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)

Jacksonville, Fla.,
Thursday, April 14, 1864.

Dear Mother:—

Any news of special importance is simply out of the question. The rebels, after taking out of Florida all they cared for, have abandoned the state to the Yankee invaders. Only a few roving bands of cavalry remain.

This morning two regiments left us for the Army of the Potomac. Rumor said that all the white troops in this district were to be sent there, but I believe that is one of Madam’s incredible stories. Certainly no others have orders yet.

The court-martial, which has been in session the last six weeks, was broken up by the departure of the judge advocate, who went with his regiment, but I hear it is the intention to appoint another to fill his place and continue the court.

Judging from appearances, it is not the intention to abandon this place soon. The general is having the streets re-planted with shade trees in places where the fire killed them. Fatigue parties have been at work draining the swamps in the immediate vicinity, and they have succeeded well. A high signal tower has been erected to communicate with vessels outside the bar at the mouth of the river.

Jacksonville was before the war as large or larger than Jamestown, and built mostly of brick. Sutlers are doing a heavy business in the stores which survived the general wreck. Everyone is occupied and there are two eating houses in operation. I notice one good thing—no liquor is sold in the town. Neither officer nor soldier can get a drop. As a consequence nobody gets drunk, a very satisfactory state of affairs.

Beyond this there is little to say. The regiment, so far as I can judge by observation (having had nothing to do with it for the last six weeks), is improving rapidly. I think another fight will give them a different story to tell.

We have received a list of our wounded in the enemy’s hands and find that quite a number supposed and reported to be dead are alive, and some left alive have since died. The furnishing this list was the act of Major General Patten Anderson, “Commanding Confederate States Forces in Florida,” and was entirely of his own free will, and shows a disposition that I wish was more general.

Mr. Rockwood is the only useful chaplain I ever saw in the army. He is doing the regiment much good. Besides preaching he is furnishing the men books, teaching and encouraging them to read, and working all the time as hard as any other officer to improve the regiment. He is very much liked, or at least respected in the regiment.

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Jacksonville, Florida,

Sunday, April 10, 1864.

Dear Sister L.:—

It is a beautiful Sunday morning, gloriously fresh after yesterday’s rain. The sun is not high enough yet to be uncomfortably warm. The weather is very much like northern June. Such a delicious freshness about the morning air, and as the sun mounts up, a glow that makes a cool shade appreciated.

The “Sunday Morning Inspection” is going on now. Being on “special duty” myself I am excused from that, and while the captain and Lieutenant Thompson are examining guns and knapsacks, I am sitting in the tent writing to you.

The band of sable performers is discoursing “Hail Columbia” and “America,” and they play well, too, very well for the length of time they have been practicing.

Since I wrote to you we have moved our camp. We had the most beautiful spot in the vicinity. A high point of land overlooking the river and fringed with magnificent live oaks, and dotted here and there with orange trees and magnolias. It did not look very well when we first went there, but then we soon fixed it up.

When we got well fortified, Colonel Hawley concluded we were not strong enough to hold the place, and ordered us to change camps with the Seventh Connecticut, his own regiment. Our present camp is on a perfectly level plain of sand regularly laid out, and the streets are lined with pine trees which the men have set out, giving it a very pretty appearance. We have one wall tent for the officers of each company. We have the fly of ours stretched in front of the tent. It makes a very nice place to sit in the heat of the day. We are to have it paved with brick, which are plenty hereabouts, but we have not got it done yet. Behind the tent is our mess-room roofed with shelter tents, where at stated hours Dickson serves up the staff of life and ham and potatoes. Also the dwelling of Dickson himself and his brick cooking-range. Around the whole is a double row of pines. Can you see by that little description our surroundings? Inside we have our bed, our table and bookcase. On the table are books and writing materials, my flute and chess, the last Atlantic and the papers, read till they actually get thin.

The court still continues to meet every day from 10 till 4 o’clock and I do little but attend that.

I met Almon in the street the other day. He was looking well. Spoke of a projected raid across the river in which he was to take part. A raid after the enemy’s fresh beef, to be converted of course to the benefit of the Yankee invaders.

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Jacksonville, Fla.,
Sunday, March 27, 1864.

