1864: John David Norris to Lydia (Hoyt) Norris

This letter was written by John “David” Norris (1843-1864), the son of John Ward Norris (1804-1880) and Lydia J. Hoyt (1816-1893) of Manchester, Washtenaw county, Michigan. David’s parents were born in Vermont but came to Michigan sometime prior to 1836 where their eldest child was born.

In August 1862, David mustered into Co. B as a corporal in the 20th Michigan Infantry. As far as we know he was with the regiment while it was attached to the 9th Corps through the battles of Fredericksburg, the Maryland Campaign, into Tennessee and Mississippi, the siege of Knoxville, and then back again to Virginia in time for the Overland Campaign.

During the Overland Campaign, the 9th Army Corps—led by Gen. Burnsides—participated as an independent command of the Army of the Potomac. The regiment was assigned to the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, of the Ninth Corp. After fighting in the Wilderness with Grant’s army, the regiment acted as a rear guard until May 12th when they were heavily engaged on the banks of the Ny River. They were then called upon to make a charge on the Confederate works at Spottsylvania Court House where they sustained heavy losses: 30 killed, 82 wounded and 31 missing.

In this letter, David describes being grazed in the head by a bullet, the stuffing in his hat band softening the blow. He also was horrified to see dead soldiers piled up as breastworks. “This shooting a man and then using his body for to stop balls is getting a little too much service out of them,” he wrote his mother.

Though I cannot find any details of his death, David must have been killed in the assault on the Confederate works at Petersburg on 18 June 1864—just one week after he penned this letter. That is the date he was mustered out of the service and his file indicates he did not survive the war. In his book, The Story of the Twentieth Michigan, Byron McCutcheon wrote that the regiment advanced a quarter of a mile across an open field of grain sloping gradually toward the Suffolk railroad where the enemy had erected breastworks. The regiment “suffered severely from a galling fire from a very long line of the enemy’s rifle pits.” Once the regiment reached the railroad cut, they found that if offered them little protection from enfilade fire, and as they attempted to climb out of the cut, “they were mercilessly shot down.” Not only did several enlisted men lose their lives in this ill-advised assault, but their commander, Major George C. Barnes, also fell mortally wounded. [pages 231-232]

[Note: This letter is from the personal collection of Jim Doncaster and is published by express consent. The cdv in the header image is not David Norris but another 20th Michigan Infantry solider that was posted by Walter Short on Civil War Faces Facebook.]

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Addressed to Mrs. J. W. Norris, Manchester, Washtenaw County, Michigan


In front at the Seven Pines
June 11th 1864

Respected mother,

It is with much pleasure that I seat myself to let you know that I am well and hope that these few lines will find you enjoying the same. The rest of the boys [that] are left are in good health and spirits. I received a letter from Samantha and yourself on the 6th of this month. They found me well—only a headache from the kick [?] of a Johnny Rebs blue pills aside of my head. It knocked me down as quick as if I had been struck with an ax but it did not hurt me much—only for a short time. It struck the stuffing in my cap and stopped it. It only jammed my head more than anything else. It cut a small gash in bit it has got mostly over it now.

We have been to work upon fortifications, building forts, fixing for a siege. It has been the rumor that Fort Darling has been taken but I think that is rather doubtful. Our regiment has had a good many lost since we came into this state. We have lost killed & wounded and missing about 200 in little more than a month. We have now about 125 guns for duty now. The regiment is small. We have some detailed besides. We have lost lots of men since this campaign has commenced and so has the Johnnie Rebs too. I have seen where they had piled them up and made breastworks of them. That was one thing that I never saw before. This shooting a man and then using his body for to stop balls is getting a little too much service out of them and I have seen them and ours wounded lay on the field from 1 to 5 days and not be dead yet. They must of suffered some but these men was not in our lines. They were held by the rebels.

Amandrus Heim is all right. George Callay I have not seen this month. I have not felt like going to see him and he has not been over to see me. He is at Division headquarters. We must tell the boys that they had better be in better business than playing marbles for I think that will not buy the children all a new dress or feed the pigs. I would like to be at home to share the sheat this spring. Also tell them they must work while they are young for when they get old, they can’t.

We have lost killed, wounded, missing out of our company 24 since this campaign [started].

You must tell them all to write to me and yourself too right away. Give my best respects to all enquiring friends. Please direct as before and I will close. Goodbye. Yours with respect, — David Norris


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