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.

July 30, 2015

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

Ringgold Barracks, Rio Grande City, Texas,
Sunday, July 30, 1865.

My Dear Sister L.:—

Having some leisure to-day, I will give you a description of our march from Brazos, and my impression of the country as jotted down in my diary. We had been expecting the order to march for some time, but it did not come till on Monday, the 10th of July, and about 5 o’clock that afternoon we started.

Our road at first lay along the beach on Brazos Island, south, but just at dark we forded the channel to the main land, and began to cross the plain—moonlight on the plain. It was my first experience of the kind, and my first impression was of a beautiful scene, a boundless prairie, dotted here and there with prickly pears and Spanish bayonet. The prickly pear is a sort of cactus that grows all over this country. It looks like a set of green dinner plates, the edge of one grown fast to the next, and so on, and the whole so covered with sharp thorns that you cannot touch it with your hand. The pears grow round the edge of the plates, about the shape and size of pears, covered with thorns and of a beautiful purple color when ripe, and full of seeds like a fig. Most of the men devoured them greedily, but I did not fancy their insipid taste. Everything that grows in this country has thorns or horns. Even the frogs are horned, and the cattle have horns longer than their tails. Most of the grass I have seen is harsh, prickly stuff.

We bivouacked that night at 10 o’clock, at White’s Ranch, having marched about ten miles. The next day was to be spent in camp near the river. A party of the officers strolled down the bank to swim. Few of us had yet been in Mexico, and as it was not far off I proposed to swim over. The current was very swift, six miles an hour, and my proposition was accepted by but one of them. We two started and did swim over. So my first exploration of a foreign country was in puris naturalibus and the result nothing worth mentioning, for the country was just like that we had left.

The next day at 3:30 a. m., we continued our march, and a terrible march it was. Part of the way the road lay through mesquit chaparral, impenetrable thickets of scrubby, thorny trees, too small for shade and too dense to admit a breath of air. Dry as parched corn was everything, no grass, no water. I have passed miles and miles of such road since, but nothing that seemed so desolate as that first experience of the chaparral. By and by we came out of it and entered a broad prairie of wild, coarse grass. A mile or two off we saw a drove of wild asses. A mounted man started to reconnoiter and it would have made you laugh to see those wild fellows scorn him with their heels. They waited till he got reasonably near, and they went away from him so fast that he stopped to look in sheer amazement at their speed. It is needless to say he did not catch any of them.

We halted about 4 o’clock, having marched sixteen miles. There was much straggling, and I could not blame the men, for it was impossible to march under such a sun. I had all I could do to ride my horse under it. Next day we marched eight miles to Brownsville, halted till four o’clock and then went three miles farther and camped. We spent a day or two there, and as it is the only town of importance in this part of the state I must give you some description of it. The population is mostly Mexican, ten to one Yankee. It is about the size of Jamestown, N. Y., and has one street, something similar to the main street there, but the balance is Mexican, all. I used to think that Ross Brown’s delineation of Mexican life, in Harper’s Monthly, was somewhat exaggerated, but I am satisfied now that his portraits are true to life. I went down to the river to swim, and was a little surprised to observe that it is the custom for whole families to enjoy that luxury together without the incumbrance of bathing dresses. All ages and sexes were indiscriminately mixed in the river, and as when you are with the Romans, you must do as the Romans do, I mixed in too.

The houses in town are adobe (mud brick) or “jacal,” mud and sticks, with mud floors and roofs of thatched grass and cane. The prime requisite seems to be to keep cool, and I must admit that with their style of dress the result is attained. The little pot-bellied children go entirely naked till they are ten years old, when they attain to shirts, which seems to be the only garment worn till they are grown up, when the women add a petticoat or skirt, and the men a pair of leather breeches. I must do them the justice to admit that they are clean. Their beds, where they have any, are as clean as any I ever saw, but most of them sleep on raw ox-hides laid on the floor. Passing along the streets, one sees through all the open doors, the families reclining on these rawhides, in all stages of dress below semi-nakedness. These people are the genuine Aztec Mexicans—a race by themselves, neither negro nor Indian, but something like both. There are some among them who approach civilization. My first lesson in the language I learned from a pretty senorita—bright, intelligent, vivacious and pretty. She called at a jacal where I stopped a while, and addressed me with a “Buenos dias, Senor” (Bwa-nose-de-as-Sayn-yore) good day, sir. She took a bunch of “cigarros” (cigarettes) from her pocket, passed them around and lit one herself. The women all smoke. Of course I could not refuse to light my cigar at her lips, when so temptingly offered. She told me that horse in “Mejicano” (Meh-i-can-o) is “caballo” (ca-wal-yow ); saddle is “silla” (see-vah) ; eggs are “blanquitos;” milk, “leche:” hens, “gallinas” (gah-ye-nas); rooster, “gallo;” chicken, “pollita chiquita.”

