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 13, 2012

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

Harrison’s Landing, James River, Va.,

Sunday, July 13, 1862.

Dear Brother and Sister:—

The morning inspection is over, and as I have not much to do for the rest of the day I will spend a portion of the time in writing to you, though I have no letter to answer.

We have no preaching to-day. Our chaplain (Elder Flower) has resigned and gone home, and I don’t think the most pious man in the regiment is at all sorry. The great thunderer who was so conspicuous at all the war meetings, and who “expected” to go with us “to pray for us, to preach to us, and to fight with us,” has proved a miserable failure. He has not preached one-fourth of the time when he might just as well as not, and as to fighting with us, when the shells began to fly and the balls to hiss around, he always concluded that fighting was not in his line of business. I don’t say it was, but one would naturally expect a little show of pluck from a minister of the gospel who was so wonderfully courageous and war-like way up in Erie. He might at least have been round with some cheering word for a mortally wounded or dying soldier; but, ah no, such men are always lying too close to bursting shells and such things, for a chaplain to risk his precious life for his country. I may be severe, but it is just as I feel, and I am glad he is gone, for we may in time get a live man for a chaplain. I warrant you, when he gets home he will have some big stories to tell about the Eighty-third fighting, but if you see or hear him, just ask him how much he saw of it. Ask him where he was at the battle of Malvern Hill.

A short distance from where I am writing was where President Harrison was born. His father and mother are buried here, and all this section was once his estate. It is now owned by a man in Richmond by the name of Carter, I believe. He left the house in charge of the darkies, with orders to burn it if the Yankees came, but they didn’t obey orders, and in and around the old mansion some eighteen hundred sick and wounded soldiers are now quartered.

We had a review by moonlight a few nights ago. “Old Abe” was down here to see the army, and he did not get round to us till 9 o’clock at night, but it was beautiful moonlight, and as he went galloping past, riding beside “Little Mac,” everyone could tell him by his “stovepipe hat” and his unmilitary acknowledgment of the cheers which everywhere greeted him. His riding I can compare to nothing else than a pair of tongs on a chair back, but notwithstanding his grotesque appearance, he has the respect of the army. But the man in the army is “Little Mac.” No general could ask for greater love and more unbounded confidence than he receives from his men, and the confidence is mutual. He feels that he has an army he can depend on to do all that the same number of men can do anywhere. He is everywhere among “his boys,” as he calls them, and everywhere he is received with the most unbounded enthusiasm. He was here yesterday about noon. The boys were getting dinner or lounging about under the trees, smoking, reading or writing, when we heard a roar of distant cheers away down the road a mile or more. “Little Mac’s a-coming” was on every tongue. “Turn out the guard —General McClellan.” called the sentry on the road. The guard paraded and the men flocked to the roadside. He came riding along on his “Dan Webster.” by the way as splendid a horse as you ever saw. He rode slowly, looking as jovial and hearty as if he could not be more happy. Up go the caps, and three rousing cheers that make the old woods ring, greet the beloved leader of the Army of the Potomac. He raises his cap in graceful acknowledgement of the compliment, and so he passes along. Those cheers always give notice of his approach. He speaks an occasional encouraging word, and the men return to their occupations more and more devoted to the flag and their leader. But what have they to say to the men who have been using their influence to prevent his being reinforced, to secure his defeat, and in some way to so prolong the war as to make the abolition of slavery a military necessity? Curses loud and deep are heaped on such men. Old Greeley would not live twenty-four hours if he should come here among the army. I used to be something of an abolitionist myself, but I’ve got so lately that I don’t believe it is policy to sacrifice everything to the nigger. Such a policy as Greeley advocates, of letting this army be defeated for the purpose of making the people see that slavery must be abolished before we could end the war, I tell you is “played out.” Ten thousand men have been sacrificed to that idea now, and the remainder demand that some other policy be adopted henceforth. We want that three hundred thousand men raised and sent down here immediately. We want them drafted if they won’t volunteer. We want the men who have property to furnish the government with the means to carry on the war. We want such a force sent here that the whole thing can be finished up by fall. We’ve been fooling about this thing long enough, and now we want a change. No more playing at cross purposes by jealous generals, no more incompetent or traitorous officials. The army demands and the people demand such a vigorous prosecution of the war as shall give some hope of ending it some time or other. McClellan must be reinforced sufficiently to enable him to do something more than keep at bay three times his force. That will never conquer the South. We must take the offensive and destroy their army and take their capital. When this is done, the clouds will begin to break.

We are doing nothing but lying still now. The weather is so warm that nothing can be done in the middle of the day.

We get plenty of hard tack, bacon, salt pork and coffee and sugar, and we have learned to be content with that. Some new troops (Thirty-second Massachusetts) that arrived here a few days ago, thought they had pretty hard fare—”they hadn’t seen any soft bread for three days.”

We are getting some new things in place of those we lost at Gaines’ Mill. We have got new blankets, haversacks, blouses, pants, shoes, socks and shirts, and requisitions are sent in for tents, knapsacks, canteens, etc., in fact, everything we need. But we never will get what we lost in our knapsacks.

I received a letter from Uncle Newell a few days ago and he said the story was circulated in Sherman some time ago that I was to be shot for deserting. What do you think of that? Had you heard much about it? I hadn’t. I didn’t even know that I had been courtmartialed.

There has been some talk lately of the possibility of our being sent to Erie to fill up our regiment and reorganize. The officers got up a request to that effect, and it was signed by Generals Butterfield, Morell, Porter and McClellan, and sent to the Secretary of War and Governor Curtin, but I have not much of an idea that it will be granted. We may be sent somewhere to guard prisoners or something of that sort, till recruits are raised to fill up our regiment again, but I don’t believe we will see Erie till the war is over. The bands are to be discharged and I presume Alfred Ayres will be home soon.

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