Dear Sister L.:—

Again the mail has come and no letter from you. Nine days have I waited in the confident expectation that if that boat ever did come I should certainly get some letters. It comes and I get a short note from Father only. My papers come, so I know that it is not the fault of communication. What is the matter? Has some one reported me dead, and have you got on mourning for me already? Am I set down in your mind as an inmate of the Libby, and are you torturing your brain with thoughts of the fate of a “nigger officer”? If you are, cease now and henceforth. Do you never believe I’m dead or in prison, even if you see all the particulars in the papers. Wait till you get the news in writing from Captain Dickey or Lieutenant Thompson. Both have your address and will be sure to write immediately in case anything occurs to prevent my writing.

Rumor says to-night that we have a new commander, General Hatch. I hope it may prove true, for whatever may be General Seymour’s talents, he certainly does not possess the confidence of the officers or men of this department, and without that it is difficult to succeed in anything.

Do you want to know how I spend my time here? Well, in the first place I am a member of a court-martial that meets every morning at 10 o’clock. If there is business enough we sit till 3 or 4 p. m., and then adjourn, but usually we get through much earlier. Then I come back to camp, and after dinner I read or write or play chess. I play a great deal lately and the more I learn the more I like it. It is a noble game and I am determined to be no mean player. I have already beaten the best player I can find in the regiment, and I mean to get so I can do it every time. Last winter I used to play “euchre” or “old sledge,” but it never improved me much. Chess on the contrary is a never ending study. Dr. Franklin called it the “King of Games.”

After I get through the chess, I wonder when the mail will come and whom my letters will be from. It is very easy to tell whom the last were from, or rather whom they were not from. By George, I shall be driven to the necessity of advertising in the Waverly for correspondents or initiating another cousinly affair.

Tell me if you get a paper every two or three days, a letter once a week, a package of Florida moss, an envelope of orange blossoms. All these I’ve been sending.

I wrote to you that I had found Almon Ploss and the Wait’s Corners boys.

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Jacksonville, Fla.,
March 22, 1864.

Dear Sister L.:—

I send you another copy of the Free South, printed this time on wrapping paper. “Necessity is the mother of invention.” There is no news. All quiet along the lines. The alarm I mentioned was caused by about forty rebel cavalry making a reconnoissance along our lines. Our men withdrew at first, then rallied and chased the rebels a mile beyond the original line without a shot being fired on either side. The court is still in session.

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Jacksonville, Fla.,
March 15, 1864.

Dear Sister L.:—

I send you a copy of an army paper containing some interesting matter about Olustee. I enclose a specimen of the gray moss that covers these trees. It grows in locks six, eight and even ten feet long and a foot thick hanging all over the branches, yet it has no root. It is an inextricable snarl. It seems to feed on the air, for it can get life no other way. It is the most singular vegetable I ever saw. I will try to send you some orange flowers when I write next.

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Jacksonville, Fla.,
March 11, 1864.

Dear Sister L.:—

Somebody has said that is the sweetest word of endearment in the language, and I believe it. Beside it other terms seem to me in my present mood mawkish and sentimental. Since that April day when the red dawn of this cruel war was just breaking over our country, and with tear-wet face you bade me good-bye and God speed, no other woman has been so dear to me. Perhaps my letters and my language may not have shown it, but it is true. There may be a touch of Lara or Conrad the Corsair in my character. I know my heart is not often visible in my face, but when I came home and you were so glad to see me that you could not think even where your husband was, do not imagine that because I was not affected in the same way, or that there were no tears of joy in my eyes, I did not feel one of the greatest joys of my life that day.

H. has never seemed to me like you. Perhaps the greater difference in our ages may account for this, and she is so shy and strange, she is really getting to be almost a stranger. She has changed very much since I left home, and I have not kept pace with the changes, so infrequent have been her letters, and her letters, too, are not a part of or like herself. They are only the family gossip, but you, in all this time of absence have been my dear sister, and, when sitting round the camp fire a comrade has spoken of his sister, I have mentioned mine with reverent love and tenderness. And often I have thought but not spoken of how she has followed me in her thoughts and dreams, mayhap, over weary roads and through the smoke and din of battle, or in the tiresome hours of winter quarters followed me with the untold wealth of a sister’s love.

Often I have thought and felt I was not worthy of all that wealth of sisterly pride and affection lavished on me, but, because I was not worthy, I have craved it all the more. Brothers are not like a sister. Perhaps I may be wanting in natural affection, but my younger brothers never seemed so very dear to me. At home I used to be impatient of their restless freaks, and though I would have resented very quickly a wrong done to them by an outsider, yet I never troubled myself much about them. E. is getting to be a man, and, as his strength and manhood develop, my admiration for him increases. In fact, to see our letters, you would think we constitute a mutual admiration society, but E. is not a woman and not my sister. And as a proof of my love for you, have I not written you often? And how anxiously I have watched the mails for your letters, you will never know.

