View of the Battlefield from Little Round Top

View of the Battlefield from Little Round Top


My focus on Gettysburg this fall has brought to mind, especially at this time of year, the many stories that say the battlefield is haunted.

Almost from the days after the battle, there have been reports of  the supernatural.  From phantom cries of wounded soldiers to ghost-like apparitions, the place has had an unearthly reputation.

For the men who fought there, the nights of the three-day battle must have been  like something out of hell,  with the cries of the dying and wounded echoing in their ears.  Nearly 5,000 horses and more than 50,000 men lay dead, dying, or wounded.

The Union dead soldiers were later removed to proper burial sites, some in their home states and many to the new national cemetery. But what of the Confederates? Many soldiers never received a proper burial. Their remains, buried in shallow graves, continued to appear for many years when heavy rains washed away the shallow soil over them.  Even now, in broad daylight, there is an eerie quality about the place.  One cannot help but see in the mind’s eye the warriors here  forever locked in combat on this hallowed ground.

This is not the first place that I have felt an unexplained presence.

While on R&R during the Vietnam War, my wife and I visited the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. Like Gettysburg there is something about the place that is hard to pin down. Whether it is the sense of the history of the place, or the knowledge that in the case of the Arizona Memorial, it contains the remains of those who gave their lives for freedom, the moment I stepped foot on it, I felt something.  It was and is something hard to put into words.

The December 7, 1941attack, explosion, and fire killed 1,177 sailors and marines instantly.  Only 334  of the 1500 man crew survived.  While some bodies were recovered, many located in the rear of the ship were left there due to their condition.  From the memorial’s deck  one can see, down into the water, the ghostly outline of the ship, still leaking oil after all these years.   Something tragic had happened there and  it still animates the place.

One other place with something akin to this  feeling is Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois.

Lincoln, our first martyred president, is buried in an imposing tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield. That his presence would be strongly felt there so many years after his death is not surprising.  Lincoln is considered our greatest president and while living in Washington DC, I have seen visitors to his memorial brought to tears, so strong is his emotional link to the American people.

Before his death, he told many in his cabinet that he had a premonition of his death. When he was first buried, an attempt was made to steal the body.  It was subsequently hidden. When the tombwas rebuilt in 1901, due to water and other damage, the caskets of Mr. Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln were finally put to rest under concrete to prevent any future attempts.

Still there is something about the tomb, much like the feelings at Gettysburg, and the Arizona, that pervades it.

Some say that it is the great grief  for the tragic events that reverberates across the years.

And that perhaps is the best explanation of all.

Fighter Jock Nicknames

If you visited a  fighter squadron, you would immediately feel that you were seeing an episode of M*A*S*H*; all the main characters had nicknames.

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

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

Some nicknames came from the background of the person involved. There was Captain “D Ring,” a name he gained while in training when he accidentally pulled the D Ring on a parachute while handling it.

Another captain, “The Blade,” had once pulled a knife when he was being hazed upon arrival at the squadron.

Still another was dubbed “Egg White” as his real name was Edward White.

Some nicknames were linked to a Fighter Jock’s carefully crafted persona.

Capt. “Joe Hollywood” always wore sunglasses, even indoors, and drove a Bentley, that he had picked up in Thailand, with two captain flags on the bumper, much as a General would have two “star flags” on his car to indicate his rank. It was a joke that shared by all on the base and he would often get a salute from pedestrians when he drove by.

The “Preacher,” had gone to a Bible College and spent a great deal of his time, when not flying, trying to convert the unwashed. It was a lost cause, but that didn’t stop him from having long, long, long debates with others on his views of religion and Christianity. He seemed only to attract those of a like mind, as a fighter squadron was not fertile grounds for proselytizing.

Two men were called “Whiskey Alpha” and “Whiskey Bravo” as they were always in the company of one another, much like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. The Alpha and Bravo were obvious, the Whiskey perhaps from a favored libation.

And then there was Capt Upp who’s nickname was — well you can imagine it.   Enough said on that.

Capt. “Chuckie” was not a well-liked person and that name was more or less a term of disdain.

You have to imagine it being said with a sneer on your face or as if you had eaten a lemon. He had a grating personality and implied both verbally and non verbally that he was somehow “better” than those around him. As the months passed and Chuckie frequented the local massage palors, he contracted four types of a common social disease. When the word got out in the Squadron, someone wrote on the duty board, “Let’s have A big Clap for Chuckie,” – the man had not solicited any sympathy from his peers for his behaviors both in the cockpit and extracurricular.

Chuckie was at one end of the spectrum as most nicknames were terms of endearment or respect for the recipient, such as the Preacher or Joe Hollywood or the Whiskey Twins.

Some men never had nicknames, either they were so bland that one never stuck or so uninvolved with their peers that no one cared. And that was the point, to have a nickname meant you had arrived.

And what of mine, I was short and built like a fire plug,  and well that’s a story for another time….

Citizen Soldiers


Epitaph on Lt. Lipscomb Norvell's Grave, Old City Cemetery Nashville.

Epitaph on Lt. Lipscomb Norvell’s Grave, Old City Cemetery Nashville.

In teaching a course on Gettysburg this fall, I have come to think a lot about the citizen soldier.

Several generations of the Norvells in my family served our nation, many finding themselves in the front lines:

– Lipscomb Norvell in the Revolutionary War

– John, Joshua, Lipscomb Jr., and William in the War of 1812

– Lipscomb Jr and William Lawrence Norvell in the Texas War of Independence

–  Freeman and Spencer Norvell in the Mexican War

– Freeman, John Mason, Alfred C. , Edwin,  Stevens T, and  Dallas Norvell in the Civil War

– Stevens T. Norvell at San Juan Hill in the  Spanish American War

–John Bower Norvell, Emily Virginia Norvell, and Stevens T. Norvell III in WWI.

