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.


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