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.,
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.


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.


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.


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.


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.