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.,
July 23, 1864.

Dear Sister L.:—

The “District of Florida” is cursed by a commander called Brigadier General Birney.[1] It seems to be a sort of dunce block for the government—a place where they send men good for nothing in any other place. They began with Seymour—his performances you have heard of. Then they sent Hatch. He couldn’t hatch up any disaster and they sent him somewhere else. Next came Foster. He was a pretty sensible man, so he did not stay a week. Then at last came Birney, the summum malum, a man afflicted with the St. Vitus’ dance, in a military point of view. He is utterly unable to be quiet or let anybody else be. He came early in June about the time most of the troops were sent away, and immediately began to stir up things. He thought there was not much force near Charleston and he would make a reconnoissance. He took the splendid steamer Boston, put a regiment of infantry and two pieces of artillery on her and started up one of the small rivers near Charleston. He ran aground, the rebels fired into the boat, he set fire to her, and the regiment jumped overboard and took to the woods. The steamer was lost with the two guns, all the arms of the regiment, and stores, in all $100,000 of property. By and by he started again, went up to James Island and—came back again. Didn’t lose much that time but a great deal of patience among his officers and men. On the Fourth of July there was some difficulty between the Third and Thirty-fifth Colored Troops in town here. He would punish the Third. He didn’t like the Eighth very well. He would punish the Eighth. The Third was in the forts here and had been drilling all summer in heavy artillery and understood it pretty well. He ordered the Third to Yellow Bluff and the Eighth to the forts at Jacksonville. Next day he ordered a raid. There was a steam sawmill belonging to a rebel on the Nassau River about twenty-five miles from here, and he started nearly all the force in the district to capture that sawmill. Three steamers loaded with troops left here a week ago to-day, landed the troops at Trout Creek above Yellow Bluff, and they marched across the country while the Alice Price, one of the most valuable steamers in the department, went round to go up the Nassau. He marched one day’s march into the wilderness and concluded he didn’t need so large a force, so he sent them all back but one hundred men. The Price struck a snag in the Nassau and went to pieces, a total loss of $40,000 and he hasn’t got the sawmill yet. He came back and ordered the Eighth out of the forts and the Third back again. He ordered us to camp on a place that was an equine cemetery, and didn’t see the joke till he had been told half a dozen times, and then he ordered us to change again over by Fort Hatch where we were last spring. We had not got tents pitched before the order came to “Prepare to march immediately. Six days’ rations, etc.” The regiment stood in a pelting rain for two hours on the wharf and then were ordered back to camp. This morning they started again, and after waiting two hours again in the rain, at last got on board and started. They are off on a cow-hunting expedition to Indian River, a hundred miles down the coast. You will ask why I am not with them. I was not able to march and am left in charge of the camps. I gave out on the sawmill expedition. We marched eight miles through the pine woods (which keep off the wind but give no shade) without a halt, with the mercury above 100 in the shade. At the end of that time I fell in the road, sun-struck, and I haven’t been worth much since. It was terrible. Twenty-five men and three officers had given out, and we all came back together towards night. So my boast of never being excused from duty is done. I was not well when I started and went further than I should have done, but for my pride in never “falling out.” There is a limit to human endurance and I found mine there. I can stand any reasonable hardship and I believe little things do not daunt me, but that was altogether too much. I never heard of such a thing before as marching men in such weather. Why, they do not allow a sentry to stand without a shelter, but men can march and carry six days’ rations on wild goose hunts well enough. There is no pretense of an enemy. There are not seven hundred rebels in the state of Florida.

General Rimey seems to consider the Eighth as a sick child that requires nursing, and block and tackle by which to hoist his favorites into place and power.

Major Burritt was badly wounded at Olustee and has not been able to be with the regiment since (Colonel Fribley is dead and Lieutenant Colonel Bartram promoted to another regiment); he is the true commander of the regiment. Captain Bailey commanded in his absence for a long time, but the general had one friend (only) in the district, a South American major, ambitious and unprincipled, and he wants to make him colonel, so he sends him to command the regiment, on the ground that Captain Bailey is not competent. Then he proposes to have Major Burritt (who has appointment as Lieutenant Colonel, but cannot be mustered till he takes command) mustered out of the service, Major Mayer promoted to Colonel, and a Captain Hart to Lieutenant Colonel of the Eighth. Major Mayer has already made recommendations of officers to be promoted who are entirely out of the line of promotion, and, to cap the climax, the general yesterday sent Captain Hart to command the regiment, which stirred up such a breeze that he had to send him back. You do not understand why, I presume. Suppose the captain of my company to resign, or be promoted, or die, or get out of the way in any other way. Of course, I would expect to be promoted to fill his place, the second lieutenant to take my place. That is, if I were senior first lieutenant (having appointment of earliest date). Now, if an officer from another regiment is made the captain, that throws me and every officer out of promotion. Of course, that does not work smoothly, being opposed to the regulations, and such performances are demoralizing the Eighth very fast.

