Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

Post image for Army letters of Oliver Willcox Norton.

Army letters of Oliver Willcox Norton.

March 1, 2014

Army letters of Oliver Willcox Norton (Eighty-third Pennsylvania Volunteers)

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

Dear Father:—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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