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)

Baltimore, Md.,
April 15, 1S65.

Dear Brother and Sister:—

I am only so far on my way as yet, and take the opportunity afforded by my detention till this afternoon to drop you a line. I bought my ticket to Philadelphia, via Elmira, and arriving at Elmira found I could not get through that way. I return the ticket to you, Charlie. It was nothing less than a swindle to sell it to me. Take it back to the office there and demand the fare from Elmira to Philadelphia. They are obliged to take it up, as they knew that no trains had run over that road for two weeks.

I went to New York, stopped over night, got my pictures and went on to Philadelphia. Stopped there to get my pay for March and went up to Camp William Penn. Came on here yesterday and leave for Richmond this afternoon.

The news of Lee’s surrender is true. Better than all my hopes was the prospect of the end of the war. It was ended on the 9th and every one admitted it. New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore were jubilant. Joy on every face and tongue. I could not see or hear of a secession sympathizer. At the theater last night a band from Lee’s army was present and played “Hail Columbia” and the “Red, White and Blue,” and here in Baltimore those tunes were vociferously cheered. I went to bed happy, thinking of the glorious change, and came down this morning to be astounded by the news that President Lincoln was assassinated last night at Ford’s Theater in Washington and Secretary Seward and his son were stabbed at almost the same hour. The Secretary will perhaps recover, but his son cannot live. The President was shot through the head by a man who entered his private box from behind, shot him and then leaped upon the stage brandishing a dagger and disappeared behind the scenes, escaping at the back of the theater before the audience knew what had occurred. The President died at 7:22 this morning.

It is too terrible to think of, and I cannot imagine the consequences. We could have spared him better at almost any other time. What can we do with such a President as Andy Johnson? What effect will it have on the question of peace?

Well, we can do nothing but wait. The nation’s joy is changed to mourning and to mutterings of vengeance on the cowardly assassins and the infamous plotters who arranged the murders. J. W. Booth, the actor, is said to be the assassin of the President, and it is hoped he will be arrested to-day.


Chapin’s Farm, Va.,
February 25, 1865.

My Dear Sister L.:—

Yesterday I issued clothing and I have had no time till to-night to post up my books. Just as I finished, the order came to break camp and prepare to march in heavy marching order, which little phrase means—prepare to leave your snug quarters, take up your bed (and any other little matters you ever expect to see again) and walk—seek a new home in the field. Well, of course, I went to work and in two hours I had my wagons loaded, and soon after the regiment marched out. The wagons parked behind the stables to wait orders, and at midnight the teams were unhitched and I turned in on the floor of my house. The troops marched a mile and bivouacked in the field, and all night it rained. This morning the doubts about the destination were solved by an order to occupy the camp vacated by Russell’s brigade, about two miles to the left of our old camp. I did not move my quarters and shall not for the present. So much for so much.

But, oh! Glory, Hallelujah! What news! Victory! Victory!! and without the long lists of killed and wounded. Sherman captures the capital of South Carolina. Charleston is ours, and the identical old flag floats again over Sumter. Fisher, Anderson and Wilmington are ours, and now to-night Petersburg is evacuated and Grant holds the South Side railroad. That seems too good to be true, but it is sent as “official” by General Weitzel.[1] Do you know that means Richmond will be evacuated? Perhaps I shall be in Richmond before I write again. Lee would not have abandoned that line till he was driven from it unless he meant to leave Richmond. He may be intending to gobble the Army of the James, but I think he has gone to meet Sherman. Well, perhaps he may meet him more and sooner than he wishes.

[1] Note. —Error. General Weitzel’s bulletin was inaccurate. Charleston was evacuated with Sherman’s army many miles distant. Petersburg was not abandoned nor the old flag raised over Sumter until some time later.


Chapin’s Farm, Pa.,
February 25, 1865.

Dear Father:—

The war seems to be moving on with irresistible grandeur. Its progress is like the motions of the planets— almost imperceptible, but steady and sure. We see it more by its results than anything else. Who can tell when this nation determined to uproot the cause of our troubles? We know they had not so determined two years ago, and now we know they have passed the point of that determination.

