John Mason Norvell’s Civil War Memoir 6

Lt John Mason Norvell

Lt John Mason Norvell

John Mason Norvell, the son of Michigan U.S. Senator John Norvell (1789-1850) and his third wife, Isabella H. Norvell (1804-1873), was a career soldier. He prepared this memoir in 1866

His story continues with  the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863, considered to be the turning point in the Civil War.

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 at 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.”


To be continued

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, C.S.A., Genealogy, Gettysburg, Michigan History, Norvell Family History, 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.