Gettysburg — Some thoughts II

Gettysburg today is considered to be the decisive battle in the Civil War.   And that is what 19th century commanders strived for– the one big knock out punch that removed the enemy from the field.

Yet at the time, no one knew what the battle meant.

Lee’s army’s escape after the battle certainly didn’t seem to be a big victory for the north.  Meade was criticised for letting him escape and spent the rest of his life repairing his reputation.

Still Gettysburg changed not only the Civil War (or War Between States if you are southern) but war in general in many ways.

War is governed by three factors:  Societal impact, Organization, and Technology.    Gettysburg brought major changes to all these areas.

Society:  Gettysburg brought war to the entire nation. Prior to Lee’s crossing of the Mason Dixon line, war had been limited primarily to the south with the majority of the battles being fought in Virginia.  Lee took the war to the North and the people of the North now knew that they were not immune from the effects of combat.    Not only were the people of Pennsylvania effected during the battle, but when the three days were ended, they were left with the task of dealing with the aftermath.     Gettysburg transformed a primarily southern war into a national war.  In becoming a war that touched all levels of society, it foreshadowed such events as Sherman’s March to the Sea in Georgia to break the will of the southern people to fight and eerily presaged the coming total war of the 20th century.

Organization:  Before Gettysburg, war logistics and tactics had primarily focused on how to bring men to the field and how to wage war.  After the battle, a new factor entered into play:  how to deal with the dead and the wounded.   And not only humans —  but how to deal with thousands of dead horses left on the field.   The numbers were staggering:  3,155 Union, 3,903 Confederate killed,  14,529 Union, 18,735 Confederate wounded, 5,365 Union, 5,425 Confederate missing, and approximately  5,000 horses and mules dead on  the field.  Not only were the military field hospitals overwhelmed, but local residents were pressed into dealing with the dead and dying.    It can be said that Gettysburg set a new standard of suffering and how to deal with the aftermath of battle.

Technology:   While not the game changer that some would later claim,  technology still proved itself to be ahead of tactics.   The use of repeating rifles, the massing of artillery, more deadly ammunition, the reliance upon the telegraph for command and control,  the  use of railroads to move men and equipment, and finally,  the need to move the wounded and dying from the field, all brought changes to the waging of war.   Pickett’s Charge  — essentially a setpiece 19th century military engagement ran headlong into the beginnings of  20th century war.

So at Gettysburg we have:  Modern and mass War;  all Society touched by war; and new innovations in warfare and new solutions to dealing with the dead and dying.  These all  foreshadowed what would be seen in Europe  on the Western Front in WW I nearly 50 years later.

And for the people who lived there and fought there,  their lives would never be the same.



Norvell Brothers CW












Gettysburg – Some thoughts

Norvell Brothers CW


No event has impacted the American psyche as much as the Civil War and this battle in particular. If we were to look for an event that equals its impact in the 20th century, only the Great Depression would come to mind for touching almost every American and changing their lives.

America was a very different place in the 19th Century, the county had a population of about 31 million and  about 3/4 of a million died in the Civil War.  There really has never been an accurate accounting of the dead.

There were major cities – New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Charleston, and Savannah.  But they were limited agents of change in American life.

Most American life took place in a small agrarian society that centered around home and farm, community and church. Few Americans ever ventured more than 10-20 miles from where they were born. That was the key to life – home, church and community, state, and then a vague concept of nationhood.

The idea of a nation-state was only really a recent development. If one had looked at how Americans viewed their government, they for the most part would have said that “Maine believed in Union, or the Virginia was undecided about the Cause.”

The united states (small letters) were states united for mutual support in a governmental system. If one wrote about the country in the 19th century, before the War,  it would have been in the plural such as “the United States are entering into a treaty with Canada.”

This was the America of the war.

Why did men such go to war?

Some went because family members or friends went.

Some men went because it was an adventure.  They called it “Going to see the Elephant.”   It was as if War were some exotic creature, some grand event that they had to be part of.

Some went because they believed in a cause.  That cause could be abolition, or to Save the Union, or their own State’s rights.    They went on a “crusade” for one reason or another.

Some went out of a sense of duty.

And some never returned.

The Norvell brothers never said why they went; all six Norvell brothers were lucky — they did return.

Gettysburg was the turning point  and  the United States  would never be the same.

At Gettysburg – Part III

While John Mason Norvell and Freeman Norvell faced C.S.A. forces, July 2-3 1863, on Cemetery ridge and Culp’s Hill, the two remaining Norvell brothers: Major Edwin Forrest and Lt. Dallas Norvell were with General George Armstrong Custer.

