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The Norman Brothers Meet Up in New Orleans: Photo sleuthing a Civil War journey

By Ron Field 

Over the century-and-a-half since Civil War photographers produced portraits, it was not unusual for names and faces to become separated, leaving only scant clues to make an airtight identification.

By comparison, this carte de visite possess a wealth of information. Case in point: This older man is identified as 23-year-old William F. Norman. His uniform and cap indicate he served as an officer in the 13th Infantry. The boy at his side wears the uniform of a navy seaman. An inscription on the back of the mount notes that the image was made in New Orleans on Sept. 23, 1862.

Following a hunch that the two were brothers, and based on an exhaustive search based on known information, one set of brothers emerged—William and 17-year-old John H. Norman of Connecticut. A review of census and military service records shed light on the circumstances that brought them together before the camera at an unknown photographer’s studio in New Orleans—and what became of them after.

John, left, met up with older brother William in the Crescent City on Sept. 23, 1862. Carte de visite by an anonymous photographer. Author’s Collection.
John, left, met up with older brother William in the Crescent City on Sept. 23, 1862. Carte de visite by an anonymous photographer. Author’s Collection.

The Norman family was well established in New Haven, Conn., prior to the war. English-born John Norman Sr., 49, had migrated to the U.S. in 1848, and employed as a hatter from about 1850. He and his wife, Mary, had raised 10 children by 1860.

The eldest of the siblings, 21-year-old William F. Norman, clerked in the city. Caught up in the enthusiasm to defend the Union in 1861, he helped organize the Knowlton Rifles, an infantry company intended for the 12th Connecticut Infantry.

Due to difficulties electing a commanding officer, the Knowlton Rifles lost their slot, and, in February 1862, mustered as Company K of the 13th Connecticut Infantry. The volunteers elected William as a second lieutenant.

The commander of the regiment, Col. Henry W. Birge, was a stickler for “spit and polish.” He insisted that “every belt, shoe and box must be neatly polished; every gun-barrel and bayonet must shine like a mirror; every hand must wear a glove of spotless white; every form must be erect and manly; every soldier must feel himself a gentleman.”

The 13th embarked aboard the steamer New York City on March 17, 1862, and arrived at Ship Island, off the Louisiana coast, about a month later. By mid-May, the regiment had transferred to New Orleans, encamping in and around the large Customs House on Canal Street. The regiment remained there until mid-October 1862, when it moved to Camp Kearney, near Carrollton, La.

“The Battle of New Orleans” by Thomas S. Sinclair. Library of Congress.
“The Battle of New Orleans” by Thomas S. Sinclair. Library of Congress.

During its stay in New Orleans, the regiment paraded often under and Col. Birge’s influence. According to one report, it made a “superb appearance” with “clean uniforms and … gleaming gun barrels.” On June 15, the Connecticut soldiers provided a guard of honor with drum corps when the U.S. revenue flag was raised on the Custom House in New Orleans. The occasion marked the first time a Union flag had flown in the South since the blockade was established.

Meanwhile, the second eldest son in the Norman family, John H., joined the navy. His naval record described him as 4-feet-10, with blue eyes, light hair, and a fair complexion. After a few days training aboard the receiving ship North Carolina, he transferred to the side-wheel steamer Baltic, a chartered navy transport.

On April 22, about the time his brother arrived in Louisiana, the Baltic left the Brooklyn Navy Yard for the Virginia Peninsula, with the newly commissioned ironclad Galena in tow. Two days later, the flotilla reached Hampton Roads and anchored off Fortress Monroe.

The Baltic was in Hampton Roads on May 10 when federal forces occupied nearby Norfolk and scuttled the Confederate ironclad Virginia.

President Abraham Lincoln, standing by at Fortress Monroe, made a personal inspection of the ruined navy yard. Afterward, he returned to Fortress Monroe aboard the Baltic. Treading the same deck as his commander-in-chief, 3rd Class Boy John Norman must have looked quite diminutive in the presence of the 6-foot-4 Lincoln.

The Baltic next steamed south to Key West. Part way, John transferred to the screw sloop Pensacola at New Orleans. Having taken part in the capture of the Crescent City after leading the Second Division of ships past Forts St. Philip and Jackson on April 24, 1862, the Pensacola remained anchored off New Orleans. The vessel remained there until 1864 as guardian of the lower Mississippi River, under the command of Cmdr. Henry W. Morris.

While on shore leave in New Orleans, John met up with his older brother and posed for their photograph. The end result pictures William seated with seaman John standing proudly by his side. The white dress of both reflects the heat and humidity of September in New Orleans. William wears non-regulation white trousers. John’s white cap cover and fall-front trousers probably reflect the dress order of the day aboard the Pensacola.