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Jacksonville, Fla., March 9, 1864.

Dear Father:—

We are still at Jacksonville, and the whole force is hard at work nearly all the time, either on the fortifications or on picket. Last week we were moving every day. One day we would go outside the works and bivouac, and the next the pickets would fire a few guns and we would hustle inside again, to go back the next morning, and so on.

Saturday afternoon we moved into our present position and have remained here so far since.

Ever since the battle the men have slept with their shoes and equipments on, and they fall in every morning an hour before light and stand in line till sunrise. This looks to me very much like “locking the stable door,” etc.

Vague rumors reach us of all sorts of stories in the papers in regard to the battle. The Herald (of unquestionable veracity, so they say) says that the Eighth retired in confusion after Colonel Fribley fell. There may be some truth in it, but not as most persons would take it, i. e., meaning a complete rout. From all I can learn it appears that the regiment was under fire for more than two hours, though it did not seem to me so long. I never know anything of the time in a battle, though.

The veracious “Lieutenant Colonel Hall, Provost-Marshal, Department of the South,” is probably the author of this story. He was the first to inform Mrs. Fribley of the death of the colonel, and he chivalrously and consolingly added that his death was the result of his own rash exposure and that the officers of the regiment were “as badly scared as the men” and he “rallied the regiment himself.” It is all an infamous lie, and there is more than one officer in the regiment ready to tell him so at the first opportunity. He was seen riding about the field with his pistol cocked and shouting to every wounded man to halt. The man who could coolly tell a poor widow alone in this country that her husband was killed by his own fault, is a brute to say the least. Colonel Fribley exposed himself no more than was necessary. He dismounted as soon as the line was formed and was in the rear of the regiment when he was shot.

I want to see justice done the regiment, I don’t claim that they fought well, only as well as they could, and that the officers had all they could do to get them to fall back at all after the first halt. The “confusion” in which they “retired” was owing to this, that there was no line and the men would only leave the trees, behind which they were firing, on direct orders to do so. The regiment had no commander after the colonel and major fell, and every officer was doing the best he could with his squad independent of any one else.

I have been on a court-martial for the last week and probably will be for some time to come. Two cases have been finished thus far—Corporal Smith of our regiment, for mutiny in shooting his sergeant while in discharge of his duties, and another case similar. I am considered rather fortunate in being detailed, as it relieves me from other duties which are very onerous just now.

We are having beautiful weather, very much like our own July. We have not had forty-eight hours of rainy weather since we came here.

Julius Tyler writes that Dennison, Newton Bushnell and several others from Ararat are down in Tennessee in an engineer corps constructing a railroad.

News from New York and Brooklyn is all about the Sanitary Fair. Brooklyn is wild over it and the Independent is full of it.

I wish you would send me that money, $10 at a time, in letters to Hilton Head. I am getting short. Kiss ye babie for ye boy who fights ye rebels.

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Jacksonville, Fla.,
Tuesday, March 1, 1864.

Dear Father:—

On the 20th we fought our first battle at Olustee, or Ocean Pond, as some call it. They might as well call any other place in these pine woods some high sounding name, for this country is all alike. Since leaving Jacksonville I have not seen five hundred acres of cleared land in a journey of forty-five miles to the west. The country is covered with scattered pines, most of them blazed for turpentine. The ground between the trees is covered with a dense growth of coarse grass and palmetto shrubs. At intervals there are swamps, not deep, but broad and wet. Once in about ten miles is a small collection of dilapidated looking houses on the Florida railroad, and the people—the most abject, stupid, miserable objects.

I have ordered a copy of the Brookville Republican containing an account of the battle by Dr. Heichold, to be sent to you, because I have not time to write it myself. I have not yet seen it, but I presume it will be correct, as the doctor had better opportunities for learning the facts than I had.

I shall give you more particularly my own ideas of the performance of our own men. I want to be true and I cannot endorse all that has been said of them. First, I think no battle was ever more wretchedly fought. I was going to say planned, but there was no plan. No new regiment ever went into their first fight in more unfavorable circumstances. Second, no braver men ever faced an enemy. To have made these men fight well, I would have halted them out of range of the firing, formed my line, unslung knapsacks, got my cartridge boxes ready, and loaded. Then I would have moved it up to the support of a regiment already engaged. I would have had them lie down and let the balls and shells whistle over them till they got a little used to it. Then I would have moved them to the front, told them to get as close to the ground as they could and go in.