They had been with the Michigan Cavalry Brigade almost from the start of their service. Major Edwin Forrest Norvell had joined the Michigan 1st Cavalry, along with his brother Freeman, in July 1862, later moving to Custer’s staff as one of his aides de camp.  Lt Dallas Norvell, who had entered the service as a sergeant, was now a member of the 5th Michigan and part of the Michigan Brigade.

The East Cavalry Field fighting was an attempt by Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry to get into the Federal rear  which was  viewed as the soft underside of the Union lines.

Lee ordered Stuart to protect the Confederate left flank and attempt to move around the Union right flank and into the enemy’s rear.  There Stuart could launch devastating and demoralizing attack against the Union, and capitalize on the confusion from the assault (Pickett’s Charge) that Lee planned for the Union center.

Stuart’s plan had been to pin down Union forces and swing around them,  but the Federal skirmish line pushed back tenaciously.

Freeman Norvell’s old unit, The 5th Michigan Cavalry, was armed with Spencer repeating rifles multiplying its firepower, and this slowed down Stuart’s assault.

Stuart ordered an assault by the 1st Virginia Cavalry to break their resistance.

General Custer  center December 1864 - Edwin Forrest Norvell on porch right

General Custer center December 1864 – Edwin Forrest Norvell on porch right

Custer counterattacked yelling, “Come on, you Wolverines!”

Waves of horsemen collided.

700 men fought at point-blank range across the fence with carbines, pistols, and sabers. Custer’s horse was shot out from under him. Eventually enough of Custer’s men caused the Virginians to retreat, protecting the Union rear and saving the day on that front of the Battle.


Edwin Forrest Norvell would remain with Custer on his staff, as shown above in 1864, but Dallas would leave the service.  He was subject to seizures and by the end of 1863 would be a civilian back in Detroit.

Two other Norvell brothers served in the War,  Lt Alfred Cuthbert Norvell and Lt Stevens Thompson Norvell, but their stories are for another time.


At Gettysburg – Part II

Captain Freeman Norvell in the uniform of the First Michigan Cavalry.

Captain Freeman Norvell in the uniform of the First Michigan Cavalry.

Freeman Norvell, son of U.S. Senator John Norvell of Michigan,  had served in the Mexican War as a Marine 2nd Lt in the “Halls of Montezuma.”  He was breveted a 1st Lt. for bravery and gallantry in the storming of Chapultepec Castle.

As the Civil War began, he first served in the First Michigan Cavalry, and then as Colonel Commanding the 5th Michigan Cavalry.

By June 1863, Freeman Norvell, now a Captain and Assistant Adjutant General of the U.S. Vols., was assigned to the staff of General Joseph Copeland. Copeland and Norvell had known each other in Michigan and were very close [ so close in fact, that Copeland and his wife had served as Godparents to Freeman's son Hamilton R. Norvell].

Norvell had resigned his colonelcy of the 5th Michigan Cavalry the preceding February in the wake of incidents involving drunkenness on duty, linked to post traumatic stress from his service in the Mexican War. Despite this, he felt that he needed to serve his county once again and accepted the Captaincy on the staff of Copeland, the Michigan Brigade Commander.

As June 1863 ended, the Michigan Brigade moved June 25th  from Fairfax Court House to Frederick, Maryland and  into Pennsylvania to reconnoiter. Copeland’s orders were to look for the enemy. Lee was supposed to have crossed the Potomac and to be on a northerly march somewhere to the west. Copeland’s command, marching in the direction of Gettysburg, encamped on the night of the 27th at Emmettsburg. Next morning the march resumed. On June 28, 1863, they entered Gettysburg – the first Union forces to occupy the town. There they learned that Early’s corps had already passed through the town on their way to York and Longstreet was  reported to be a few miles west of the town.

Copeland and Norvell waited there for orders. At daylight the couriers reported that Gen George Meade had superseded Hooker, Lincoln growing once again dissatisfied with the leadership of the Army of the Potomac, and that Gen George A. Custer had been appointed to command the Michigan Cavalry Brigade in place of Copeland. This put Custer, rather than Copeland on July 3 on the Eastern side of Gettysburg facing the forces of J.E.B. Stuart.

After remaining all night in Gettysburg, on July 1 Copeland met General John Reynolds heading to a meeting with Gen John Buford, who had stopped the advance of the C.S.A. the day before. Later that day, Reynolds was killed by the Confederates on the outskirts of Gettysburg.

