From the Halls of Montezuma….

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

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

Mary Irene Norvell Fisher Masse, writing in her memoirs in 1960,  commented about  her grandmother Mary Dean Redfield Norvell this way:  She had married young, the son [Freeman Norvell] of wealthy and prominent people.   My grandmother had  riches, a social position and the early loss of her husband…. She  blamed the war for bringing about the early death of her husband and the changes to her life.

The War had changed their life — a very telling phrase, but what did it mean.

His obituary only made it more tantalizing:  “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….”

My search to discover the whole story began in 1968 when I was a young lieutenant living in Washington D.C.  In the evenings I would go down to the National Archives to look at the military records of the members of my family.  I knew that my great-grandfather Freeman Norvell (1827-1881)  and his five brothers had fought in the Civil War, but didn’t know many of the details. In the yellowed pages of the files the story of Freeman Norvell came to light.   Freeman had resigned from the Command of the 5th Michigan Cavalry  for  drunkenness while on duty in 1863.

The file contained letters written about the incident both from his superiors and the men who served with him.  I was taken back.  Not the kind of news one expects to find, especially when the family never talked about it. My father, himself a career military man, did not know about it and when I told my elderly aunts, they refused to discuss their grandfather.   And so the story ended.  When others could talk of the valor of their family in the war, my story was one that I often did not share.

Then a turning point came about ten years ago. Googling various members of my family I discovered that there was a great deal more to Freeman’s story. Not only had Freeman served in the Civil War, but he was a Marine Lieutenant during the Mexican War.  He served in the Mexican War, with Co. A, Marine Battalion in 1847.  He was breveted 1st Lieutenant for the storming of Chapultepec and capture of Mexico City, and appointed Adjutant, November 1, 1847.  He remained in Mexico until 1848.  During the 1850s, he was first posted to a series of ships and then to the Brooklyn Naval Yard.  He  had been citied for his bravery and actions at Chapultepec and meritorious service. Something did not fit.  How did that square with the man who was drunk in the Civil War.

Yet it would be made clearer that the one did affect the other. An incident provided a clue:  In 1855, he was tried by court-martial for drunkenness. Found guilty of the charge, Norvell was dismissed from the Corps on June 23, 1855. Having flown in Vietnam, I knew many men who used alcohol to deal with the stress that they were under.

Perhaps Freeman carried a burden from the Mexican War that he found it hard to deal with. A letter from the 5th Michigan Cavalry surgeon provided the last piece of the puzzle: On Dec. 31st,  [1862] Col Norvell while returning from drill on the evening of Dec. 30, fell sick and arriving at his tent was prostrated with sheer nervous exhaustion….

It was at last clear to me for the first time since 1968 that he had used  alcohol for self medication to deal with stress.  And the phrase from his obituary:  ” He had been in poor health from nervous disorders.”    Nervous disorders and stress coupled with alcohol use meant one thing to me Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Freeman carried the ghosts of Mexico with him and the stress that he felt could only be dealt with by drinking.      According to the Department of Veterans Affairs: “PTSD and alcohol use problems are often found together.  People with PTSD are more likely than others with the same sort of background to have drinking problems. PTSD would not have been diagnosed in the 19th century.

That might be the end of the story, but  he did not give up after losing his command. In February 1863 he rejoined the Army in the U.S. Volunteers  and was with Slocum’s Corps during the terrific Battle of Gettysburg on Culp’s Hill on July 1863.   In 1864, he resigned his commission and returned home.  There were no further incidents. In the end, my great grandfather carried a burden that he took to his grave. He was a flawed individual who put his life on the line three times for his county. And that is his legacy not the negative times he experienced.


For a complete account of the career of Freeman Norvell see my article on Colonel Freeman Norvell, “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Hills of Gettysburg, “Military Collector & Historian” Vol 66, No 2, Summer 2014,  it details his service as a Marine Lt in the Mexican War, and subsequent problems with alcohol abuse and  PTSD in the Civil War.


See A Civil War Mother for a discussion of all the Norvell Brothers in the Civil War


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, Detroit, Detroit History, Family History, Genealogy, Marine Corps History, Mexican War, Michigan History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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