I have wished many times this summer that I was back in the Army of the Potomac. We would probably knock about more there than here, but it would be to some apparent purpose and we would have the satisfaction of trying to do some good.

I expect before Birney gets back there will be another steamer blown up by torpedoes and we will be hurried down to Yellow Bluff again to guard the river.


[1] Note—Not the General Birney of the Third Corps.

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Yellow Bluff, Fla.,
June 30, 1864.

Dear Sister L.:—

I know something how near to you the death of Almon comes. He was a comparative stranger to me. I had seen him but twice, once at home and once at Jacksonville, and of course I could not know him very intimately. His comrades spoke well of him and esteemed him highly, and he seemed to me like an excellent soldier and a good young man. I sympathize with you in your sorrow. Your grief is mine and your joy also.

My last letter from E. gives the intelligence that he too is among the host pressing on to Richmond, and I tremble lest in these days of terrible slaughter the next one may bring the news of a fearful wound, or some strange hand may tell me of his death in the field. I feel more anxious for him than I ever did for myself. You know how I have always felt about his going out and I have expressed my views freely to him, but now he is there, he shall hear no discouraging word from me. I have written to him to do his duty fearlessly and faithfully, and if he falls, to die with his face to the foe. He will do it. You will never blush for the cowardice of your brother, and my only fear is that he will be too rash. I glory in his spirit, while I tremble for his danger. Oh, I could hardly bear to give him up now, and yet I suppose his life and his proud young spirit are no more precious, no more dear to me or to you than thousands of others who have fallen and are to fall are to their friends. But I will not look forward to coming sorrow, but hope for the best.

This is the last night in June and very swiftly the month has passed away. The weather has been delightful, not near so warm as May. Almost every day we have had a refreshing shower.

We are in hopes to be ordered to Virginia, or we should not be disappointed if we were ordered there. The Seventh U. S. C. T. started day before yesterday and the Thirty-fifth went by to-day. It does seem hard that I should be lying here in idleness while my old comrades are marching on to victory or death. Perhaps it is for the best.

I have just been looking with pride at E.’s picture. Why cannot I look at yours? Isn’t it worth while to take a little trouble to send it to me? There must be a photographer in Panama.

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Yellow Bluff. Fla.,
Friday, June 24, 1864.

Dear Sister L.:—

The greatest excitement here is caused by the advent of our new regimental commander, Major Edelmiro Mayer. He is a South American, and has been ten years in the army in foreign countries. He speaks several languages, the English poorest of any, and with his inexhaustible fund of anecdotes and his quaint remarks, keeps everybody in the best possible humor. Ever since the battle of Olustee the regiment has been under command of Captain Bailey, who though a very nice man and good company commander, couldn’t “keep a hotel” or command a regiment. He allowed himself to be led by the nose by the doctor, who virtually commanded the regiment, had his say in everything, and bullied and interfered in all possible ways. The new major “has broken the doctor’s nose” and given him to understand that his duties are to attend to the sick and not to act as “General Adviser.” Of course the medi-cuss is not “sweet on” the major, and of course everyone else is jubilant that “Othello’s occupation’s gone.”

Hear the major specifying the duties of the day: “After the reveille he (the soldier) shall bathe himself in the river and from 7 o’clock till 9 he shall drill in the company for perfect himself in the mechanism of his little duties. From 9 o’clock till 3 is very hot and he shall eat his dinner and in his tent stay, with that little divertisement—what you call ‘em scratch himself. From 3 o’clock till 5 is battalion drill and after—dress parade and supper.”

He gets right down to the bottom of things and our regiment is going to improve under his direction.

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Yellow Bluff, Fla.,
Saturday, June 18, 1864.

Dear Sister L.:—

Last week I sent you something pretty. I made myself happy imagining your expressions of wonder when you get the pen box, and of delight when you see the exquisite beauty of the little shells it contains. I captured them at the house of a rebel colonel, which we burnt down. He was the gentleman who fitted out the nest of torpedoes, one of which blew up the Harriet Weed. Did I tell you about my finding the box of powder (one hundred and fifty pounds of cannon powder) in his family graveyard? It was a little brick enclosure deep in the woods near Cedar Creek. In the corner was a box nailed up. On the box was a heavy set of dinner plates and a pitcher. Inside the box was another one covered with leather, and inside that in pound bags of red flannel was the powder. Of course, I destroyed it. Near the graveyard, hid in the bushes, I found two barrels of sugar and one of molasses, which I threw into the creek.