On July 2, sometime during the day, Copeland and Norvell joined General Alpheus S. Williams, commanding a division in Slocum’s corps on Culp’s Hill. On the afternoon of July 2, after the massive attack by Longstreet on the Union’s left flank, Meade ordered Williams’corps to the vicinity of Little Round Top. Gen. Williams left one brigade in a defensive position on Culp’s Hill.  This brigade withstood the assault of the Confederates throughout the night.

Early on July 3, Williams launched an attack against the Confederates who had occupied some of the entrenchments on Culp’s Hill and, after a seven-hour battle, regained his original line. Copeland and Norvell were with Williams and remained there during the terrific battle and repulse of the enemy.


After Gettysburg, Norvell would accompany Copeland to Pittsburgh, where Copeland had been assigned command of a Union prison there.   He would leave the service in 1864, returning to Detroit where he was co-owner of the Detroit Free Press for a time with his brother in law Henry Nelson Walker, and active in the city government.  He would die of pneumonia in 1881.


To be continued in Part III


At Gettysburg – Part I

Lt John Mason Norvell

Lt John Mason Norvell

Four of the six Norvell  brothers in the Union Army  fought in the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863, considered to be the turning point in the Civil War.

Freeman Norvell was on Culp’s Hill, and Edwin Forrest Norvell and Dallas Norvell were on the East Cavalry Battlefield, and John Mason Norvell was in the thick of the fight first in the Devil’s Den and then facing Pickett’s Charge.

This is his story taken from his memoir of service:

July 1, 1863

We arrived in front of Gettysburg “Cemetery Hill” at six (6) o’clock [and] met the remains of Gen Reynolds who had been killed that morning about five (5) miles from Gettysburg and went into position.” 

[General John F. Reynolds served in several major battles including Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. On the morning of July 1, 1863, Reynolds was commanding the left wing of the Army of the Potomac. Early on July 1, Reynolds ordered his I Corps to Gettysburg to support  Gen. John  Buford's cavalry, in case the Confederates should return. Reynolds rode to Gettysburg where he met Buford. Reynolds told Buford to hold on as long as he could, and rode back to hurry the infantry along. As he rode along the east edge of the woods a bullet struck him in the head and killed him.]

“General W.S. Hancock was in command of the part of the army that had remained upon the “field.”  General Meade having ordered him (Hancock) up thus to assume command upon his [Gen. Meade] hearing of the death of Genl. Reynolds.”

[Winfield Scott Hancock's most famous service was as the Battle of Gettysburg. After Reynolds, was killed, Meade ordered Hancock to take command. Meade had high confidence in Hancock, who was not the most senior Union officer at Gettysburg, being junior to Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard. Hancock organized the Union defenses on Cemetery Hill as the Confederates drove the Union forces back through the town.]

“July 2, 1863

On the afternoon, I was ordered by General Hays to conduct one brigade (3rd), Colonel Willard commanding, and put it in action in support of Birney’s Division (3rd Amy Corps). The division was heavily engaged near the front of “Round Top” (the left of our army) and was being driven by the enemy.”

[Major General David B. Birney’s Division’s left was near Little Round Top, the right joined Humphrey’s on Cemetery Ridge. After 2 p.m. they wheeled to the left occupying high ground from Plum Run to Peach Orchard. Confederate artillery opened at 3 o'clock. Soon after, three brigades of Hood's Division attacked Ward on Birney's left. At 5:30 p.m. two brigades of McLaw's Division attacked Birney's right and center. There, then occurred the first break in Birney's line. The Confederates renewed their attack on Birney's center. About 6:30 p.m. Birney's right at the Peach Orchard was attacked on both fronts and broken. Through this gap the Confederates swept forward crushing Birney's right. ]

“Colonel Willard was killed before his brigade became engaged by having half his head “knocked off” by a “shell” while going into position.”

[Col. George Lamb Willard commanded the 125th New York, which had surrendered at Harpers Ferry, earning them the nickname "Harpers Ferry Cowards." On July 2nd Willard led the brigade in a counterattack against Barksdale's Mississippi Brigade, which had punched a half mile deep hole in the Union lines. Shouting "Remember Harpers Ferry!" the Willard's brigade threwback the Mississippians, recaptured several Union cannon, and mortally wounded General Barksdale. Willard was also killed, struck in the head by an artillery shell as the brigade was pulling back to Union lines.]

“The brigade fought splendidly for “new troops” – loss of about five hundred (500) officers and E.M. [enlisted men] killed and wounded and units [were] engaged over five hours. It saved Birney’s Division from a “rout” in my opinion.”

