Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Shot in the Shoulder

Having recently endured shoulder surgery, I decided to find a tale from the Army of the Potomac that related to my experience.

Consequently, I want to share this anecdote. It involves a poor, wounded shoulder, one that waited and waited for its chance to get fixed.

The shoulder in question belonged to Lieutenant Charles Augustus Fuller, who served in the 61st New York. On the afternoon of July 2, 1863, as his regiment made its way across the Rose wheat-field (part of the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania), Fuller’s left shoulder took a hit from a Confederate rifle ball.  In his 1906 memoir, Personal Recollections of the War of 1861, Fuller remembered the sensation caused by the Confederate projectile. He wrote, “It did not hurt and the blow simply caused me to step back. I found that I could not work my arm, but supposed that hurt was a flesh wound that had temporarily paralyzed it, and that it was not serious enough to justify my leaving the fighting line.”

Such is the fate of shoulder wounds, so it seems. Sometimes, they are considered so inconsequential that soldiers ignore them until something worse comes along.

In Fuller’s case, something worse did come along. As he kept fighting, another bullet struck him, this time in his right leg. The ball shattered the leg bone and he fell to the ground helpless, just as his regiment began to fall back. As panicked Union infantrymen galloped their way to the rear, Fuller called for help. Two well-meaning men from his regiment grabbed him by the arms and began to drag him across the trampled wheat-field. However, neither soldier paid any attention to the wounded shoulder. As Fuller wrote, “They started back with me between them, not on any funeral gait, but almost on a run. My right arm was sound, but the left one was broken at the shoulder joint, and on that side it was pulling the cords and meat. I wobbled as much as a cut of wood drawn by two cords would have.” Undoubtedly, in their haste to drag Fuller, they worsened his shoulder wound.

Such is the fate of shoulder wounds. Sometimes others think that, when jostled, they will cause the wounded man no pain.

Fuller did feel pain. Shrieking loudly, he implored his two would-be rescuers to drop him. They complied, apparently eager to get themselves to safety.

After midnight, a Union soldier named Phillip Comfort found Fuller and carried him to the rear. At the Jacob Schwartz farm, surgeons examined Fuller’s two wounds, and they determined that he needed an operation immediately. Fuller’s shattered leg required amputation, but a question arose concerning his left shoulder. Did it, too, need to be sawed open? On July 3, as the stewards administered chloroform, one of the surgeons determined that it was necessary to resect the shoulder wound—that is, to cut out the damaged bone and suture it up. As Fuller’s mind wandered under the effects of the anesthesia, he recalled, “At this stage I remember a doctor had his fingers in the wound in the shoulder and said to the others, ‘Here is a fine chance for a resection.’ I did not know what that meant but found out afterwards.”

Fuller fell into unconsciousness, and when he awoke, he discovered that surgeons had amputated his leg about eight inches below the hip. However, nothing had been done to his shoulder. He wrote, “My shoulder was bound up, but otherwise not operated on. Failure to resect may have been due to the great amount of work pressing on the surgeons.”

Such is the fate of shoulder wounds. Often, they are not given priority.

Fuller’s left shoulder remained untouched for over a week. Soon, the army transferred him to a new hospital, a civilian facility in Unadilla Forks, New York, near where he grew up. With his shoulder gradually growing worse, Fuller’s mother contacted her brother, a civilian physician, who performed the much-needed surgery. Fuller’s uncle, Dr. King, removed three inches of humerus bone. Fuller dubbed the operation “an excellent one,” and after his shoulder healed, he experienced no more trouble from that section.

I marvel that Fuller and his intrepid shoulder had to wait so long to get surgery. Such is the fate of the shoulder.

This is Lieutenant Charles A. Fuller, photographed in April 1863 while standing with the officer corps of the 61st New York at Falmouth, Virginia. Three months later, at Gettysburg, Fuller's left shoulder took a Confederate bullet. For awhile, it seemed like nobody cared.

Monday, November 9, 2015

“He Was Our Ideal”: The Letters of Oliver Willcox Norton, Part 2

In the last post, I profiled the letters of Oliver Willcox Norton, a private in the 83rd Pennsylvania. Norton’s name is well-known among Civil War buffs. In 1903, he published Army Letters, a collection of his wartime correspondence.