It was on this march that I took my first rebel prisoner. We had surrounded a house just before daylight, and while the others were searching the house, I concluded to peep into an out-building, and who should I see but Mr. Johnny just getting into his “don’t-speak-of-’ems.” He “allowed it was all up with him,” and I allowed ditto. He was a pretty fine fellow, belonging to the Second Florida Cavalry.

I suppose Almon-d (what about that “d”?) is somewhere about Gaines’ Mill now. They had another terrible fight there, and I see a long list of wounded in the One hundred and twelfth. I did not see his name. Colonel Drake was among the killed, and Hubbard, Cushing and Tillotson wounded. I think Grant is bound to win this time.

I received a letter from E. at the same time I got yours. He was on detail then in Toledo after deserters. His regiment was at Johnson’s Island guarding rebel prisoners and he expected to return the next day. Chauncey Ayres is chief bugler of the Ninth New York Cavalry.

Oh, but I do wish you could see the flowers I have on my table this morning! Beside a grand magnolia I have a Spanish bayonet, a cone-shaped or egg-shaped flower two feet high and a foot in diameter. It is shaped like this:

(sketch omitted.)

One solid head like that emitting an exquisite perfume. If you could slice one down the middle, the transverse section would look like this:

(sketch omitted.)

From the main spike stems radiate in every direction with a bell-shaped flower at the end of each stem, and they are so close together as to present the appearance of a beautiful white cone, with proportions that in a flower are magnificent. By putting oleanders, jessamines and roses in among the stems you can have a beautiful bouquet of gigantic dimensions.

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Yellow Bluff, Fla.,
Monday, May 16, 1864.

Dear Sister L.:—

My letters from home bring the news that you have another brother in the army, but of course you will have heard that long before this reaches you. I am not sorry he has gone. One hundred days of a summer’s campaign will be apt to knock some of the romance out of him. He thinks he has none, but the remark that he has paid $10 for a pair of boots “like yours, military, you know,” shows how his mind runs. He has been running over for three years with the desire “to be a soldier like Oliver,” and now I hope he will get his fill of it. No doubt he will make a good one and would fight like a tiger on occasion, but a little experience will change a good many of his ideas. He is not likely to see any harder fighting than a brush with guerillas. I am afraid he will consider himself in for the war after his hundred days are up, which is just what I don’t want him to do, but I won’t borrow trouble.

I hear from the Eighty-third that it is nearly full to the maximum. Captain Woodward is mustered as the Colonel and Captain McCoy as Lieutenant Colonel. All the old members of Company K, except five have re-enlisted, so Captain Hechtman writes. According to my figures “all but five” is just four, for when I left there were but nine of the old boys left.

This mail brings us the good news that colored soldiers are at last to get their dues in the matter of pay. The paymaster was here a week ago and offered the heroes of Olustee $7 a month. Most of them would not take it. Only those very much in need of money did so.

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Yellow Bluff, Fla.,
May 10, 1864.

Dear Sister L.:—

Everybody is talking now of the event of yesterday, the destruction of the little steamer Harriet Weed by a torpedo. It occurred about four miles above here. Captain Dickey, who was coming down from Jacksonville on the Boston, saw it. The Boston is quite a large boat and carried a large party of excursionists or “inspectionists” from Hilton Head. There were some fifty ladies on board. The captain for some whim ran a little nearer the shore than the regular channel. He had never done so before. The Weed, however, was just behind, and she kept the regular channel and was blown to atoms. She sank immediately. There were ten killed and wounded. The rest escaped unhurt. The gunboat Mahaska had been lying there for some time and her launches patrolled the river, but the day before she went up to Jacksonville, and the first night she was gone two torpedoes were planted. We received orders last night to patrol that part hereafter. It brings it pretty hard on us. I am very glad it did not occur on our part of the river. Much blame is or would be attached to us if a torpedo should be found in our part. Under the circumstances it would be unhealthy business for a strange boat to be caught on the river here. I would shoot first and court-martial afterwards. This is the third steamer blown up on this river already, and any amount of torpedoes have been found.

The paymaster came on Saturday with his $7 per month. Not half the men would sign the rolls or take their pay, and those who did, did so under protest. It is too bad. Seven dollars a month for the heroes of Olustee! I received two months’ pay, deducting the tax, $213.49. Some difference between that and $26. My expenses besides clothing, etc., are about $6 a week and I hope to save some money now.

We are living very quietly, enjoying ourselves as well as we can.

