By Theodore J. Karle
Oliver Wilcox Norton, a modest and self-effacing Pennsylvania schoolteacher, left behind one of America’s lasting military legacies. His Civil War service included the perils of combat, the joy of perfecting a classic bugle call and leading men of color into battle.
Norton’s post-war writings contributed greatly to our understanding of the struggle for Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. Moreover, he helped compose “Taps,” the timeless bugle call honoring fallen soldiers. Lastly, the free thinking Norton served as an officer for two years in the 8th U.S. Colored Infantry.
Born in 1839 in Allegheny County, N.Y., Norton was one of 13 children in a Presbyterian minister’s family. At age 20, he taught school and farmed near Girard in northwest Pennsylvania. When the war erupted, he was already a member of a local militia called the Girard Guards, which later became a company of Col. John McLane’s “Erie Regiment.” The regiment’s three-month term expired without any military action. Norton, then a private, followed his colonel into the newly formed 83rd Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, and became the bugler of Company K.
The 83rd suffered heavy casualties at Gaines’ Mill, Va., one in a series of engagements that comprised the Seven Days Battles outside Richmond in June and July 1862. Wounded there, Norton survived and returned to duty in time to participate in the Battle of Malvern Hill on July 1. As the regiment recuperated at Harrison’s Landing along the James River following the fight, Norton joined Gen. Daniel Butterfield’s staff as its bugler. While encamped at Harrison’s Landing, he and Butterfield perfected an old French bugle call into present-day Taps. Butterfield later wrote of the endeavor, “the call of Taps did not seem to be as smooth, melodious and musical as it should be … and then … Norton got it to my taste without (me) being able to write music or knowing the technical name of any note, but, simply by ear.”
Neither Norton nor Butterfield fully appreciated what they had achieved. Norton became the first bugler to sound the new Taps, probably at “Lights out” sometime in mid-July 1862. Taps spread throughout the Army of the Potomac, and soon found its way to other Union armies, and even some Confederate forces. Not before long, Taps also sounded over the graves of deceased soldiers memorializing their service, as a truly magnificent eulogy.
The Taps authors remained anonymous for more than 35 years, until, by happenstance, Norton and Butterfield revealed their roles in creating the tune to the public in response to an 1898 article in Century Magazine.
In May 1863, Col. Strong Vincent assumed command of the Third Brigade (1st Division, 5th Corps). He selected Norton as brigade bugler and headquarters’ flag bearer.
This assignment later provided Norton with the basis for his 1913 book, The Attack and Defense of Little Round Top, Gettysburg July 2, 1863. The volume related how Vincent led his brigade during the contest for the critical hill.
Norton reviewed the written accounts of historians and official reports, and wrote to field officers, including Army of the Potomac commander Maj. Gen. George G. Meade and Gouverneur K. Warren, who served as a brigadier and Meade’s chief topographical officer during the battle. Norton also communicated with Army of Northern Virginia corps commander Lt. Gen. James Longstreet about the fighting from the Confederate perspective.
Norton matched their accounts to what he had witnessed. He concluded that Vincent acted on his own initiative, without a direct order from his division commander, Brig. Gen. James Barnes, to move his brigade to Little Round Top. Had Vincent failed, he could have faced court-martial. Norton’s book has since become the definitive work on the subject and a Civil War classic, and today remains required reading at West Point, as well as at many foreign military academies.
In September 1889, veterans of the 83rd returned to Little Round Top for the dedication of their Associations’ monument, which included at its top a bronze sculpture of Vincent drawing his sword. Norton delivered the dedication speech at the reunion. He also sounded Taps for the occasion. Norton later recalled, “That familiar sound echoing among the rocks where they (the 83rd’s veterans) had fought brought back, perhaps more vividly than words could do, the memories of the days when they had answered so often to its sound. Up the hill, the vets came, many with wet eyes, asking to hear it repeated.”
During the war, Norton wrote 150 letters, mostly to his sister, Elizabeth (Libby) Lane Norton in Chautauqua, N.Y. According to family, she had helped runaway slaves escape to Canada. Norton published his writings in book form for his family in 1903. Army Letters 1861-1865 detailed his many battles, rendering valuable insights into a soldier’s thinking and duties during the war.
In a letter dated Oct. 15, 1863, Norton disclosed to his sister that in the previous May he had started studying for the officer’s examination because he “could not be content as a brigade bugler when there was the possibility of doing better.” A month later he informed her, “I am half ‘luny’ with delight … because I am ‘First Lieutenant, 8th Regiment, United States Colored Troops.’”
Norton did not mention that if Confederates captured him, his standing as a white officer in a black regiment could result in hardship or death. The possibility of cruel treatment did not deter him from his commitment.
On Feb. 8, 1864, Norton led Company K of the 8th into the Battle at Olustee, the largest engagement fought in Florida during the war. He informed his sister, with grim detail, that the regiment did not perform well. His letter, however, also expressed his admiration for the courage of his troops. “Color bearer after color bearer was shot down and the colors seized by another … (finally) the battery and was captured and our colors with it … Company K went into the fight with fifty-five enlisted men and two officers. It came out with twenty-three and one officer. Of these but two men were not marked. That speaks volumes for the bravery of Negroes. Several of these twenty-three were quite badly cut, but they are present with the company. Ten were killed, four reported missing, though there is little doubt they are killed, too … A flag of truce from the enemy brought the news that prisoners, black and white, were treated alike. I hope it is so, for I have sworn never to take a prisoner if my men left there were murdered.”
