OLIVER WILLCOX NORTON
Who was the young bugler who first sounded the call of Taps? There is much known about him and it is fitting that we review the life of this remarkable man.
Oliver Willcox Norton (O.W. to his family and friends) was born in Angelica, New York (Allegheny County), on December 17, 1839. The son of Oliver William Norton, a Presbyterian minister, and his wife Henrietta, he was named after Henrietta’s father. Oliver was the oldest of thirteen children (the elder Norton had seven with first wife Henrietta and six with second wife Sarah Swezey). Reverend Norton moved his family around often in the years before the Civil War and O.W. received his education at the Montrose Academy in Montrose, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. He is listed on the public school rolls in 1857, and then attended a private school in Sherman, New York. The family moved to Chautauqua County, New York, where Reverend Norton preached at Open Meadows near the town of Sherman. O.W. began to teach in the district school at Waites Corner in 1858. The family moved again to Springfield, Pennsylvania, in 1860. It is here that O.W. was teaching and working on a farm when the Civil War began.
Norton was among the first to enter the Union army when the Civil War broke out. On April 21, 1861, he was mustered into Company G, Erie Regiment. This regiment was formed for three months of service, and after training at Camp Wilkins near Pittsburgh, the regiment returned to Erie and disbanded in July after seeing no action.
Following the disaster of Bull Run, a new regiment was formed for three years of service. This was the Eighty-third Pennsylvania Volunteers. O.W. enlisted with Company K and became the bugler for the unit. The Eighty-third wore colorful French uniforms imported for the war. These were the uniforms of the Chasseur de Vincennes, which consisted of a shako, bright-colored jacket and wide trousers. They proved to be quite colorful on the parade field but unsuited for field use. Those uniforms were left behind and replaced with regulation uniforms when the regiment marched off to war.
The Eighty-third was organized into a brigade that consisted of the Seventeenth New York Volunteers, Sixteenth Michigan Volunteers. and the Forty-fourth New York Volunteers. The brigade was under the command of Daniel Butterfield. The Seventeenth New York left the brigade, to return home after its enlistment was complete in May 1862 and was replaced by the Twentieth Maine by the time of the battle of Antietam in September 1862. A bond of friendship was formed between the members of the Eighty-third Pennsylvania and the Forty-fourth New York. They became known as the “Butterfield Twins” and fought side by side. These regiments were formed into Third Brigade (Butterfield’s Brigade), First Division (Fitz John Porter’s Division), Fifth Corps.
The letters O.W. wrote home during the war provide insight about his duties as bugler, orderly, flag bearer, and his life as a soldier. They are collected in a book titled Army Letters, which he wrote in 1903 and published for private circulation. Nearly two-thirds of the approximately one hundred and fifty war-time letters were written to his sister Elizabeth (Libby) Lane Norton. She married a farmer, Charles Poss, and moved to Sherman, New York in 1862. According to family legend, she was active in the underground railroad system that help runaway slaves escape to Canada. After the war, Libby became involved with the “Minerva Club,” which worked to establish a free library in Sherman.