– Phil K. Norvell in  WW II and Korea

– and of  course in Vietnam.

Their service was brought home even more when I visited Lt. Lipscomb Norvell’s grave recently in the City Cemetery in Nashville.   If there were ever a hero in a family of service men, it was Lipscomb.  He served for seven years in the Revolutionary Army, was taken prisoner by the British in 1780 and survived to return home and helped to settle the American frontier.   His grave says he was a Christian Patriot.

They were all patriots who served their nation — As are the young men and women on the front lines today in Afghanistan and Iraq.

All speak to the great tradition of the Citizen Soldier in America.

Many see in George Washington, considered the modern Cincinnatus of his time, as the model for Citizen Soldiers.

Cincinnatus was a Roman general who took up arms in defense of Rome and then returned to his home to become a citizen of his community again.   In the early United States this idea formed the basis of the militias who were called to arms during the Revolutionary War and the Volunteer brigades called up in the Civil War.    It was the main reason why the United States relied upon its citizens to do their duty when needed and continues to rely on them in today’s state national guard units.

All these Norvells, and many others, took up arms to serve our nation; some did not return, all of those above did.  Sometimes the return was greeted with great thanks for their service as in World War II, sometimes as in Vietnam it was not.   Yet that did not matter to these men, they served because it was their duty as a citizen to give back a part of their lives and abilities to this country which had given them so much.   This may seem to some like a very old-fashioned notion:   That to those who are given much, it is expected that they will give back in return.  It is not.

It is the basis of how this country has worked and should work.  And it is not limited to the military, it is the basis of the Peace Corps, community and church-related services, the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, and countless other groups, such as the ones who restored the City Cemetery in Nashville, and those who work for the greater good in the world.  It is a very American idea in a world where selfishness not selflessness is often the way of life.

The men and woman who served, and serve today, did not do it for parades, or discounts at stores, they did it for something much bigger:  a calling to serve that they heard.  That is the bottom line, it is something that draws a man out of himself to be a bigger person, to do his duty, to fill the breach, and in the end return to his home to again give back to others there as if nothing had happened.

Indeed the very definition of a Citizen Soldier and a good American.



For more information on the Citizen Soldiers buried in the City Cemetery in Nashville  go to


Off we go…

Capt John E. Norvell, 1972

I was thinking back to the first time I ever took off in an F4 fighter.

The F4 Phantom II was the primary Air Force fighter of the Vietnam War.  It had entered the inventory in 1960, so by the time I flew it in 1972 it was a relatively new aircraft with the latest technology.  It was not a small fighter, it had two big GE J 79 engines that could blast it off the deck and could weigh in at nearly 60,000 lbs when fully loaded with fuel at take-off.  And when the afterburners were cooking, it could slurp down gas at about 1,000 pounds a minute.  That thrust was its biggest advantage, it could push you out there away from an enemy or help you engage him in combat.

I had always wanted to fly jets when I was a kid.  When I was selected to fly the F-4 it was a dream come true.  Training to fly the fighter came after I had already gotten my wings.  Every aircraft type is different and requires a period of training on its controls, handling, and the basics of flight.  The training is usually done at a different base than basic flight training and takes about 9 months.  In my case it was at Luke Air Force Base near Phoenix, Arizona.

Training began with ground school where you learned the aircraft systems, practiced emergency procedures, and spent about a month and a half in training before you even got to fly the “Big Beast.”

There were 10 basic emergency procedures that you had to learn by heart and it was by heart.  You were tested on them at least once a month and had to write them from memory verbatim, even a misplaced comma was considered a mistake.  They were to become second nature to you.  Even now I find myself, nearly 45 years later, thinking :  Stall –  “Throttles idle, chute deploy, hook down ”  I think those will be my last words. (Actually they would make a great epitaph- as they also describe how a fighter jock will end up.)

Yes the Phantom had a hook, it was originally designed as a Navy fighter to land on carriers.  The F4 was officially the Phantom II, as there had been an F4 in the Second World War flown by the Navy.

So we called it the Phantom and its symbol was a small guy “The Spook” with a II on his chest.    We also called it “Big Ugly,” as it wasn’t a sleak aircraft, but really big and hulking.


There were several models, I learned to fly on the F4C which had no gun and finally transitioned to the F4E which had an internal 20 MM Vulcan gatling gun in the nose.  Each model had a price tag of about 1.5 to 2 million dollars in  1960 dollars, so we had to be careful with the taxpayers money.  Which brings me finally back to taking off.

You don’t fly an F4 or any other fighter aircraft — You Wear Them.   The cockpit is very small and you are strapped into the ejection seat so tight you can hardly move.

I remember that afternoon in November 1972 as if it were yesterday,  we taxied out on the runway, went through the checklist, got our clearance, and then pushed the throttles which had been idling in what was called “Military Power,” past the detent into afterburner, while releasing the brakes.

The Phantom jumped off the runway, there is no other way to describe it.  It was like being shot out of a cannon being strapped to the shell.  It was a tremendous adrenaline rush, and later in the evening my wife would find me still wound up about it….

Some day soon I will tell you about dropping the hook during an emergency landing, when all time stood still.

F-4 Phantom Landing in Alaska

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 attacks 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. Custer’s horse was shot out from under him.  Custer’s actions 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.


For more thoughts on Gettysburg see