[The comment about new troops may refer to the fact that these units had been reconstituted after the Harper’s Ferry campaign in 1862, when the 125th and 126th New York Regiments had surrendered.]

“July 3, 1863

Was heavily engaged – the whole division. [This engagement was part of Pickett’s Charge - he was still with Hay's Division in the thick of it all.]

We captured over 1,000 prisoners and thirteen (13) out of the 30 standards of color captured by the whole army.”

[The regiment’s battle standard or flag was as a symbol of honor. Enemy forces took great pride in capturing or killing the color bearer and capturing the flag. Thus, Norvell’s statement about the capture of 13 of the 30 standards in the battle was considered a great point of pride.]

“Lt Woodruff commanding a battery light artillery was killed. He was one of the class of 1861 (West Point) was as efficient a soldier whoever lived.”

[ George Augustus Woodruff, member of Battery 1, wounded on July 3 and died on July 4, 1863.]


John Mason Norvell, the son of Michigan U.S. Senator John Norvell (1789-1850) and his third wife, Isabella H. Norvell (1804-1873), was career solider. He entered the service of his county as a 2nd Lt in the 2nd Michigan Infantry on April 25, 1861, he was promoted to Captain and Asst. Adjutant General of the U.S. Volunteers on August 1861. By 1863 he had been promoted to the rank of Major.  His service covered the entire scope of the War from his entrance in 1861 until the surrender of Lee at Appomattox in 1865. He remained in the Regular Army until he retired in 1890.

He wrote a memoir of virtually all his experiences in the army.  In 2015, this memoir of his Civil War service  will be published in its entirety.


To be continued in Part II

POW training – Getting ready for the Vietnam War

Captain John E. Norvell, Urdorn RTAFB, Thailand, 1973

When I selected the F-4 aircraft as my choice to fly, I knew that I had selected SEA – South East Asia – as an assignment.

The F-4 was the workhorse fighter of the Vietnam War and virtually ensured that I would find myself in combat soon.

The training to fly the F-4 was conducted at Luke Air Force Base outside Phoenix, but before we arrived we were sent to Fairchild AFB near Spokane, Washington for two weeks of basic surival training – over the years the Air Force had used different locations for this training, Stead AFB in Nevada was used for a time.  The training taught the basic skills of how to deal with bailing out over a wilderness area, but since the U.S. was in the middle of a major air war in Vietnam, it also included a mock POW camp to prepare aircrew members for the possibility of capture.

The Training was officially called — SERE – Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape.  Many of the POWs who returned have written in their memoirs  about the techniques that they used to communicate and survive the long, dark days in the Hanoi Hilton.  They learned them in SERE training.

Survival and Evasion and Escape were taught in the wilds of Washington State.  You were taken to the field and trekked for several days while trying to evade a force of instructors.   While in the field you learned  land navigation,  camouflage, communication techniques, and how to improvise needed tools and equipment.  The trek itself was physcially exhausting  and made through old growth and clear cut forested areas, that were very difficult to negotiate. ( I was lucky I attended it in the summer, folks who went in the winter said it was really bad).  At one point on the second or third day when I was exhausted, a fellow captain gave me a pep talk and kept me moving on.  Later we would room together in Thailand during the war, something we never anticipated in the wilds of Washington State.   It was a good lesson to learn that you could not in many instances make it on your own but needed the help of your fellows.

Resistance was taught in a POW camp experience.

The POW training was pretty grim and lasted three days- about which 40 hours were devoted to the camp experience. To get you ready for it,  you had to negotiate an obstacle course in the dark and then when you were tired and exhausted, you were taken “prisoner”.

Once in the simulated camp  they kept you up all night to wear you down. Depending upon your rank, the degree of training was varied. The more senior men ( majors and Lt Colonels)  were made “prisoner” leaders and held responsible for the men under their command. The pressure that was put on them was very great and we lowly captains were for once glad that we were lowly captains. That is not to say that we got off easy.   We underwent intense interrogations and were put into small tight  boxes and other stressful posiitions.   In the process were given the tools to resist under pressure.  Although the code of conduct stated we were to give only name, rank, and service number, that was clearly not going to be the case and the Air Force prepared us for the worse.

The morning of the last day they had everyone line up at dawn and the guards were, of course, yelling and harassing us. They told us that we had performed poorly and were a disgrace and that we had made so many mistakes that we thought that they weren’t going to let us out – it was so grim and we were so beaten down. They made everyone stand at attention and continued to scream and yell at  us for an extended time.

