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)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Baltimore, Md.,
April 15, 1S65.

Dear Brother and Sister:—

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Dear Sister L.:—

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

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

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

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

Dear Father:—

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

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

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

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

Dear Sister L. :—

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

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

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

Chapin’s Farm, Va.,
January 19, 1865.

My Dear Sister L.:—

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