This image shows Lt. Oliver Willcox Norton photographed in December 1863.
Immediately below this paragraph, you will see a photograph of the copy that I’m using to write this post. It is an original 1903 edition of Norton’s book. It was once owned by a famous lumber dealer named Clifford Isaac Millard (1861-1940). Millard had a close connection to the Civil War. His son, Lyman C. Millard, married Virginia Kemper Lynch, the granddaughter of a Confederate general, James Lawson Kemper. Millard is presently buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in my hometown of Norfolk. 

Army Letters, Norton's book, is in the middle.

You might ask, what was Millard, father-in-law to a Confederate granddaughter, doing with a tome of Yankee letters? That question is hard to answer, but let me offer my best guess. Sometime when Millard was in Chicago, or so I believe, he befriended Strong Vincent Norton (1879-1959), the son of Oliver Willcox Norton. The reason I know this is because Strong Vincent Norton signed Millard’s book. Here is the signature.

Here's an image of the signature of Strong Vincent Norton, who signed his father's book in 1932.

It’s no surprise that Oliver Norton named his son, “Strong.” The name came from Colonel Strong Vincent, the commander of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, 5th Army Corps, who fell mortally wounded on Little Round Top, July 2, 1863. As the letters make clear, Norton idolized Vincent. In the spring of 1863, when Norton joined the brigade staff, he served as Colonel Vincent’s pennant-bearer. When Vincent died on the field at Gettysburg, the loss of his commander left Private Norton terribly despondent. Writing to his parents and sister on July 17, Norton explained:

Colonel Vincent died on the 7th, as brave and gallant a soldier as ever fell. His commission as Brigadier General was read to him on his death-bed. His loss is felt deeply by the brigade. There is no one to fill his place. No one here can march a brigade as he could. He had less straggling, less of everything evil and more of everything good than any other brigade in the division. Oh, how we loved him! But he is gone.

Norton never forgot about Colonel Vincent. In 1913, he published The Attack and Defense of Little Round Top, the first scholarly treatment of that part of Gettysburg battlefield. Although largely a collection of primary accounts, Norton unashamedly made Colonel Vincent the hero of his story. In offering up his own recollections, Norton had this to say about his deceased commander:

My first recollection of him is his appearance as adjutant in forming the line of the regiment [the Erie Regiment] for its first dress parade. As I stood, a private in the ranks, and heard his command on the right, “To the rear open order, March!” and saw the line officers step to the front in an irregular line and heard him correct their faults, then saw him march to the center, halt, turn on his heel, face the colonel, who stood like a statue at some distance with his arms folded, gauntlets reaching near to his elbows, salute with his sword and report, “Sir, the parade is formed,” I confess my first impression of him was not favorable. I thought him a dude and an upstart. I soon came to know that he wished to impress on that mob of green country boys, by example as well as precept, the proper way for a soldier to stand and to move. It was the beginning for that regiment of its military education. By the end of its three months’ service spent in continual drill and practice in all the duties of a soldier, that part of this regiment which re-enlisted for three years formed a trained nucleus for the Eighty-third Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, which placed it in the front rank of volunteers for the war, and kept it there. Vincent had demonstrated his fitness for a higher position.

Norton’s adoration of Colonel Vincent extended to the dedication of the 83rd Pennsylvania’s monument. When veterans gathered on the slopes of Little Round Top in 1889 to commemorate the events from Gettysburg, Norton delivered the main address. The state commissioners of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association had expressly forbid personal allusions on the veterans’ monuments, but due to Norton’s influence, the larger-than-life sculpture atop the 83rd Pennsylvania’s monument was made to resemble Vincent, even though it was listed as “bronze figure of a Union officer.” In his dedicatory remarks, Norton argued that the veterans of the 3rd Brigade naturally thought of Vincent as the appropriate symbol to commemorate the sacrifice it took to win the battle. “We honor ourselves in honoring him,” he declared. “He was our ideal.” Going on to describe the moment that Vincent was hit, Norton explained,

The line was held, but at what a cost! Throwing himself into the breach, he [Vincent] rallied his men but gave up his own life. Comrades and friends, that was not a bauble thrown away. In the very flower of his young manhood, full of the highest promise, with the love of a young wife filling his thought of the future with the fairest visions, proud, gentle, tender, true, he laid his gift on his country’s altar. It was done nobly, gladly. No knight of the days of chivalry was ever more knightly.

