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)

July 1, 1865.

Dear Sister L.:—

I send you another “boarder.” The time for distinction of color per se is past. The face you see is the counterfeit presentment of the “American citizen of African descent,” Jefferson Chisum Brown, called for short (or surnamed) Jeff. Mr. Brown belongs to a numerous and highly respected family. The fact that his name is not descriptive of his condition is not uncommon, or at all remarkable. Though he is Brown, he is also “black as the ace of spades.” That is a camp simile, which you will not understand, but it means very black. Mr. Brown’s former residence was Charleston, and he belonged to the aristocracy there. He came over from there with Robert Small on the Planter, and though his trip will be an event commemorated in history, Mr. Brown himself can claim little credit for it, because as he acknowledges—”he didn’t know whar dey was a fotchin’ him to.” Mr. Brown is at present employed as a polisher of metal (cleans the sword) and an artist (handles the boot brush) under the auspices of my friend Burrows.

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Brazos de Santiago, Texas,
June 27, 1865.

Dear Sister L.:—

By this time you will think I should be able to give you something of a description of this strange country. If you look at a map of Texas you may see down at the mouth of the Rio Grande, the name of Brazos de Santiago. There is a little strip of sand about ten miles long, dignified by the name island, and on the northern end of the island is the village. The village is a row of small wooden houses put up by the government for store rooms and offices, with a few occupied by sutlers.

There is a wharf and shipping. These form a very small part of the scenery—the rest is sand. There is not a spear of vegetation growing within sight of my tent. There is not a tree within fifteen miles. Just across the narrow strait is the Isla del Padre, another sand strip, seventy-five miles long. At the mouth of the strait is the bar and a dangerous one too. There is only about seven feet of water and the breakers roar and tumble over it so that at most times a small boat could not live ten minutes. The ships anchor outside and are unloaded by little sloops called lighters, which, with the Spanish names, Bonita, Dos Amigos, etc., and their Mejicanos crews are funny crafts. They rendezvoused here when cotton ran the blockade, and loaded and unloaded the ships, and now that their occupation is gone they come to Uncle Sam for employment.

I told you, I think, that our regiment was ship-wrecked when they came ashore. It was only such a peril as one likes to tell of when it is past, for no one was lost. The schooner though, lies high and dry on the beach. We have had terrible times for water. There is none on the island fit to drink—all salt. Two condensers are in operation, but they would not begin to water all the troops. Our men have gone nine miles up to the Rio Grande after water and got back the same night, rolling barrels of water all the way. Just think of that for getting your water. It don’t rain here, or we might get rainwater. Now that all the troops except our brigade have gone up the river we hope to get water enough.

The sun is terribly hot. At noon it is directly overhead and if it were not for the constant sea breeze we could not live. The wind commences to blow from the southeast every morning about nine o’clock and blows till nearly daylight next morning, so that in the shade of a tent it is quite comfortable. The hottest time of day is from sunrise till nine o’clock when there is no breeze. About four p. m. it is comfortable walking and we go to bathe, keeping an eye out for sharks.

You must be well on in the summer now, and it is almost the Fourth. What glorious celebrations there will be this year!

Many officers are sending in their resignations, but none of them in this corps are accepted. I think I shall stay through the summer pretty well contented and see what turns up then.

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U. S. Steamer Illinois, off Brazos de Santiago, Texas,
Thursday, June 15, 1865.

Dear Sister L.:—

I wrote you last from Mobile Bay, just as we were about sailing. Our trip across the Gulf of Mexico had nothing of special interest till on Tuesday morning we sighted land, the island “Del Padre” or Father’s Island, as we would say, and at 9 o’clock we dropped anchor at Brazos.

My letter from Fort Morgan left us expecting to disembark the next morning, and the entry in my diary for Friday, the 9th, is “Disembarked at Mary Cove, Mississippi Steamer Swaim. Sand-flies. Swimming in the surf. Roast pork at the Hotel de Lawrence. Soiree dansante—minstrels—model artists—midnight orgies on the beach—school house.”

