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 5, 2012

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

Camp near James River,
5, 1862.

Dear Cousin L.:—

The past ten days seem to me more like some fearful dream than anything else, and I shall not be able to give an intelligent account of what has passed in that time.

For two weeks previous to the 26th of June I had been unfit for duty. On that day the fighting began on the right wing. We were marched from place to place, but did not fire a gun. We slept in an open field till 3 o’clock a. m., Friday, when we fell back with the rest of the right wing to a position along the stream at Gaines’ Mill. The enemy followed soon after daylight and the fight recommenced. Butterfield’s brigade formed the left flank of our line. We were told that the retreat was a feint to draw the enemy into a trap and that we were to hold our present position. The Eighty-third was posted in a gully on this stream, and on the hill behind us the Forty-fourth and Twelfth New York and Sixteenth Michigan formed the second line, in position to fire over our heads. The enemy came up and were twice repulsed with terrible loss, but only to return with renewed vigor. It was a singular situation of ours— lying in the hollow with the balls of two opposing lines flying over our heads, but we were cool, and confident of victory. Suddenly we found out that the enemy was firing on us from the rear, and instantly all was confusion, but only for a moment. Our men faced about, formed, and advanced on them, and then commenced a scene such as I hope never to see again. It appears that the enemy broke through the line somewhere on our right. The order was sent for our brigade to fall back across the river, but the aide sent to our regiment was shot and we did not receive the order. The rest of the brigade was gone and we left alone to fight a brigade of the enemy. Our colonel fell dead at the first fire and the major immediately after. Our senior captain was shot and we were almost without officers. My two tent mates were wounded, and after that, they tell me, I acted like a madman. God only knows why or how I came out alive. I had three guns shot to pieces in my hands, a rammer shot in two, and I was struck in three places by balls. One that cut my gun in two lodged in my left shoulder, one went through my canteen and struck my left leg, and one just grazed my left eyebrow. The deepest was not over half an inch and is almost well now.

We were surrounded on three sides and at last we retreated and crossed the river. The bridge was torn up, and when I got to the river I threw my cartridge box on my shoulder and waded through the water up to my armpits. We left our knapsacks and our all in the hollow where we first formed line, and everything was lost. Blankets, tents and everything, fell into the enemy’s hands. I had $1.50 in stamps, a lot of paper and envelopes, gold pen, ink, $5 in money (all I had, except a little change) and other articles that money could not buy, but all are gone now. We have only such things as we could pick up here and there to keep us from the storms. Our regiment lost in that bloody field two hundred and thirty-six killed, wounded and prisoners, and our colonel and major. The papers have told you about the falling back of the army to the James river, and you know more of this probably than I do. I only know where we went and what we did, and not much about that. The fight reached us again on Monday. We were ordered out to support our batteries, and through Monday and Tuesday we were constantly exposed to the shells and grape of the enemy.[1] About sundown Tuesday night the remnant of our brigade went out again to the front.[2] Here the rebels swarmed out of the woods, seemingly without end, and though again and again repulsed, and the field piled with their dead by the deadly fire of our rifles and showers of grape, they still came on, determined to drive us from our position, but they could not do it. Night finally put an end to the roar of the musketry and artillery, and we still held our position. Our regiment, after firing an hour and using all their ammunition, was relieved by a regiment of the Irish brigade (God bless them!) and we fell back. Sergeant Wittich of Company I went out twenty rods in front of our line and brought off a stand of rebel colors. Our last corporal, Walter Ames, who brought the colors safely off the bloody field of Gaines’ Mill, was shot through the heart while waving them in front of our lines in this last fight.

As we were going on to the field Tuesday night I picked up a tent that had been dropped and slung it across my shoulder. That tent stopped a ball that otherwise would have entered my heart, and after firing seventy rounds I came out still unhurt. It seems to me almost a miracle that I am yet alive and able to write. But we have had hard times. We were marched off at midnight, where, we knew not or cared not, but we took the road down the river and marched some ten miles. It commenced raining hard at daylight and continued all day, and now, here we are, somewhere on the James river, just where I don’t know, but where I hope we will rest a little.

It is again clear and warm, and our little regiment numbering one hundred and ten men is beginning to feel a little refreshed. We have not had half rations for some time, but now they begin to come more regularly. The box you were so kind as to send me I never expect to see. I am afraid it was destroyed at White House. I am sorry for your sake that you could not have the satisfaction of knowing that it reached its destination, and I do not doubt that I should have done full justice to your bounty if I could have received it, but such are the fortunes of war; and, if I can only get plenty of hard tack, I believe I shall come out all right yet. I appreciate your kindness as much as if I had received it.

I received a letter from Father yesterday. Our folks were all in good health and thankful for my escape at Hanover Court House. I thought that was a battle, but now it seems like a mere skirmish.

I received your letter last Sunday, but you will readily see why I could not answer it before. Yesterday was the first that we could write at all, and I thought I must write home first and to the parents of my two tent mates, who have no other acquaintance in the regiment. I hope you will write again as soon as you can. I love to get your letters always and particularly at such a time as this. Address as before, “Army before Richmond.”

[1] Battles of White Oak Swamp and Glendale.

[2] Battle of Malvern Hill.

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