T(illegible) that opposes us is just as steadily crumbling a(illegible) by one, its cities, its arsenals, its railroads, it’s a (illegible) slipping from its grasp. Its approach to the “l (illegible) is steady, and by and by it will be tumbled i(illegible) the bells of peace ring out over the land their w (illegible) otes, we shall have thrown the last spadeful of earth on the bloody carcasses of slavery, aristocracy of color, state rights, and all the demons of that ilk that have troubled us so long.

This is a glorious age. There is something grand in the way Honest Old Abe is steering the ship of state through the breakers of the revolution. He may be a very common man now, but school boys to come will revere him as at least the step-father of his country.


Chapin’s Farm, Va.,
February 12, 1865.

Dear Sister L. :—

You seem to be having a very severe winter. All the soldiers who have been home say, with a shrug of the shoulders, “It is terribly cold up there.” It is cold enough here. To-day the wind almost takes the roof off my house. It is, however, the most windy day we have had.

Military operations just here are pretty quiet, though they have been moving on the extreme left of the Army of the Potomac. The Eighty-third was engaged, I see, and Alf’s regiment.

Lee tried a most brilliant dodge a week or two ago. We were such fools that we did not see our danger till the papers told us of it. I make a little “plan” of it. (Sketch omitted.) Lee sent a force estimated at 20,000 down to the right of our line, and when they were all ready sent the gun boats to run by Fort Brady and go down and break our pontoon bridges and thus cut us off, and when this was done the 20,000 was to break through our line on the right and gobble us all up. It was an excellent plan. The gun boats succeeded in getting by the fort and then got stuck in the mud. One of them was blown up and the others were glad enough to get back safely. They supposed that our boats had all gone to Wilmington, and they were pretty near right, but we upon the line did not know that, and the whole thing was a mystery to us, and it proved a failure. My little rough plan will give you some idea of our position here. Our division is on the right of the corps and just after the C. in “25th C.” I have marked an X. That is the camp of the Eighth, and just across the creek southwest from the 2, in “24th C.” is another X. That is the location of my domicile.


Chapin’s Farm, Va.,
January 19, 1865.

My Dear Sister L.:—

I have not much news to write. It seems to me my letters must have changed in their character, as I have in my habits of thought since the early part of the war. I remember how I used to write elaborate descriptions of reviews and parades, marches and incidents of camp life. I seldom do this now. These things have come to be a part of my everyday life and have lost the charm of novelty. Not entirely so, either. I found myself the other day at a division drill dashing here and there in the capacity of staff officer with orders from the brigade commander, and I remember well, when I was in the ranks with a musket, how great a thing it seemed to be on the staff. Ah, well, such is life.


Chapin’s Farm, Va..
Sunday, Jan.
15, 1865, midnight.

Dear Sister L.:—

My diary has ceased to be. It is now the middle of January, 1865, and I have made no entries in it since I left the hospital, and as I am about to send it to you lest it share the fate of my other diaries in the early part of the war, and in the hope that some of it may interest you, I can think of nothing better than to fill up a few more pages with some recollections, and records of the regiment, and of myself.

As you know from my letters, I reached the regiment on the 6th of October, having left the hospital before I was strong enough for duty in the line, with the expectation of being regimental adjutant. I found Lieutenant Evans already in the office, and while Major Wagner was deliberating whether it was best to return him to his company and make me adjutant, Lieutenant Burrows was made brigade quartermaster and the major at once detailed me to act as regimental quartermaster in his place, and “A. R. O. M.” I have been ever since.

The regiment was then lying in the works to the right of the rebel Fort Harrison, which was taken by our forces on the 29th of September, and the name since changed to Fort Burnham in honor of Brigadier General Burnham who was killed in the charge which captured the fort.

On the 13th of October the reconnoisgance on the Darby Road was made. As a military success or a movement of importance in any respect, it is not worth mention, but it is a memorable day to me on account of the death of my dearest and best army friend. Captain A. G. Dickey.