Undoubtedly, in 1863, Strong Vincent’s style of command left a lasting impression on young Norton, so much, in fact, that Norton’s son bore the legacy of that admiration.

On August 26, 1932, fifty-three-year-old Strong Vincent Norton happily signed a copy of this father’s book to a seventy-one-year-old Norfolk lumber dealer. In 2015, that book found its way to my office.

This is Clifford I. Millard, the former owner of the edition of Army Letters signed by Strong Vincent Norton.

This image depicts the 83rd Pennsylvania monument on Little Round Top shortly after its dedication. The figure on top is meant to be Strong Vincent.

This is "What Are Your Orders?," a limited-edition print by Gettysburg-based artist Dale Gallon. It depicts the moment at the Battle of Gettysburg when Colonel Strong Vincent led the 3rd Brigade to the summit of Little Round Top. Vincent can be seen atop his horse, Old Jim, in the center of the image. The man holding the flag at middle-distance is meant to be Norton.


Friday, November 6, 2015

“The Loss of My Comrades Maddened Me”: The Letters of Oliver Willcox Norton, Part 1

Many years ago, when I worked for the National Park Service, I performed a program called “Life of the Civil War Soldier.” Although I regularly changed my program over the years, I often utilized a quote from Private Oliver Willcox Norton, Company K, 83rd Pennsylvania. Here’s how it went:

My two tent mates were wounded, and after that . . . I acted like a madman. . . . I was stronger than I had been before in a month and a kind of desperation seized me. . . . . I snatched a gun from the hands of a man who was shot through the head, as he staggered and fell. At other times I would have been horror-struck and could not have moved, but then I jumped over dead men with as little feeling as I would over a log. The feeling that was uppermost in my mind was a desire to kill as many rebels as I could. The loss of comrades maddened me.

I read that quote to visitors more times than I can count; in fact, I believe I can still recite it from memory. The quote referred to Norton’s experience at the Battle of Gaines’s Mill, June 27, 1862. When I trotted it out during my NPS program, I used it as a way of demonstrating the comradeship that motivated men in battle. After reciting it, I moved on, discussing another aspect of Civil War soldiery. Rarely did I consider the context of the quote, the man who wrote it, or the tent-mates he mentioned.

Since that time, I’ve been more interested in those questions. Recently, it occurred to me to revisit the letter. I had just re-read Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam, a book about PTSD in U.S. veterans. Shay dedicated a chapter to what he called the “berserk state,” a rage-filled episode whereby a soldier attempts to rout the enemy single-handedly, with “social disconnection . . . [from] his memorable deeds.” (In the book, Shay emphasized berserking as a common element in both ancient warfare and in the Vietnam War, but he argued that a berserk state could arise at any time and in any conflict.) It occurred to me that Norton’s battle-rage was a classic case of “revenge as reviving the dead,” the belief that spilling the enemy’s blood will, in some way, bring back the dead or save the wounded from further harm. In short, Norton had achieved the beserk state. More to the point, so Shay reminded me, the berserk state was dangerous to all who achieved it. Shay wrote: “I conclude that the berserk state is ruinous, leading to the soldier’s maiming or death in battle—which is the most frequent outcome—and to lifelong psychological and physiological injury if he survives. I believe that once a person has entered the berserk state, he or she is changed forever.”

Those lines really opened my eyes. Oliver Norton’s seemingly simplistic letter of what he did at Gaines’s Mill was, in fact, admission of psychological damage sustained in the midst of combat. The loss of his two friends and thrown him into a berserker rage, one from which he likely never recovered.

So today, I want to talk a little bit more about what happened during this particular incident. My task is pretty simple. Norton’s letters paint a clear picture of the scene. All I need to do is provide the proper context. The Battle of Gaines’s Mill occurred at dusk. Major General James Longstreet’s Confederate division attacked the left end of the Union line, comprised of Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield’s brigade, which sat perched atop a low ridge overlooking a sluggish stream called Boatswain’s Creek. Eventually, Brig. Gen. Chase Whiting’s division joined in the assault, overrunning Butterfield’s infantrymen. The 83rd Pennsylvania occupied the center of Butterfield’s line, and during the three-hour battle, it lost 46 killed, 51 wounded, and 99 missing.