A week after their meetup, the 13th moved out of the Custom House and into a camp next to Greenville Station at Carrollton, about five miles above New Orleans. There, they became part of the newly formed Reserve Brigade commanded by Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel.

On October 22, Weitzel’s force embarked on steamers to take part in the La Fourche Campaign. Five days later, the Connecticut men saw their first action. The unit fought bravely at Georgia Landing, near Labadieville, suffering one man killed and 13 wounded.

On Nov. 7, 1862, William narrowly escaped death when an ammunition car in which he was riding, bound from Algiers for Weitzel’s brigade camp, exploded at the La Fourche Railroad Crossing, near Thibodaux, La. Casualties included 11 dead and 17 wounded. Published accounts of the incident suggested sparks from the locomotive or from cigars being smoked inside the car caused the explosion. The Philadelphia Inquirer of November 27 simply listed William as “uninjured.”

Abraham Lincoln made a personal inspection of the ruined navy yard. Afterward, he returned to Fortress Monroe aboard the Baltic. Treading the same deck as his commander-in-chief, 3rd Class Boy John Norman must have looked quite diminutive in the presence of the 6-foot-4 President.

On May 24, 1863, William and the 241-strong 13th Connecticut arrived outside Port Hudson, the last major Confederate bastion on the Mississippi River. Forming part of the Third Brigade of General Cuvier Grover’s division in the XIX Corps, the regiment took part in the assault on June 14, 1863, where it sustained four killed and 18 wounded. William again emerged uninjured.

Following this engagement, William and most of Company K volunteered for a 1,000-strong storming column to lead another major assault. They were not needed, as Confederate Gen. Franklin Gardner surrendered Port Hudson on July 9, 1863. But, as a token of respect, the would-be stormers were given the honor to receive the Confederate surrender.

By mid-August 1863 the 13th Connecticut was back under canvas at Carrollton. They returned to a more active role in early 1864 as part of the Red River Campaign.

As William battled rebels and disease in West Louisiana, younger brother John remained aboard the Pensacola at New Orleans. Navy service in this part of Louisiana was uneventful. Possible seeking more active service, John requested a transfer to the army, and shipped back to Connecticut.

His arrival at New Haven coincided with the return of a group of veterans from the 13th, including brother William. They had received one-month furloughs as an enticement to reenlist. Many did, including William.

John also joined the ranks as a new recruit. Now, for the first time during the war, the two brothers united under arms.

Together, they would march into Virginia with the rest of their Connecticut comrades and participate in Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Both survived the fighting at Winchester, Fisher’s Hill and Cedar Creek. In the latter engagement, they were doubtless among those who turned retreat into victory in response to the famous ride made by Sheridan to rally his army in the face of the crushing Confederate advance that day.

Cedar Creek was the last battle for William. In mid-December 1864, he was among 15 officers rendered supernumerary by the consolidation of the veterans into a battalion of five companies. He left for home, accompanied by 125 enlisted men of the regiment who did not wish to re-enlist, and honorably discharged on Jan. 6, 1865.

John continued with his service. He transferred to Company C of the Veteran Battalion. By late March 1865, the battalion guarded Confederate prisoners at New Bern, N.C. There, on April 6, glad tidings arrived with the news that Richmond and Petersburg had fallen. During this period, the battalion gained the reputation for being the “handsomest and most orderly troops ever seen in New Bern.”

Soon after, John and the battalion shipped out for Savannah, Ga., where it performed guard duty at various locations in the state, including the U.S. Mint at Dahlonega, for the next year. John mustered out at Fort Pulaski with the rest of the 13th Connecticut Veteran Battalion on April 25, 1866.

During the post-war years, William lived out his life in New Haven and, at 72 years of age, still worked as a bookkeeper for the state of Connecticut. He died in 1916 at age 77.

Clearly more attached to his navy rather than army service, John became a member of the Gideon Wells Veteran Naval Association. He paraded with the navy battalion to celebrate “Buckingham Day” on June 18, 1884 in honor of William A. Buckingham, civil war governor of Connecticut. John lived until 1925.

References: Census Returns, 1860, 1880, 1910, 1920; Homer B. Sprague, History of the 13th Regiment of Connecticut Volunteers during the Great Rebellion; Hartford Daily Courant; New London Daily Chronicle; Morning Journal and Courier; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion; Weekly Wisconsin Patriot; Philadelphia Inquirer; Janet B. Hewett, Editor, Supplement to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; 13th Connecticut Report, Battle of Irish Bend, Connecticut State Library; email from Melica Bloom, Visitor Services Associate, Connecticut Historical Society; emails from Kathleen Connolly, of Norfolk, Conn.

Ron Field is a Senior Editor of MI.

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