The “Eighth” was deployed as skirmishers early in the morning and covered the front of the division. Three companies were held in reserve and Captain Dickey had command of those companies. I left my place at the train on learning that fighting was in progress and came up to the front to learn what was being done. I found the division in a belt of woods facing a line of the enemy’s works and the skirmish line pushed well up to those works. The reserve was a few rods in rear of the line and they had remained in that position some three hours. The skirmishers were pretty well concealed and kept up a desultory fire wherever they could see any of the enemy, and the rebels did the same. An occasional bullet cut through the bushes near the reserves, but I did not think it a place of particular danger, or having no particular business I should not have been there. As it was I sat down on the ground by the captain and stayed two or three hours, and then thinking that not much more would be done that day and that I should have little enough time to get back to the train before night, I started to return. The captain said to me as I left, in that bantering style so common among soldiers, “Take care of yourself, Norton, this is no place for quartermasters.” and I retorted in similar style. It was the last word he ever spoke to me.

That night as I sat in my tent, a lieutenant told me that one of our captains was killed, and on my mentioning their names he said it was Dickey. I could not believe it, but the next morning the news was confirmed.

It was too true. Not ten minutes after I left, one of those occasional bullets had crashed through his brain. He lived, or breathed rather, for forty-eight hours after, but I could not go to see him.

By and by they brought him to me—all that was left of my friend lay before me on a stretcher in an ambulance.

Just after the battle of Olustee he had given me the address of his mother (he had no father) and his sister, and I had given him your address and my father’s, and we promised each other that if anything occurred, (we expressed it in that way with the natural dread of speaking of death) that if anything occurred to one, and the other was spared he should write to our friends the sad news. The sad fulfilment of the promise was mine, and I took his body to the embalmer’s and had it prepared and sent to his friends, as I knew he would have done for me under like circumstances. It was all I could do, and now I sit and gaze on his picture and think of all his noble, manly, generous qualities and I know how his mother and his sister must mourn for him, but our grief can never return him to us.


“They, who the tasks of life took up so gladly

And bore them onward with exultant palm,

Now graveyard grasses wave above them sadly,

Their still hands folded to a changeless calm.


Gone! Gone! The gay leaves twinkle in the summer shining,

The light winds whisper o’er the grassy lea,

And song and fragrance gentle links are twining.

But oh ! beloved and lost ones, where are ye?”


Well, dear sister, I send you my diary, such as it is. There will be much of it that you cannot understand and much that would not interest you if you could. There are many references to persons who are strange to you, and but very little of any part will pay you for the reading. To me, I have a fancy that it will be very interesting in after years. It will recall to me scenes and incidents that without it I should have forgotten. I have kept it in a careless, desultory manner, and with no expectation that it would interest any but myself. Indeed a diary would be more appropriately named an “I-ary,” for there is little else but “I” in it. Still, if you find any amusement or enjoyment in it, it will be an additional source of pleasure to me. I ask you to keep it for me, and perhaps at some future time we may look it over together and pass a pleasant hour in so doing.


Chapin’s Farm, Va.,
January 8, 1865.

My Dear Father:—

On New Year’s my friend Richardson, late captain in the Eighth (resigned), arrived and put up with me. He is from Roscoe, Ill., and has just come from home, where he had been to recover from wounds. He has resigned and come down to settle up his business, and we had many things to talk of while he was here, so that I had little time to write. When he left Lieutenant Burrows went with him “on leave” and I was appointed brigade quartermaster.

The clothing for the brigade had just arrived and I had it all to issue. I suppose there was forty thousand dollars worth of it and it behooved me to be careful in my issue, for a small proportion of it unaccounted for would absorb the little four months’ pay due me now. After attending to that I had the clothing to issue to my regiment, for as I do not expect to be brigade quartermaster permanently, I preferred doing the duties of both positions to turning over my property. I got through it all in good shape; did not lose anything. I have now over a hundred horses and mules to feed and a large train to care for, and that includes a deal of care, for in these roads shoes will get off the mules, and wagon tongues and axles will break and something needs attention constantly. I rather like the extra labor and responsibility. It gives me an opportunity to exercise all my powers, and it has always seemed to me before that I had not that. You will see, however, that I have not much time for writing, and excuse short letters on that account.

