who (if she follows the track of young persons of her sex) must be quite a young lady by this time. Young ladies are supposed to wield a ready pen, to be familiar with the state of the family and to love to gossip about it. They generally have time enough, but despite all my ideas, hypotheses, etc., I find a married sister with a husband to take care of, a house to sweep, the stockings to darn, and the slight care of a dairy—I find her writing to me every week, while this young lady finds time about once in six months. E. is a “brick.” He writes as often as he can, and, though I haven’t received any from him of very late date, I lay it to the bags. I hope soon to hear from him that he is back in the hardware in Toledo. “What would you think,” he says in his last, “if I should get as large a salary as Father’s?” He got a stomach-full of the army in one hundred days. If he goes again, it will be with a strong impression that he can’t help it. I wrote to him, directing to Brooklyn, thinking of course he would be at home a few days, or at least you would know where he is. He said Mr. P. was very anxious he should come back to his store, but he himself did not seem very anxious to accept so advantageous a situation.

I am very sorry to hear of your trouble about the house; however I suppose it is all over now. I hope so at least. I should think with such a scarcity of dwellings some Yankee would be putting up houses to rent. I had very much such a time as yours approached, just before coming here. Getting sick in camp, I was left behind unable to march. “In camp” in the Army of the Potomac now is a pleasant fiction, meaning any place a regiment bivouacs on over night. So they moved away and left me, our efficient medical staff making no provision for sick. Two days I stayed there, living on the kindness of some sick men from Maine. Then our adjutant came and mounted me on his own horse, like a good Samaritan, and took me to the corps hospital. The medical director wanted to see my papers. I must be committed like a pauper to the poorhouse. I was “liable to be arrested” for absence from my regiment without authority. You may understand it was trying to my temper to be called a skulk the first time I came near a hospital in more than three years. I turned away from him in disgust and lay down under a tree on the bank of the river. The adjutant left me there and said he would not rest till he had got the order sending me to the hospital. So there I lay and my thoughts were not pleasant. By and by I heard a rattle of musketry and knew my regiment was “in.” Then it blew and began to rain. I curled myself up in my gum blanket and felt miserable enough, sick, weak, and no place to shelter my head.

The next afternoon a doctor came and asked me who I was and how I came there. I told him my story and he had the kindness to be shocked—”didn’t see into it—anyone could see I was sick—didn’t need any papers” and he immediately wrote the papers I enclose and sent me on the boat. I feel very weak, have only been out doors once. If it were any use I would apply for leave of absence as soon as I am able to travel, but it is not. I would be ordered to Annapolis and put on court-martial or some other light duty. It is next to impossible to get leave of absence.

The Eighth has redeemed any reputation it lost at Olustee. It was the Eighth before which “eighty-two dead rebels were counted after the battle,” according to Birney’s dispatch.

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