One Hundred Nights of Taps, Gettysburg, Enduring Pathway: Oliver Willcox Norton
Who was Oliver Willcox Norton? Well his talents are evidenced each evening here during One Hundred Nights of Nights of Taps.
July, 1862 the 3rd Union Army Brigade, then under the command of
General Daniel Butterfield, was camped by the James River on the grounds
of the Berkeley Plantation following the Seven Days Battles. It was
here that Butterfield assisted by Norton created the 24 notes known as Taps.
Oliver Willcox Norton was the first bugler to sound the call that evening.For almost 160 years the call of Taps has sounded to signal military personnel to go to sleep and more importantly as a tribute to all of those who have faithfully served our nation in uniform.
Oliver Willcox Norton (O.W. to his family and friends) was born in Angelica, New York on December 17, 1839. He was the oldest of 13 children of a traveling Reverend. He received his education at the Montrose Academy in Montrose, Pennsylvania and became a teacher.
Norton was among the first to enter the Union army when the Civil War broke out. He enlisted with Company K and became the bugler for the 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The 83rd wore colorful French uniforms, which consisted of a shako, bright-colored jacket and wide trousers, imported for the war. However, they proved to be unsuitable for field use. Those uniforms were left behind and replaced with regulation uniforms when the regiment marched off to war.
O.W. wrote letters home during the war providing insight about his duties as a bugler, orderly, flag bearer, and his life as a soldier. They are collected in a book titled “Army Letters”, which he wrote in 1903 and published for private circulation. Nearly two-thirds of the approximately one hundred and fifty war time letters were written to his sister Elizabeth (Libby) Lane Norton. who was active in the underground railroad system that help runaway slaves escape to Canada.
During the battle of Gettysburg O.W. was the brigade bugler serving under the command of Colonel Strong Vincent. On July 2nd at Little Round Top, Vincent’s Brigade answered the call for troops when General Gouverneur K. Warren saw that the hill was unoccupied and open to being captured by the enemy. Norton had a good view of the fighting on Little Round Top on that day and was distressed when Vincent was mortally wounded. Norton would eventually write a book entitled “The Attack and Defense of Little Round”, one of the best eyewitness accounts of what happened.
In November 1863, Norton was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the Eighth U.S. Colored Troops. This spoke highly of the man, as he was fully aware that serving in such a position at that time was a death sentence should he ever be captured. For the remainder of the war, O.W. served as a staff officer and Regimental Quartermaster officer for the Eighth U.S. Colored Regiment. He was mustered out in November, 1865. Norton would return here to Gettysburg in 1889 as the main speaker for the dedication of the 83rd Pennsylvania Monument on Little Round Top. Norton’s name will always be associated with the bugler call, Taps. He wrote,
“There is something singularly beautiful and appropriate in the music of this wonderful call. Its strains are melancholy, yet full of rest and peace. Its echoes linger in the heart long after its tones have ceased to vibrate in the air. It is immortal.”
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