The weather is extremely warm in the middle of the day, July and August weather, but the evenings—O, how I wish you could be here to enjoy a few! When the moon rises red as blood and throws across the river a long shining path; when the air is so balmy you seem to float in some other element. And then to go out on the river where your oars drip pearls or drops of fire, and the sparks fly from the prow of the boat as she plows her way along. I suppose it is electricity in the water. I know it is beauty.

A man just down from Yorktown says there is a bigger army on the Peninsula than was there before, and as many as the old army along the Rappahannock. The advance was at Bottom’s Bridge, ten miles from Richmond, when he left. I have no doubt that is the route to Richmond, notwithstanding McClellan’s failures, and Grant is the man to go in. Even now, for all I know, the North may be in jubilee over his victory. The rebels seem to have accepted our discarded “scatteration” policy, and Grant works on the concentration. Richmond must be taken. No doubt they will blow up the prison where our soldiers are, but God pity the prisoners we take after that.

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Yellow Bluff, Fla.,
April 23, 1864.

Dear Sister L.:—

The change of place indicated in my date is an accomplished fact. We came down here last Sunday. Yellow Bluff is on the north bank of the St. Johns about seven miles from the mouth. We have a fort here, a stockade and some rifle pits.

Our regiment garrisons the post and there are no other troops here. Having no other commander we have things all our own way. Captain Dickey is provost marshal of the post and I am commanding the company. Companies K and B are at post headquarters and do post guard duty and river patrolling.

Our court-martial, after a six-weeks’ session, was disbanded the day before I came down here, and on arriving I was sent on picket. Imagine a slashing of five hundred acres with an impassable swamp on each side, woods in front and the camp in the rear, and you have my field of operations. After posting my line, I selected a log in the center for my headquarters and awaited developments. They came. Development No. 1, a commotion among the darkies on the hill, the discharge of a musket, and beating the ground with clubs, ending in the reception at picket headquarters of a black snake seven and one-half feet long and thick as my wrist. No. 2, similar to No. 1, except the musket and the kind of snake; No. 2 being a brown cottonmouth five feet long. No. 3, 11:30 p. m., a bellow that beats all the bulls of Bashan, shakes the ground and huddles the darkies in heaps. Boys think it is a bear, but I conclude it is an alligator. No. 4, a buggy containing a woman, five children, a trunk and a box of tobacco, and drawn by a Florida pony arrives at the line. The woman wants to “Come over to you-all.” She is admitted and sent in to headquarters. No. 5, Lieutenant Young relieves me and I return to camp.

Well, as I told you, Company K is provost guard and river patrol. About all the duty I have is to patrol the river one night in three. The steamers Maple Leaf and General Hunter have been blown up by torpedoes, and our business is to prevent the rebels from putting down any more of them between here and St. Johns Bluff, six miles below. We have four boats’ crews beside the guard in the two companies. I come on to-night and I will give you an outline of the night’s work. About dark I shall leave the wharf with a crew of seven men and run down the river among the islands and past the mouths of creeks and bayous to St. Johns Bluff, keeping a bright lookout for any strange boat. I shall get out on shore, build up a fire and wait an hour for my oarsmen to rest, then come back again, reaching camp about midnight. Then I shall take a new crew and do the same thing over again, getting back at sunrise.

To-morrow night Lieutenant Griffin will go with his company, next night Lieutenant Thompson, and next I go again. After breakfast I shall take a snooze, then get up and play a few games of chess with the adjutant or somebody else, or perhaps go fishing. Fish are abundant here, and strange fish some of them are, too. Catfish just like our bullheads, weigh thirty pounds. Sheephead, shaped like a pumpkin seed with teeth exactly like a sheep’s, and lips too, for that matter. Garfish with a bill like a duck’s only hard and full of sharp teeth, and eight or ten inches long. Sea trout—Thompson caught one the other day that weighed twenty-six pounds, delicious eating. When one of them bites, it is a fair question which is caught, the fish or the man. Sea crabs and oysters are plenty, too. Don’t you think we can live?

The regiment is camped rather scattering. Two companies are in the fort, two at the stockade, and two here, two in reserve and two down at St. Johns Bluff. There are three or four houses here. One is used for headquarters, one as hospital, one commissary. Lieutenant Thompson and I have a tent with a fly in front and a floor under the whole. Captain Dickey has a tent for himself and one for his office. The men to-day are putting up “A” tents and discarding the shelter tents. Altogether we intend to be comfortable while we stay here.

The white troops are all gone or are going north and we are to stay and hold the river to prevent smuggling. Next time I will give you some description of the country and river scenery..

I am collecting some beautiful shells and curiosities to send you if I ever get in reach of an express.

I’ve got three little alligators a foot and a half long in a tub. I keep them for playthings.

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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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