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 and his third wife, Isabella Hodgkiss Norvell,  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 as a captain in the First Michigan Cavalry, and then as the 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 At daylight the couriers reported that Gen George Meade had superseded Hooker, Lincoln growing once again dissatisfied with the leadership of the Army of the Potomac, and that Gen George A. Custer had been appointed to command the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


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 Free Press, Detroit History, Gettysburg, Marine Corps History, Mexican War, Michigan History, Norvell Family History, PTSD Civil War, Union Army, US Army and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.