To you, that collection of disjointed phrases is suggestive of bedlam, I presume. To me it is suggestive of a day long to be remembered for its unique pleasures. “Mississippi Steamer Swaim” recalls the image of the craft that took us off the Illinois to the wharf at Mary Cove—a lumbering awkward looking steamer, that could turn one wheel forward and the other back at the same time—that made a smoke suggestive of inferno—and that coughed like a consumptive Titan. “Sand-flies” is a compound word, and sand-flies themselves are a compound of all the disagreeable qualities of mosquitoes, fleas, lice, gnats and bedbugs. They are so small they are almost invisible till they bite, and it is no pleasure to kill them for they stand still to be killed with perfect equanimity, and for every one you kill ten more take his place. The only things to keep them away are mud and tobacco. We had a few of them at Mary Cove.

“Swimming in the surf” recalls a pleasant two hours of sea bathing, when big waves combed over us, or tossed us high on the beach, and when the sharks kept at their proper distance, which we were afraid they wouldn’t.

“Roast pork at the Hotel de Lawrence” recalls our dinner. We had gone on shore expecting to starve, or live on salt air till the next day, but the adjutant and I with our usual inquisitive spirit, started on a prospecting tour, and catching a glimpse of some “delaine” that did not look exactly like the “cracker” style, we ran alongside, took a reef in our topsails, saluted, and invited ourselves to dinner in an insinuating way. Of course, ourselves included the colonel and major. We soon found that Mrs. Lawrence was a southern lady, the wife of an officer in our navy, who hailed from Boston, and that the lady and her two daughters and niece had just come from Boston, where they had been living since the war began. That Mrs. L. had kept a hotel in Pensacola, appeared from her conversation. That she had kept a good one was evident from the dinner she got up for us.

Soiree dansante recalls the evening. Imagine our surprise in finding in that low cottage by the sea, half buried in the sand, a piano, and a girl who could play with taste and skill, one who had played on the great Boston organ. We found it; we sent for our band after tea; we sent for the violins and guitar from the string band, and our “choir” came too. We had music, songs and dancing. At the first squeak of the viol, the girls said it sounded familiar, which was a hint that could not be resisted by a soldier. The floor was cleared and a cotillion formed in a reasonable time. Once the spell was broken there was no stopping it till the “wee sma’ hours.” The tall form of the colonel, with his riding boots, went round and round the mater-familias in stately Lancers or lively quadrille. Schottische and waltz pleased the daughters better, and we had a good time all round.

“Midnight orgies on the beach” recalls the bath before the bed in the school house. We enjoyed that surf some after being cooped up on a ship for more than a week, and then we slept in a school house. The very idea was novel, but we were not in Virginia, and they do have some school houses in Alabama, I believe.

Well, I have enlarged pretty well on that little page, but I have not written half those few disjointed words suggest to me.

The Gulf is full of sharks and the fierce monsters have been following us ever since we left Mobile. Yesterday we caught one about thirteen feet long, and raised him out of the water, but he straightened the hook and got away.

Last night at sunset we had a burial at sea. One of the men of Company F died and as it was impossible to land, and we could not keep the body, it was buried in the deep. The body was sewed up in a blanket and placed on a board on the guards of the ship, with heavy weights at the feet. The band played a dirge, the chaplain read the Episcopal service for burial at sea, and when he came to the words, “We commit his body to the deep.” the plank was lifted and the body descended with a sullen plunge to the bottom of the ocean.

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U. S. Steamer Illinois, off Brazos de Santiago, Texas,

Thursday, June 15, 1865.

Dear Father:—

I have a few minutes in which to write a continuation of my note from Mobile Bay. The Illinois returns to New York to-morrow, or sails for there via New Orleans, and I must send by her.

