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.

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