Then when we were really feeling miserable, they ordered us to do an about-face and we thought we were heading back to the compound for more abuse.

And there was the American Flag flying on the pole, high in the morning sun.

It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen; I really can’t even think about it without getting emotional.

It was truly an eye-opening introduction into what might happen if you were captured.

Even today,  I can’t imagine what the men who went through the actual camps experienced, it had to be 1000 times worse than my small introduction to it.  Yet,   this training was  probably was one of the best experiences I have ever had in my life.


Later, when I flew in Alaska, I met Captain Roger Locher, a brave man who had evaded the North Vietnamese on the ground for 23 days and then was rescued.  SERE  training was put to good use by Roger who had taken its lessons to heart.  His evasion and escape was even more amazing as it had happened very close to Hanoi and his rescue was the deepest inside North Vietnam during the entire War.

If anyone ever  had the “Right Stuff,” it was Roger.

For the complete story of Roger Locher see www.


In Philadelphia

John Norvell (1789-1850) Editor, politician, co-founder of Philadelphia Inquirer, U.S. Senator

John Norvell (1789-1850) Editor, politician, co-founder of Philadelphia Inquirer, U.S. Senator


John Norvell had written to Thomas Jefferson in 1807 asking his opinion of a career in the press, which Jefferson felt was a dishonorable profession filled liars and with those he viewed, at times, as enemies.  Norvell, unlike Jefferson, felt that printing and publishing a newspaper was a useful means of entering and advancing in the world. Newspaper editors’ roles in politics afforded them opportunities to be full participants in the public affairs of the community.  Additionally,  they were considered to be professional politicians, not neutral in their opinions, but voices of their party.

Since that letter in 1807,  over the next twelve years, the young John Norvell worked for a variety of newspapers in the outlands of Kentucky and Maryland. But in 1819, it seemed that he had arrived in the big leagues when he joined the Franklin Gazette in Philadelphia. One can almost imagine his excitement in arriving in the city of American Independence. It probably was in many ways similar to the feelings that refugees from Europe must have experience when viewing the Statue of Liberty.  Philadelphia – PHILADELPHIA , no other city in America meant so much to the fledgling United States, and here was young John Norvell, barely 30, in the midst of it all.

It is hard for us today, who live in a highly urbanized America,  to understand what it must have been like to arrive in the city of Philadelphia in 1819. At the time there were five major cities in America: Boston, New York, Savannah, Charleston, and Philadelpia. If they were the jewels in the American scene, Philadelphia was the crown jewel.  It was an important port city, it had already secured itself a place in history as the birthplace of American independence, it had briefly been the nation’s capital before Washington, DC., and it was at this time a leading political center of the nation.   This was the hallowed world of John Adams, Washington, and Benjamin Franklin, the giants of American independence, but it was also,  for a small town boy like Norvell,  a whirl of people, places, and opportunities.

As the name Franklin Gazette might suggest, and the setting could not help to convey, this was a paper with many ties to Benjamin Franklin.  Indeed, his grandson Mr. Richard Bache, the son of Benjamin Franklin Bache published the newspaper and its offices were near the Bank of the United States. Though Bache was a grandson of Benjamin Franklin, his drinking got the better of his editing, and local  party leaders needed someone more reliable to run this important journal.   They most probably had read Norvell’s work with the Baltimore Patriot and he also came, for his work in Kentucky,  with Henry Clay’s recommendation of him  as a good party man. Norvell seemed to be the political professional, the expert in campaigning they needed and he was available. Bache himself noted Norvell’s many years experience in the business. Norvell’s immediate work at the Gazette showed he could take on the party’s political opponents as if he had been doing it for years. Less than a year after moving to the city, Norvell had assumed an important, prominent role in democratic party gatherings

 Below, the Franklin Gazette from January 18, 1823, note John Norvell’s name on left of masthead as publisher.


The January 18, 1823 Franklin Gazette, note John Norvell's name on left of masthead.


Moving to Philadelphia  was an important step in Norvell’s  fledgling career and along the way he would go on to co-found the Philadelphia Inquirer,  and experience a second tragedy  that would shape  and change his life.



For a detailed look at John Norvell’s early political experience and life see The “Indiscreet Zeal”of John Norvell-.Newspaper Publishing and Politics in the Early American Republic, Jeffrey L. Pasley, Florida State University, a paper presented at the Organization of American Historians Annual Meeting, April 14,1994, Atlanta, Georgia.