Norton’s letters can take it from here.

First, I should point out that the quote I used in my NPS program was actually pieces from two of his letters profitably melded together. One letter was written to Norton’s sister, Libby, dated July 26. Here is what he  wrote:

You ask me how I felt when the battle commenced, if I feared I should fall, etc. That is a very hard question to answer. In the fight at Gaines’ Mill I had lain in the woods almost all day waiting for them before I saw a rebel. They had been shelling us all the time, and occasionally a shell would burst within a few feet of me and startle me a little, but we had so strong a position and felt so certain of driving the rebels off that I was anxious to have them come on. The last words I heard Colonel McLane say were, ‘You’ll see enough of them before night, boys.’ His words proved too true. We had but little to do with repulsing them, for they did not come within range of our guns either time, but we could hear the firing, and, when the cheers of our men announced their victory, a feeling of exultation ran through our minds. ‘Come on,’ we thought, ‘we’ll show you how freemen fight,’ but when they attacked us so unexpectedly in the rear, my feelings changed. Surprise at first and a wonder how they could get there, and then, when the truth flashed through my mind that they had broken through our lines, a feeling of shame and indignation against the men who would retreat before the enemy. Then, when the colonel was killed and Henry and Denny wounded, I felt some excited. I was stronger than I had been before in a month and a kind of desperation seized me. Scenes that would have unnerved me at other times had no effect. I snatched a gun from the hands of a man who was shot through the head, as he staggered and fell. At other times I would have been horror-struck and could not have moved, but then I jumped over dead men with as little feeling as I would over a log. The feeling that was uppermost in my mind was a desire to kill as many rebels as I could. The loss of comrades maddened me, the balls flew past me hissing in the air, they knocked my guns to splinters, but the closer they came they seemed to make me more insensible to fear. I had no time to think of anything but my duty to do all I could to drive back the enemy, and it was not duty that kept me there either, but a feeling that I had a chance then to help put down secession and a determination to do my best. My heart was in the fight, and I couldn’t be anywhere else. I told you it was hard to describe one’s feeling in a battle, and it is. No one can ever know exactly till he has been through it.

The other letter was written to Norton’s cousin, dated July 5.

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.

Norton wrote a third letter that described his feelings during the battle. This one was written to his family, dated July 4.

The Eighty-third was posted in a deep gully, wooded, and with the stream I mentioned running in front of us. We built a little breastwork of logs and had a good position. On the hill behind us the Forty-fourth and Twelfth New York and the Sixteenth Michigan were posted. When the rebels made the first attack, we could not fire a shot, the hill concealing them from us, and so we lay still while the bullets of two opposing lines whistled over our heads. They were repulsed, but only to pour in new troops with greater vigor than before. Suddenly I saw two men on the bank in front of us gesticulating violently and pointing to our rear, but the roar of battle drowned their voices. The order was given to face about. We did so and tried to form in line, but while the line was forming, a bullet laid low the head, the stay, the trust of our regiment—our brave colonel, and before we knew what had happened the major shared his fate. We were then without a field officer, but the boys bore up bravely. They rallied round the flag and we advanced up the hill to find ourselves alone. It appears that the enemy broke through our lines off on our right, and word was sent to us on the left to fall back. Those in the rear of us received the order but the aide sent to us was shot before he reached us and so we got no orders. Henry and Denison were shot about the same time as the colonel. I left them together under a tree. I returned to the fight, and our boys were dropping on all sides of me. I was blazing away at the rascals not ten rods off when a ball struck my gun just above the lower band as I was capping it, and cut it in two. The ball flew in pieces and part went by my head to the right and three pieces struck just below my left collar bone. The deepest one was not over half an inch, and stopping to open my coat I pulled them out and snatched a gun from [Private Fiscal M.] Ames in Company H as he fell dead. Before I had fired this at all a ball clipped off a piece of the stock, and an instant after, another struck the seam of my canteen and entered my left groin. I pulled it out, and, more maddened than ever, I rushed in again. A few minutes after, another ball took six inches off the muzzle of this gun. I snatched another from a wounded man under a tree, and, as I was loading kneeling by the side of the road, a ball cut my rammer in two as I was turning it over my head. Another gun was easier got than a rammer so I threw that away and picked up a fourth one. Here in the road a buckshot struck me in the left eyebrow, making the third slight scratch I received in the action. It exceeded all I ever dreamed of, it was almost a miracle.