In one day I had mastered Spanish enough to ask: “Tiene listed pollitas chiquitas?” (Have you any chickens?) “Si, Senor” (Yes, sir.) “Quanto es por dos?” (How much a pair?) “Un peso por dos.” (A dollar a pair), and I could buy.

They are an exceedingly polite people, never omit the “Senor” in their conversation. My senorita, when I left, kissed her hand to me with “Adios, Senor,” in the prettiest way.

I attended a “fandango,” or Mexican ball, at the Brownsville market house. Many senoritas were over from Matamoras, just across the river, most of them well dressed and good looking. An American officer’s introduction was to step up to one and with a bow say, “Dance Senorita?” “Si, Senor,” is the invariable reply, and after a Spanish waltz or schottische, he is expected to give her something to drink and smoke a “cigarro” with her. They all dance well and the music of cornets and flageolets is far from disagreeable.

I have always been fond of the water, and swimming is a favorite amusement. There is another officer in the regiment, brought up “on old Long Island’s sea-girt shore,” who is equally fond of it, and we are often companions in swimming frolics. “Miller & Norton” are supposed to do just as much in the way of feats in water as can be done in the Eighth, so we always stump the company when we go in. At our camps above Brownsville we agreed to swim half a mile further in the river than anyone else, so we went two miles above the camp and took a boy along to carry our clothes, and then swam down half a mile below the camp. It was no great feat in a six mile current to swim two and a half miles in half an hour, but it sounded big, and left us champions.

The water in the river is very muddy, looks just like the road gutters after a heavy shower, but it is all the water we have to drink. In all our journey I saw but one well and one spring. The water in the wells if dug, is bitter. Every few miles on the road we came to “lagunas” or lakes of fresh water, that had no apparent outlet or inlet. They come from the overflow of the river, and the water collects in such large bodies that the wind gives it motion enough to prevent its stagnating and it is quite palatable, though I doubt its being wholesome. We camped usually near some laguna. As we came farther up the country we found more ranches. These are jacal houses, with enclosures for the cattle, sheep and goats. There are large flocks of sheep and goats together that feed over the country, with men or boys to guard them, and are driven up at night. There is one peculiarity about the Texas cows, that would be awkward in a dairy country—they will not milk till the calf has sucked and if the calf dies or is killed they immediately dry up.

I have heard before of snake countries, but till I came here I never saw many snakes. There are some here. I have counted on a day’s march of fifteen miles, more than a dozen snakes. Not the little striped worms than run in New York meadows, but black snakes and rattle snakes from six to eight feet long, killed by the troops and left lying in the road. The adjutant has a string of eighteen rattles that he cut off one snake. It was nearly eight feet long and four inches thick. I have killed several big black snakes myself, but those rattle snakes I’m going to let alone.

Another of the varmints in this country is the tarantula, an enormous spider, whose bite is more venomous than that of the rattle snake. The back of the beast is covered with a fuzz, like the inside of a chestnut bur in color and texture, and its legs as long as a man’s finger and very thick and muscular. There are two fangs in its mouth, sharp and black, much like a cat’s claw. I killed one when on the march, the only one I’ve seen. They are not very plenty, I believe. There are scorpions here, too.

In passing through some parts of the country, the chaparral cleared tip and the mesquit trees with the wild grass under them, looked exactly like an old orchard of half-dead apple trees in a field of half-ripe oats, and the road winding through the grass, like some farm road in harvest time passing through a grain field.

There is abundance of game in the country—wolves, foxes, deer and immense rabbits, but there are no edible vegetables or fruits to be had, and I tell you it is tough living, and take it all in all, I would not live in this country if I could own a whole county. To all intents and purposes, this country is Mexico still.

Monday. 31st; I had not time to finish my letter yesterday and will add a few lines to-day and seal it up, to wait the arrival of the next boat. There is no telling when that will come.

Last night I was disturbed in my sleep by a strange noise, and rising up in bed to listen I made out that a pack of prairie wolves had made a visit, and were paying their compliments by making a most infernal noise about ten rods away in the chaparral, whining, howling and yelplike a parcel of half-fed curs. They are cowardly rascals.

Well, I’ve written you a long rambling letter. Things are jumbled up in it very much as they have been in my experience here, and it seems half like some ugly dream, but you can rely on it as being all true. About two months more of such life and I hope to see civilization again. In the meantime I hope to hear from you as often as a mail comes, which is seldom.

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