We disembarked near Fort Morgan on Friday the 9th. Found on shore a family from Boston, with a piano and girls fond of music and dancing, and enjoyed ourselves immensely. Re-embarked the next morning and sailed at noon. Our trip across the Gulf had nothing of interest till on Tuesday morning we sighted land, the Isla del Padre, and at 9 o’clock anchored off Brazos. There are only nine feet of water on the bar, and as our ship draws nineteen, we could not get over and it has been too rough to transfer the men to a lighter till to-day, when we got them off on a schooner, though it was a perilous job. I expected to see at least one or two drowned, but they all got off in safety. I remain to unload the rations and stores, and seize the time the schooner is off to write my note.

Our brigade is to remain with division headquarters at Brazos. One of the other brigades is at Corpus Christi and one at Indianola. Brazos is an island at the mouth of the Rio Grande. Seven miles down the coast on the other side is Bagdad in Mexico, where several thousand French and Imperialist Mexicans are camped. One of our regiments will guard the ford, and as soon as I can get time I am going across to see how they look.

Brazos has not much to recommend it as a pleasant place to garrison, but we shall build barracks and live within ourselves and enjoy ourselves, I make no doubt. The worst feature is that we must use condensed water. I shall be busy for a time in fitting up, and in making up my papers, but I hope to have time to write some letters, and I hope some of you will write to me at least once a week. Change the address from Washington to New Orleans, but make no other changes.

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U. S. Steamer Illinois, off Fort Morgan, Mobile Bay,
Thursday, June 8, 1865.

Dear Sister L.:—

I’ve just time to write a line to say we are so far on our voyage in safety. I was transferred from the Warrior the day we started. Had a lovely trip—couldn’t be better. Shall disembark here to clean the ship—and coal and water again—and then—ho! for Texas or elsewhere.

U. S. Steamer Illinois, off Ft. Morgan, Mobile Bay,
Thursday, June 8, 1865.

Dear Sister L.:—

I wrote you a line this afternoon just in time to get it off by the New Orleans boat. I could not write much in the few minutes of time I had before the boat left, and so to-night I will write a little more extended account of our voyage.

I wrote you from the Warrior expecting to go down in her, but on arriving at Fortress Monroe, the general concluded he couldn’t dispense with my company, and ordered me to the Illinois. I was not sorry to make the change, as my regiment was there with the general and staff, and the Illinois is a floating palace.

I spent a day in Norfolk and then removed my traps to the Illinois, and on the 31st we weighed anchor and steamed out past Cape Henry lighthouse and off to sea. The next morning we were out of sight of land, and steaming southeast to cross the Gulf Stream; our ship drew nineteen feet of water, and we could not go next the coast, so as it would not pay to go against the current all the way, we were forced to go outside. The time passed merrily away. A few were sick enough to make amusement for the others, but none enough to be thoroughly wretched. We had plenty of books, and in the evening we gathered in the spacious saloon and had whist parties and quartettes of euchre or old sledge, and such like abominations.

On Sunday morning we came to the Bahama Banks, where the waters changed from their indigo blue color to azure, light green, purple and almost all the colors of the rainbow. The water was so clear we could see the bottom at thirty feet, and the finny monsters were disporting themselves regardless of the curious eyes that looked at them for the first time. At noon Memory Rock rose in bold relief against the horizon, lone, stern and grim, a sentinel of the sea. In the afternoon we passed the Bahamas, a line of long, low, sandy islands, uninhabited except by a few wreckers, and not very inviting situations for a cottage by the sea. But at dark we saw the cottage by the sea, indeed. It was a little hut on a lonely rock, where dwells the keeper of the Isaac Island Light, an English lighthouse. He has a spice of solitude, he has. State’s prison is nothing to it. I mused on the pleasures of solitude, as I watched his lonely light flash and fade in the darkness, and I concluded that it must be very sweet to have someone to whom you can say—”how sweet is solitude?”