Several common threads run through all three of Norton’s letters, not the least of which involved his mentioning of the wounding of his two friends, Henry and Denny, left behind under a tree when the 83rd Pennsylvania withdrew. Subsequent letters revealed Norton’s agony over not knowing their fate. On July 7, he wrote his sister, Libby, “I am very lonely now. My two most intimate friends, Henry and Denison, were both wounded on the bloody field of Gaines’ Mill on the 27th of June, and left on the field to the tender mercies of the rebels. Henry, I fear, I never shall see again. He was badly wounded, and everyone in the company except myself thinks he is dead, and I am hoping against hope. Denny was shot through the left hand, and I left them under a tree together.”

Later on, in September, Norton learned that Denny had been released from Confederate custody and discharged on account of his wound. “Dennison T. has got home discharged,” Norton wrote. “I wish I could have seen his mother’s greeting. I warrant you it was a joyful meeting. But Mrs. B. [Henry’s mother] writes her sorrow. She cannot forget that though he went from home with a companion, he returned alone. Henry, I am afraid, will never return to receive such a greeting. They have never heard a word from him since the news of his arrival in Richmond severely wounded. I think he must be dead. Still they have no direct intelligence of his death, nothing but dreadful uncertainty.”

Finally, in January 1863, word reached Norton that Henry had died in Richmond, and his friend’s watch was sent to him. When Norton tried to mail Henry’s watch back to Erie, it got lost in the mail. The loss of the watch, the last memento of his friend, broke his heart. Writing to his sister, Norton lamented, “I think some of my letters must have been lost. Did you never get the one that told of Henry’s watch being lost? I felt so bad about that. I would have bought a dozen rather than lost that. I kept it till we got to Antietam, waiting for a chance to send it by express, but finally after getting Mary’s permission, sent it by mail, and it was never heard from. I took all the precautions I could to make it safe, did it up in a little box like an ambrotype, but the last I heard it had not arrived, and if it had, they would have told me.”

Ever since my National Park Service days, I’ve always wondered about those two friends, Henry and Denny. Their wounding caused Norton to become a madman in battle. When I embarked upon this post, I thought I might want to focus exclusively upon Norton’s berserker rage. However, as I put the story together, I believed that part of what I should say should be about them. I ran into a problem: I had no idea who Henry and Denny were. Although Norton’s letters have been available to Civil War historians since their publication in 1903, no one had ever thought to identify these two men. Would you believe it? Indeed, I was even surprised to see that, last year, a Virginia-based opera company performed an show about Norton’s letters, entitled: “Norton: A Civil War Opera.” Henry and Denny were both characters in it, but the opera didn’t provide them last names.

Well, I’ve decided it’s high time to identify these two men. Who are Henry and Denny, you ask? Luckily, Norton gave me some clues. Both men were wounded at Gaines’s Mill. Henry’s last name began with “B.” Denny’s last name began with “T.” A quick survey of the roster of Company K, 83rd Pennsylvania, gave me the answers I needed.

“Henry” was Henry J. Bushnell, age 22. He enlisted on August 28, 1861, in Springfield, Pennsylvania. He died of wounds at Richmond, date unknown. “Denny” was Ebenezer Denison Tyler, age 24, enlisted August 28, 1861, also at Springfield. He was on discharged on September 1, 1862.

Beyond that, I know little else. I wish I had more information. Obviously, they must have been wonderful friends. Their wounding induced a berserker rage in Norton. Only great fondness can produce such terrible wrath.

Private Oliver Willcox Norton (1839-1920) served with the 83rd Pennsylvania. He is pictured here in late 1863 as lieutenant, 8th U.S.C.T.
This Alfred Waud sketch depicts the 5th Corps line at Gaines's Mill.

This is an image of me performing "Life of the Civil War Soldier," an interpretive program at Gettysburg NMP, circa 2004. I regularly quoted Oliver Norton. Perhaps I am doing it here.