I am very glad to know that S’s statement of your health was too strong. I did feel quite anxious on that account. And you really are doing better than I could expect. You support your family on a deal less money than I support myself. I’m afraid I should find it hard to get so prudent a wife, or a wife who could make my money go as far as yours does. I am not spending much money now, I notice, for the excellent reason that I cannot get it to spend.

I shall look for the remainder of what you have to say on the subject of my last letter in your next. I suppose you would laugh to hear us young fellows discuss this matter. Richardson, Burrows and I are about of an age, and very similarly situated, and we have been discussing the matter in all seriousness.


Chapin’s Farm, Va.,
December 26, 1864.

My Dear Sister L.:—

This will not reach you in time to present my respects in a “Merry Christmas,” so I will wish you a “Happy New Year” and many returns of the season, and tell you how I spent my Christmas. There are so few Sundays in the army that the occurrence of the holiday on that day was no drawback. The military part of the festivity was a Division Dress Parade and the social, or our social part was a dinner at “Ye Quartermaster’s.” Lieutenant Burrows is a capital hand at carrying out anything of that kind and he determined to do the thing up right.

We had two guests. Colonel Samuel C. Armstrong,[1] of the Eighth, and Lieutenant Colonel Mayer of the Forty-fifth, two men who would be considered acquisitions in almost any social circle. Colonel A. was born in the Sandwich Islands and Colonel M. in Buenos Ayres, South America, and both are full of stories of adventure, travel and society. Mayer is the hero of half a dozen duels, which is not much of a recommendation, I know, but the custom of his country makes it a very different thing from dueling here.

I will not undertake to describe our dinner in detail, but we had oyster soup, fish boiled, roast fowl (chicken) and mutton, potatoes, peas and tomatoes, oysters, fried and raw, and for dessert mince pie, fruit cake, apples, peaches, grapes, figs, raisins, nuts, etc., and coffee, and for wassail a rousing bowl of punch. The band of the regiment played in front of the house during dinner, and the leader says he played three hours. The long and short of it is we had as elegant and recherche an affair as often comes off in the army, enjoyed ourselves thoroughly and nobody went home drunk.

Do you know that since my last letter to you I have passed my twenty-fifth birthday? And now I am beginning my twenty-sixth year. My years would indicate that I ought to be a man, but I must confess to much of the boy in my nature yet. To be sure I have grown some in strength of character since I was twenty-one, but I seem to be a long way off from the condition of a man in society. Do you think I will be married before I am thirty? I don’t see much prospect of it. I am twenty-five and not in love yet, and sometimes I think it is the best thing that could have happened to me that I have been beyond the reach of temptation in that line, until I had strength of character enough to look at this matter as a man should. God willing, I mean to have a wife and a home, but when, is beyond my knowledge.

I send you an excellent picture of my late captain. I send it to board only, for money would not induce me to part with it if I lost my others. I think you have a picture of Lieutenant Thos. Young, who is now captain of “E” Company.

I have again been obliged to decline a captaincy, for the present at least. It is gratifying to me to have had it offered to me, but, in the present state of my health, I told the colonel I did not think I ought to accept it. I would rather be a quartermaster on duty than a sick captain.

[1] Note—Founder of Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. He was for more than thirty years at the head of this institution, which has done so much for the colored race. Booker T. Washington was one of his pupils.


Chapin’s Farm, Va., December 18, 1864.

Dear Father:—

A sentence in S’s letter has troubled me considerably lately. He says, “Father is growing old fast. His hair is white as snow, and his old complaint, the diarrhea, is troubling him very much.” Mother had written me that a very good physician there had entirely cured you of that and I was somewhat surprised to hear such news from him. Is this true? I wish you would write me freely about your health and condition, and prospects among your people. I had formed the opinion from the family letters, particularly Mother’s, that you were getting along better there than ever before. I heard of some trouble about a house and of some political difficulties in the church, but I did not suppose these things were serious enough to wear upon your health as some old troubles have done.

Do you make out to live upon your salary these hard times? The family is some smaller with L., E. and me away, and I should judge from reports that S. and C. earned nearly enough to feed and clothe themselves, but with everything you have to buy, at double the old rates, I cannot see how you manage.