Just the other thing was done. We were double-quicked for half a mile, came under fire by the flank, formed line with empty pieces under fire, and, before the men had loaded, many of them were shot down. They behaved as any one acquainted with them would have expected. They were stunned, bewildered, and, as the balls came hissing past or crashing through heads, arms and legs, they curled to the ground like frightened sheep in a hailstorm. The officers finally got them to firing, and they recovered their senses somewhat. But here was the great difficulty—they did not know how to shoot with effect.

Our regiment has been drilled too much for dress parade and too little for the field. They can march well, but they cannot shoot rapidly or with effect. Some of them can, but the greater part cannot. Colonel Fribley had applied time and again for permission to practice his regiment in target firing, and been always refused. When we were flanked, flesh and blood could stand it no longer, and Colonel Fribley, without orders, gave the command to fall back slowly, firing as we went. He fell, shot through the heart, very soon after that. Where was our general and where was his force? Coming up in the rear, and as they arrived, they were put in, one regiment at a time, and whipped by detail.

It is no use for me to express my feelings in regard to the matter. If there is a second lieutenant in our regiment who couldn’t plan and execute a better battle, I would vote to dismiss him for incompetency.

The correspondent of the Tribune who was present said he dared not write a true history of the affair here, but he should do it in New York, and it would be published.

You may judge of the severity of the fight by this: Of fifty-five men in Company K who went into the fight but two came out untouched by balls. Of twenty-two officers engaged but two were untouched. I got a ball in my hat that made five holes and just drew blood on my head. Another took off the corner of my haversack.

Colonel Fribley was shot through the heart. Major Burritt, gallant fellow, had both legs broken. Captain Wagner fell pierced with three balls, but got off, and I hear is in a fair way to recovery.

March 2nd. I had to stop here and fall in the company for a review by General Gilmore, and just after that the alarm was sounded and we all removed inside the trenches.

Last night I was out all night in the rain in command of a detachment cutting and carrying trees for abattis work, and I feel owly to-day.

This afternoon we have inspection and I must close to prepare for it.

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Jacksonville, Fla.,
Monday, Feb. 29, 1864.

Dear Sister L.:—

You will probably see accounts of the battle of Olustee, or Ocean Pond, in the papers. I have ordered a copy of the Brookville Republican, containing a letter from Dr. Heichold, descriptive of the battle, sent to you, but I will give you some of my own ideas about it, too; you always express a preference for them, you know.

Well, the morning of Saturday, the 20th, found us at Barber’s Ford on the St. Mary’s river ready to march and loaded down with ten days’ rations. Our force consisted of the One hundred-fifteenth, Forty-seventh and Forty-eighth New York Regiments, Seventh New Hampshire and Seventh Connecticut (repeating rifles), Fifty-fourth Massachusetts (colored) of Fort Wagner memory, the First North Carolina Colored and the Eighth, twenty pieces of artillery, one battalion cavalry and the Fortieth Massachusetts (mounted infantry).

We started marching in three columns, artillery in the road, flanked by the infantry on either side. After marching twelve miles we halted near a few desolate houses called Sanders and while resting heard a few musket shots in advance. We supposed our cavalry had met a few of the enemy’s pickets. Their force was supposed to be at Lake City, twelve miles distant, so we moved on up the railroad. The skirmishing increased as we marched, but we paid little attention to it. Pretty soon the boom of a gun startled us a little, but not much, as we knew our flying artillery was ahead, but they boomed again and again and it began to look like a brush. An aide came dashing through the woods to us and the order was—”double quick, march!” We turned into the woods and ran in the direction of the firing for half a mile, when the head of the column reached our batteries. The presiding genius, General Seymour, said: “Put your regiment in, Colonel Fribley,” and left.

Military men say it takes veteran troops to maneuver under fire, but our regiment with knapsacks on and unloaded pieces, after a run of half a mile, formed a line under the most destructive fire I ever knew. We were not more than two hundred yards from the enemy, concealed in pits and behind trees, and what did the regiment do? At first they were stunned, bewildered, and knew not what to do. They curled to the ground, and as men fell around them they seemed terribly scared, but gradually they recovered their senses and commenced firing. And here was the great trouble—they could not use their arms to advantage. We have had very little practice in firing, and, though they could stand and be killed, they could not kill a concealed enemy fast enough to satisfy my feelings.