On Tuesday we sighted, away off in the dim distance, the heights of Cuba, and that afternoon passed the Florida Keys and the Dry Tortugas. The last is the penitentiary of the army, where mutinous and other desperate criminals have been sent. It rises like a great castle in the sea, and is a lonely place enough.

This afternoon we sighted the land off Mobile Bay, and at three o’clock we dropped anchor off Fort Morgan, and now I am writing on deck, with my portfolio on my knee, and the scene of the greatest naval battle of the world spread out before me. Within a stone’s throw, I can see the ripple in the current which marks the spot where the ill-fated Tecumseh went down, right under the guns of Fort Morgan, and a little to the left the ribs of the rebel ram are rising above the water. Here the “gallant, grim old Admiral.” ran the gauntlet of the terrible batteries. My words are too tame—I will not attempt to describe it. Read “Our Battle Laureate” in the April or May Atlantic, and you will get some idea of the inspiring scene.

Well, the sun has disappeared in a blaze of glory behind Fort Gaines, and I must bring my letter to a close for want of light and room for more.

To-morrow we disembark, and I hope before we reembark to see how Mobile looks, but I may not make it out. The rumor to-night is that we are to go to Brazos Santiago, at the mouth of the Rio Grande.

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Steamer Warrior, James River, Va.,
Monday, May 29, 1865.

Dear Sister L.:—

I take the opportunity before we get beyond the reach of mails to drop you a note to say “good-bye, I’m off.”

The last of the second division sailed on Friday to rendezvous in Hampton Roads, and I was left behind in charge of the transportation and private horses of my brigade. It was the hardest job by far of the whole embarkation, but they are all on board and I am on my way to Texas or elsewhere.

The Warrior is one of the largest ships of the fleet— carries three hundred horses and mules and one hundred army wagons, and being the senior officer on board I shall command the ship during the voyage—that is, the military part of it. Of course the captain sails his own vessel.

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Camp Lincoln, Va.,
May 16, 1865.

Dear Sister L.:—

“Camp Lincoln” is the camp of the corps at Lighthouse or Jordan’s Point and vicinity, and it is becoming the “A No. 1″ of camps. Matters are arranged a la regulars and we are becoming regulars as fast as possible. Cannot tell whether we will be discharged this summer or not—most likely “or not.” Every man has a scheme of his own for disposing of us and they will all hold good till Congress meets and takes the matter into consideration.

Jeff Davis is captured. The country doesn’t seem to get much excited about that, but I have my own jubilee. I never expected it, but I am most happily disappointed, and if the villain doesn’t stretch hemp, I shall be disappointed less happily.

I send you to board a photo of my quartermaster-sergeant James Duty. The cap rather spoils the face, but it is not a bad picture. How’s that for a “navgur”?

I had strawberries and cream for dinner with a late secesh maiden—how’s that, too?

I have been busy and am not done yet in fixing our headquarters. I send you a plan. 1 low do you like it?

It is my plan and my execution. The colonel’s tent faces up the avenue, and the others in toward the center. The court inside is all to be covered with a shade or booth of pine boughs. The “O O” at the rear corners are servant’s quarters. Well, it is midnight and I must wind up. Write to me soon. Camp is all right but won’t write. Tell his mother.

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Light house Point, James River, Va.,
Sunday, May 7, 1865.

Dear Sister L.:—

The regiment moved a short distance the morning after my arrival, but far enough to break up everything, and with the expectation of remaining there some time we began preparing camp for permanent quarters, and I drew and issued a larger amount of clothing than I had ever issued at one time before. This and my share in fixing camp occupied my time and I had just got through and began to think of writing some letters when marching orders came. We moved early on Wednesday morning, passing through Petersburg, and were detained in town (the trains were) a long time by the passing of the Fifth Corps on its way home. I sat on my horse and watched them pass and it was one of the happiest days I’ve seen in the army.