Norton described to his sister his brush with death during the fight. “Well, you are, wanting to know how I came off, no doubt. With my usual narrow escapes, but escapes. My hat has five bullet holes in it. Don’t start very much at that—they were a made by one bullet. You know the dent in the top of it. Well, the ball went through the rim first and then through the top in this way. My hat was cocked up on one side so that it went through in that way and just drew the blood on my scalp. Of course, a quarter of an inch lower would have broken my skull, but it was too high. Another ball cut away a corner of my haversack, and one struck my scabbard. The only wonder is I was not killed, and the wonder grows with each succeeding fight, and this is the fifteenth or sixteenth … Had any one told me when I enlisted that I should have to pass through so many I am afraid it would have daunted me. How many more?”
Norton wrote to his mother about the 8th, “I think another fight will give them a different story to tell.” He attributed the loss at Olustee to inadequate training and failures of commanding general Truman Seymour.
President Lincoln too shared his comments on the battle, remarks that seemingly concurred with Norton’s opinion. “There have been men who have proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors of Port Hudson & Olustee to their masters to conciliate the South. I should be damned in time and eternity for doing so.”
Olustee was Norton’s last battlefield combat. Soon afterwards he was appointed regimental quartermaster and later advanced to the brigade level. His duties kept him behind the lines. In December 1864, he declined the captaincy of his company on health grounds. The final tally of the battles in which he participated was 27.
“There is something grand in the way Honest Old Abe is steering the ship of state through the breakers of revolution.”
In August 1864, the 8th moved to Virginia and the Richmond-Petersburg siege theater, where it joined the Army of the James. The regiment performed gallantly, as he had suggested it would, in several actions, including Deep Bottom, Chaffin’s Farm, Darbytown Road and Fair Oaks. While at Chaffin’s Farm, Norton wrote to his father about the Confederacy. “The power that opposes us is just as steadily crumbling away … when the bells of peace ring out over the land we shall have thrown the last spadeful of earth on the bloody carcasses of slavery, aristocracy of color, State rights, and all the demons of that ilk that have troubled us so long.”
Regarding President Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, he noted, “There is something grand in the way Honest Old Abe is steering the ship of state through the breakers of revolution. He may be a very common man now, but school boys to come will revere him as the step-father of his country.”
The 8th joined the 25th Corps in December 1864, and fought at Hatcher’s Run the following February. With the fall of Petersburg in April 1865, the 8th and the 7th infantries, both U.S. Colored Troops, were the first Union regiments to enter the city. The 8th pursued Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army to Appomattox, where the war finally came to a close. The next month, the 8th and the rest of its Corps shipped to Texas for garrison duty. Norton finally mustered out of the army with his comrades in December 1865.
Norton and the 8th served admirably. Combat losses suffered in the war ranked the regiment third among the 166 organizations of men of color.
Five years after the war, Norton married a fellow church member, Lucy Coit Fanning. They raised five children, with four surviving to adulthood. They named one son Strong Vincent, in honor of the Little Round Top hero.
Norton became a close friend of his late colonel’s widow, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Carter Vincent. In 1913, she gave her husband’s sword to Norton’s son Strong, who declined the honor. The sword was instead presented to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. It remains there today, but not on display, as originally stipulated in the gift agreement. A year later, Lizzie died. Her will gifted $250 to Norton, “to be expended on the best cigars he can buy.” He instead donated the money to a black church in Cincinnati.
In 1870, Norton joined his younger brother, Edwin, in a manufacturing venture in Chicago. The firm prospered, and, in 1901, their company became a part American Can Company.
Norton spent his final 26 years as a blind man. He died in 1920. He and his heirs endowed several worthwhile institutions that exist to this day.
References: Jari A. Villanueva, “Oliver Willcox Norton,” tapsbugler.com; Samuel P. Bates, History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers 1861-1865, Vol. II; Jari A. Villanueva, Jari A. “Twenty 24 Notes That Tap Deep Emotion,” west-point.org; Richard H. Schneider, Taps, Notes from the Nation’s Heart; Century Magazine, August 1898; Oliver W. Norton, Attack and Defense of Little Round Top; S.B. Nelson, Nelson’s Biographical Dictionary and Historical Reference Book of Erie County; Oliver W. Norton, Army Letters, 1861-1865; Matthew Pinsker, “Lincoln on Slavery and Emancipation,” housedivided.dickinson.edu; Salem County (N.J.) Historical Society, “8th United States Colored Troops at Olustee,” scnjhs.blogspot.com; James H. Nevins and William B. Styple, What Death More Glorious, A Biography of General Strong Vincent.
Theodore J. Karle is a retired banker residing with his wife Leonarda in Mentor, Ohio. He collects artifacts from his great-grandfather’s 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry. He has contributed articles to various national and scholarly publications.
SPREAD THE WORD: We encourage you to share this story on social media and elsewhere to educate and raise awareness. If you wish to use any image on this page for another purpose, please request permission.
LEARN MORE about Military Images, America’s only magazine dedicated to showcasing, interpreting and preserving Civil War portrait photography.
VISIT OUR STORE to subscribe, renew a subscription, and more.