After seeing his men murdered as long as flesh and blood could endure it, Colonel Fribley ordered the regiment to fall back-slowly, firing as they went. As the men fell back they gathered in groups like frightened sheep, and it was almost impossible to keep them from doing so. Into these groups the rebels poured the deadliest fire, almost every bullet hitting some one. Color bearer after color bearer was shot down and the colors seized by another. Behind us was a battery that was wretchedly managed. They had but little ammunition, but after firing that, they made no effort to get away with their pieces, but busied themselves in trying to keep us in front of them. Lieutenant Lewis seized the colors and planted them by a gun and tried to rally his men round them, but forgetting them for the moment, they were left there, and the battery was captured and our colors with it.

Colonel Fribley was killed soon after his order to fall back, and Major Burritt had both legs broken. We were without a commander, and every officer was doing his best to do something, he knew not what exactly. There was no leader. Seymour might better have been in his grave than there. Many will blame Lieutenant Lewis that the colors were lost. I do not think he can be blamed. Brave to rashness, he cannot be accused of cowardice, but man cannot think of too many things.

Some things in this story look strange. Officers should know exactly what to do, you may say. Certainly, but it is a damper on that duty when there is a certainty on the mind that the commander does not know. When, with eight or ten regiments ready, you see only two or three fighting, and feel you are getting whipped from your general’s incompetency, it is hard to be soldierly.

I saw from the commencement of our retreat that the day was lost, but I confess to you that I was in doubt whether I ought to stay and see my men shot down or take them to the rear. Soldierly feelings triumphed, but at what a cost!

Captain Dickey was shot early in the fight and the command of the company devolved on me. He was not seriously wounded, a ball through the face.

Captain Wagner was standing by me when he fell, pierced by three balls. I seized him and dragged him back a few rods and two of his men then took him to the rear. I carried his sword through the fight. Several times I was on the point of throwing it away, thinking he must be dead, but I saved it and had the pleasure of giving it to him and hearing that he is likely to recover.

Of twenty-two officers that went into the fight, but two escaped without marks. Such accurate firing I never saw before. I was under the impression all the time that an inferior force was whipping us, but the deadly aim of their rifles told the story.

Well, you are wanting to know how I came off, no doubt. With my usual narrow escapes, but escapes. My hat has five bullet holes in it. Don’t start very much at that—they were all made by one bullet. You know the dent in the top of it. Well, the ball went through the rim first and then through the top in this way. My hat was cocked up on one side so that it went through in that way and just drew the blood on my scalp. Of course a quarter of an inch lower would have broken my skull, but it was too high. Another ball cut away a corner of my haversack and one struck my scabbard. The only wonder is I was not killed, and the wonder grows with each succeeding fight, and this is the fifteenth or sixteenth, Yorktown, Hanover, Gaines’ Mill, Charles City, Malvern, Bull Run, Antietam, Shepherdstown Ford, Fredericksburg, Richards Ford, Chancellorsville, Loudon Valley, Gettysburg, Manassas Gap, Rappahannock Station and Olustee, to say nothing of the shelling at Harrison’s Landing or the skirmish at Ely’s Ford. Had any one told me when I enlisted that I should have to pass through so many I am afraid it would have daunted me. How many more?

Company K went into the fight with fifty-five enlisted men and two officers. It came out with twenty-three men and one officer. Of these but two men were not marked. That speaks volumes for the bravery of negroes. Several of these twenty-three were quite badly cut, but they are present with the company. Ten were killed and four reported missing, though there is little doubt they are killed, too.[1]

A flag of truce from the enemy brought the news that prisoners, black and white, were treated alike. I hope it is so, for I have sworn never to take a prisoner if my men left there were murdered.

This is the first letter I have written since the fight, and it is to you, my best beloved sister. It is written in haste, in a press of business, but you will excuse mistakes and my inattention to the matter of your own letter. You may pray for me —I need that, and do write to me as often as you find time.


[1] Note.—The regiment went into the battle with five hundred and fifty-four officers and enlisted men. Of these, three hundred and nineteen were killed or disabled by serious wounds. Many others were slightly wounded, but remained on duty.

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St. Lawrence Hotel, Philadelphia,
Jan. 17, 1864.

Dear Sister L.:—

The regiment started for the sunny south last night, leaving me behind. I shall go to New York before I go and I would like to see you once more first, but it would require too liberal construction of my orders to find any business in Chautauqua. I am left to settle my business as quartermaster and to take command of a squad of men not yet reported to the regiment.

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