Yesterday was my birthday, and I am twenty-five years old. It is time I was a man if ever I am to be one, but there is much of the boy about me yet. Still I dread growing old, and the years fly by all too swiftly. I begin to have that feeling already that I am too old for what I have accomplished and I am looking forward anxiously to know what I shall do when we have peace once more. Till that time my duty is plain, and I do not remember to have had at any time any other purpose than to remain in the army till peace is won, if my life is spared so long. Then comes the thought, what then? The war may last another year and I shall be twenty-six and be ready to start in life for myself, with no capital but a small stock of brains. Sometimes, when I think of these things, I wonder if I can have missed it in giving these four starting years to my country. There is Chapman, who was my class and roommate during my last term at school. We were then as nearly on a par in almost all respects as could be. Both sons of poor ministers with ourselves to depend on. He pursued the course I had marked out for myself, went down to Ohio teaching, and then to college, and he has worked his way into his senior year. He has spent three months in the army and we have maintained a correspondence all the time. Next year he will graduate and marry and settle down to law. He says he envies me my record of the past four years, but I rather think it is his friendly style of fame, for he had as fair a chance to make that record as I. Now is he better off than I? My spirit would hardly brook the thought in coming years that while other young men were giving their time to their country I was giving mine to myself, and no doubt the man who has fought this war through will receive from the community all due honor, but honor is not going to support him, and what is, is a serious question. Another serious question is at what age can I marry? Very few young men set out with the intention to remain single and I am not among the few, but I have always thought I would not marry till I had something to support a wife on, either money, or money and educated brains. I have a horror of being the head of a poverty-stricken family. Now I have given up my hopes of a college education. It is too late, and my education must be such as I am getting now, and I am not sure but it is better so. Some hold the opinion that a young man can do better on the same means with a wife than without—that the right sort of wife is not an expense but a help to him. I want your opinion about that in my own case.


Chapin’s Farm, Va.,
December 7, 1864.

Dear Sister L.:—

The move I spoke of has taken place. Our regiment moved only about forty rods, but enough to oblige them to leave all their nice log houses they had been so long building. We moved into the camp of the Fortieth Massachusetts, which was a much smaller regiment than ours, and there were not quarters enough for us. I do not move, as I am about as near the new camp as the old one, and could gain nothing by moving.

Last night just as I got into a comfortable doze between those sheets the brigade quartermaster came into my house and said: “Are you aware, young man, that we have orders to be ready to move at a moment’s notice, teams harnessed and ready to hitch up?” Well, I had not been aware of it, but it did not take me long to become so. Then at midnight I had to get up and issue two days’ rations to the regiment, and was up and down all night, so to-day I feel rather blue. It is 10 o’clock and we have not moved yet and perhaps we may not. as it began to rain at daylight this morning and there is a prospect of its continuance. We have had most delightful weather lately, dreamy Indian summer weather, but treacherous as the Indian. You cannot tell on one warm, bright, dry day that the next will not be cold, wet and awful for outdoor work.

The “Corps d’Afrique” is organized and there are a thousand rumors. The Sixth and Nineteenth corps landed at City Point a day or two ago and some say they will relieve us and we be sent to Wilmington or Savannah or Florida, and others that the Dutch Gap canal is all done but blowing out the end, and that is to be done at once and a grand rush made for Richmond with “Cuffee in advance,” so the rebs say, so altogether we are in a state of great uncertainty.

My coming home is very doubtful. In fact I do not care to leave till I get my appointment as regimental quartermaster. I am only acting now, but our regimental quartermaster expects promotion soon, and if some one else is acting when he gets it and I am off on leave, my chances for stepping into his shoes will not be so good as though I was here on hand. That is one reason. Another is that when he gets his promotion he will be absent for some time settling up his accounts as regimental quartermaster and I shall probably take his place as brigade quartermaster, and in the time I am acting I shall be showing if I am competent to be Captain and Assistant Quartermaster, which may come in due time. Perhaps you don’t understand all this, but you know I am a little ambitious and you can understand that “Captain and Assistant Quartermaster” is parlance militaire for quartermaster of a brigade or division.