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.

June 15, 2015

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

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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