3 Independence Days

In 1973, I found myself on July 4 flying combat missions over Cambodia. I wrote the following comment to my wife:

“4 July 1973: To celebrate today I am again off to Cambodia to drop some firecrackers and sparklers. I will be glad when the war ends, but it appears that they will be stepping things up now that we have to be out of Cambodia in August.”

If I found myself in combat on Independence Day, I was not the first one is my family to do so.

On July 3-4, 1863, my great-grandfather Colonel Freeman Norvell (1827-1881) found himself on Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in the midst of that most terrible battle.

Freeman was for a time a professional soldier, he had been appointed a Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps by President James K. Polk in 1847. He then served as a 2nd lieutenant in the Mexican War, with Co. A, Marine Battalion in 1847. He was breveted 1st Lieutenant for meritorious service during the storming of Chapultepec Castle and capture of Mexico City. Thus, he was one of the Marines at the Halls of Montezuma. For a time he remained in the Corps, but the stress of having been in that battle took its toll and he was dismissed from the Corps for being drunk on duty in 1858.

When the Civil War began, he was eager to serve his county again. Despite the chance that the post traumatic stress might be too much for him, he joined the 1st Michigan Cavalry. His past demons would prove troublesome for Freeman. Because of his prior military experience, Freeman became commander of the 5th Michigan Cavalry in December 1862. Although several sources reported Freeman’s troubles, they are also found in a diary kept by Sergeant Edwin B. Bigelow. In it the tales of Freeman’s drinking again begins to surface. The stress became so much for him that he could not cope that he turned to alcohol and resigned his command in February 1863.

Colonel Freeman Norvell of the 5th Michigan Cavalry

Colonel Freeman Norvell of the 5th Michigan Cavalry

In many Civil War accounts he is remembered only for this and his subsequent loss of command. Yet, there was more to Freeman than this and he again joined the US Volunteers as a captain, and this is where he found himself on July 3, 1863 as part of Slocum’s Corps defending Culp’s Hill. The post-traumatic stress haunted him the rest of his life, and when he died The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune reported: “Colonel Freeman W. Norvell, a well-known Michigan officer in the War of Rebellion and the Mexican War, died this afternoon. He had been in poor health for nervous disorders for some time.” In the end, Freeman was a deeply flawed man who put his life on the line three times for his county, and did his duty as he saw it despite the personal costs.

Freeman carried on a military tradition that began in our family with his grandfather Lt. Lipscomb Norvell.

Lipscomb was born Hanover County, Virginia September 1756 and died in Nashville, Tennessee March 2, 1843. He entered the Continental Army on August 7, 1777 as a cadet in Captain William Mosby’s company of the 5th Virginia Regiment of Foot commanded by Colonel Josiah Parker . Lipscomb Norvell was taken prisoner at Charleston on May 12, 1780 and remained there until the end of the War, spending Independence day there in 1780, and for the next three years as a POW. His obituary in the Nashville press noted:

“Lipscomb participated in the battles of Brandywine, Trenton, and Monmouth –he was transferred to the Southern service, and as a Lieutenant of the Infantry, was taken prisoner at Charleston, where he remained, on parole, till the close of the war. He subsequently (in 1787,) removed to Kentucky, and as an early pioneer to the West, encountered the dangers and endured the hardships of the then Indian frontier….”

Three independence days spent in so many different yet similar ways – in service to our country.


About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
This entry was posted in American History, Civil War, Colonial History, Family History, Genealogy, Marine Corps History, Nashville History, Norvell Family History, Revolutionary War, Social History, Tennessee History, Uncategorized, Vietnam War, Virginia History and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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