I saw Colonel Rogers of the Eighty-third first in the morning. He told me they were coming and after a while I met in the street Milo, my old chum, who is still carrying the mail, and by and by the regiment came along. I should never have known it for the same regiment. Not a dozen of the old men who were in the ranks when I left remained, but there were a few and that few greeted me joyfully. The old “Charlie” I used to ride was at headquarters yet, and not killed, as I heard.

They would not believe they had started for home, but knew they were going to Richmond, and now they know they are going home, marching overland to Washington, over the roads they have marched before so many weary days.

My faith was too weak when I left you to believe the rebellion could so utterly collapse in one short month. Sherman’s army has started for home. They are to march to Washington via Petersburg and Richmond. Two corps were left in North Carolina and two of the Army of the James are left here, the Twenty-fourth at Richmond and the Twenty-fifth Corps here. There are rumors already looking to the final disposition of the colored troops that I expected to be made. They will not be discharged till Congress has made some provision to incorporate a portion of them into the regular army. The men are to be re-enlisted, those who choose to do so, and the officers are to pass a far more rigid examination and receive commissions in the regular army. There are to be no more “U. S. C. T.” but “U. S. A.” Twenty-four regiments of two thousand men each are to be organized—so says General Casey.

Well, we may say the war is over—”this cruel war is over.” The joy of the nation is tempered by its grief at the base assassination of the President, but we can console ourselves by the thought that he had accomplished his work. His murderer is also dead, and Jeff Davis, the instigator of the fearful deed, is fleeing from the wrath to come— proclaimed an outlaw and $100,000 offered for his head.

From home I have bad news. Mother has been sick some time and Father is afloat again. It is too sad to think of, but its frequent recurrence has made it seem almost a thing of course. The saddest part of all is that his trouble in the church was caused by copperheads who hated his war preaching. My indignation at that has no bounds. I cannot say I am astonished. A copperhead is fit for any meanness this side of hell. If there is a hell they are on the road to it and the sooner they arrive at their journey’s end the better it will suit me. They had better leave or turn strong war men before that old Army of the Potomac gets north, for, my word for it, those old veterans I saw marching through Petersburg the other day will not listen quietly to any of their balderdash. I can listen with a quiet smile to the sad story of a rebel soldier who has fought bravely through the war for a bad cause and acknowledges himself beaten. That is punishment enough for him, but for the villain at home too cowardly to fight for the cause he helped with his tongue and influence, I have only infinite scorn and loathing. I curse him from the bottom of my heart. Earth is too good for him and hell is full of just such men.

Well, my sheet is full and I must close. Write to me soon—same address.

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Spotswood Hotel, Richmond, Va.,
April 19, 1865.

My Dear Father:—

To-day completes the fourth year of my efforts to reach Richmond, and I am here. You will have heard that I started for home the 23d of March, but I could not enjoy my visit while such glorious events were in progress, and as soon as I knew that Richmond was ours I came back, hoping to come home to stay in a short time. I arrived here yesterday and go to Petersburg to join my regiment this afternoon, when I will write you more at length.

I found the Libby prison in charge of an old friend of mine, who gave me every facility for exploring its horrors. I visited Jeff Davis’ house (outside). General Ord and family occupy it. I went through the Capitol and have visited the principal places of interest. Relics are scarce. I send a picture of Jeff Davis, which I bought of the artist.

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Spotswood Hotel, Richmond, Va.,
April 19, 1865.

Dear Sister L.:—

Long ago I promised to write you from Virginia’s capital, Richmond, and here is the fulfillment of my promise, though it can be but a few words. My regiment is at Petersburg and I go there this afternoon.

I have been all through Libby and its filthy horrors, through the Capitol building, been to see Jeff Davis’ house, but General Ord and family are occupying it and I could not get in. I have seen Belle Isle and all the other places of public interest.

Relics are scarce. I can only send you a picture of Stonewall Jackson, which I bought of the artist who took it. Good-bye. Write me soon to my army address.

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