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 28, 2013

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

Camp near Warrenton, Va.,
July 28, 1863.

Dear Parents:—

It is seldom that I have written so few letters after a great battle as I have since the battle of Gettysburg. I have had two good reasons, one that we have been almost constantly on the move since, and the other that I have not been able to write. I have said but little about it, not wishing to cause you anxiety, but for three weeks I have had all I could do to keep along in my place. The night of the 4th of July it rained tremendously, and I had little shelter and lay in water half an inch deep all night. I was too much exhausted to stand up or even to keep awake. I was wet through most of the time for a week after, and a very bad diarrhea set in which destroyed my appetite and made me very weak. I would not take doctor’s stuff, thinking I could wear it off as I always have done, but it held on well this time. At last I did take a physic, and when we got into Manassas Gap the blackberries cured me up. I feel more like myself to-day than I have for almost a month. Nothing but my horse and a firm resolve to hold out to the last has kept me out of the hospital this time. I could not have walked half a mile a good many days that I have rode fifteen. I could have found time to write a good many more letters if I had been well, but as it was, as soon as we stopped I could do nothing more than lie down and rest.

I received your letters of the 10th at Rectortown, on the Gap railroad. I was very glad to see them, the first I had heard from you since you received news of my safety. Two things in it surprised me—one was the direction—that letter was two days in the regiment before I got it because it was directed to the regiment. Always direct, “Headquarters Third Brigade, First Division, Fifth Army Corps, Washington, D. C.” Don’t put on regiment or company. Headquarters mail is pushed right through, when the large bags don’t come, and very often I don’t go to the regiment for three or four days, and any mail sent there waits till I come.

The other surprising thing was—”do come home.” As many soldiers have been spoiled by just such letters from anxious parents as any other way. Mother writes, “Come home; I do so want to see my boy if only for a little while.” Soldier writes that he would come if he could, and begins to think about it and chafe and fret at his bonds till he worries himself homesick and isn’t worth a row of pins. You have never said much to me of that sort, but it would not make much difference if you did. I made up my mind when I enlisted to stay till the matter was settled or my three years served out. As long as I am well I wouldn’t come home if I had a furlough in my hand, which, I might remark, is a place very difficult to get a furlough in nowadays. If I were sick and in a hospital, I should perhaps try to get home, but not while I stay in the field. This off and on soldiering is hard on a person’s nerves. You will be the more glad to see me when I have been gone three long years.

I am very glad, Mother, that you like your new home so well. Aristocracy in these days ought to be at a discount. Shoddycracy is pretty large in New York, they say, the hideous offspring of the monster war. I am afraid the army would not suit you very well on that very account, supposing you could be in it. One of the officers of my own company can write no more than his own name, and that scarcely legible, yet military rules require me always to touch my cap when I speak to him, as an acknowledgment of his superiority.

You ask if I have any fruit. I have had but little. Cherries have been plenty in the country we passed through, but I have had little chance to get them. We never know at what minute we shall move. Orders come at daylight, at sunset, at noon, at midnight, “Prepare to march immediately,” and the first thing is—”Bugler sound the general” (the call to strike tents), so that I am obliged to be always at my post. The men in the regiments scatter out in the country, get fruit and buy bread and pies, but I can’t leave and so don’t get much. Blackberries I have had a better chance at, for they are everywhere. You may know how close I am kept when I tell you that I have been trying for a month to see Edwin Willcox, and, though he has slept within half or a quarter of a mile from me a good many nights, I have never seen him yet.

I wish you would put up two or three cans of fruit for me, so that, if we go into winter quarters again, you can send them to me. Fruit is something I miss as much as anything in the army. The sutler makes no bones of charging seventy-five cents for a tumblerful of jelly.

I wish you would send me, if you can get it, next time you write, a little camphor gum and assafœtida. If you cannot get the latter send the camphor alone, just a little, what you can put in a letter. I want it to drive away lice.

In regard to that expression that shocked you so much. I am sure I meant nothing irreverent, and, as Father remarked, it is a common expression in the army for a hot reception of the enemy. Used in that sense, it does not seem so inappropriate, for such fighting, such bloody carnage belongs more to demons than to this fair earth. No reference to anything in their condition after death was intended. That is not for us to judge.

I had intended to write more, but a heavy shower is coming up for which I must prepare, and I shall have no more time before the mail closes.

We expect to rest here a little while, hope to, at least.

Previous post:

Next post: