Norton historians lament missing Civil War letters



It was shortly after a bloody battle near Gaines’ Mill, Virginia, in June 1862, when Oliver Willcox Norton settled with his Third Brigade alongside the James River. With 236 men lost to Confederate soldiers — along with Norton’s two best friends, Henry and Denison — the company slept with low spirits.

In July of the same year, they woke to the sound of Norton’s bugle call, written on the battlefield by Daniel Butterfield, general of the Third Brigade. What was then musically memorable for the Army of the Potomac is now commonly known today as “Taps.”

Norton, a Civil War soldier, teacher and musician, was the first bugler to ever play Taps, and is often celebrated for his historical legacy that spans from Jacksonville, Florida, to Chautauqua Lake. Also a talented writer, Norton recorded the movement of his brigade throughout the horrors and triumphs of the Civil War, compiled in a book titled Army Letters, first published more than a century ago.

Today, the original letters are nowhere to be found.

In the 1990s, Jari Villanueva, bugler and Taps historian, traveled to Sherman, New York, for research on his book Twenty-Four Notes that Tap Deep Emotions: The Story of America’s Most Famous Bugle Call. One of “the country’s foremost expert on military bugle calls,” Villanueva has been studying Norton’s life closely for decades. He will be giving a presentation at 11 a.m. Saturday in Sherman about the history of the famed bugle call during the 31st Annual Sherman Day celebration.

At first, Villanueva thought he knew the current whereabouts of the letters. He figures they would still be at the same Sherman Library, where he photocopied them 20 years ago. But, on second thought, he’s not entirely certain.

“I still have no idea,” he said.

The history of the Norton family is a one heavily entwined with the land around Chautauqua. Norton’s father, Oliver William Norton, a traveling Presbyterian preacher, stopped in the area frequently for camp meetings. His sister, Elizabeth “Libby” Norton, settled in Sherman after marrying a farmer, and started a women’s club. After the war, she and Norton (“O.W.” to family members) helped to build the Sherman Library, along with Sherman First Electric and Water. This small town in Chautauqua County is also the location where most of Norton’s letters were addressed.

“Basically, he was very philanthropic to our town,” said Jennifer TeWinkle, owner of a bed and breakfast and member of the Sherman Day Committee.

TeWinkle, who joined the committee after hearing about the missing letters, has played a significant role in aiding Norton researchers and others interested in the family’s history. She said that although she might have leads to what happened to Norton’s letters, it isn’t easy to go around pointing fingers.

“We have a feeling we know what happened to them,” she said. In the end, she said, “It’s very heartbreaking to the [Norton] family. It’s a shame and an absolute crime.”

It was only after the war when the Norton family began making a presence in Chautauqua County. Norton first heard about the place from Col. Strong Vincent, who later died at the Battle of Gettysburg. Vincent’s cousin, John Heyl Vincent, a bishop from Alabama, would move from Chicago to start the Chautauqua Movement a decade later. It was this connection between the two families, Villanueva said, “that brought Norton to Chautauqua.”

As Norton began spending his summers with the Chautauqua Assembly, the bugle call was being played as the definite “lights out” routine across brigades nationwide (“Put out the lights, go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep”). In 1891, it landed in the official U.S. Army regulations for bugle calls. But long before then, Norton wrote in 1893, the originally named “Butterfield’s Brigade Call” was “known by all troops of the Army of the Potomac,” as the “brigade which marched to its music [and] was always respected and welcomed by its comrades in arms.”

Norton’s great-granddaughter, Cynthia Norton, said that what is now commonly known as Taps made Oliver Willcox Norton into a famous buglist to “only some degree.”

“And, of course,” she said, “it’s the incredible staying power of that music.”

Cynthia Norton, a painter and designer currently living in the Institution, has, like many of her great-grandfather’s admirers, been looking for the whereabouts of his letters.

And, like all, she has come up short.

Although Norton was the person who “made the connection” to Chautauqua, Cynthia Norton said, it was her great uncle, Ralph Norton, who was “the first one to stay.” Like his father, Ralph Norton was an admirer of art and music, and an impassioned “man of ideas.” When he became president of the Institution in the 1940s, he donated the fountain in the newly named Bestor Plaza to match his father’s landmark, Norton Hall. The latter, Cynthia Norton said, with its homage to Greek mythology and love of the arts, “represents the trajectory of [Norton’s] life,” which her father continued until he died a decade later in 1953.

But it is the story of her great-grandfather that still, to this day, hold many in captivation.

This year, an opera called Norton: A Civil War Opera premiered at the Loudoun Lyric Opera in Virginia. Written by composer David E. Chávez and librettist Meredith Bean McMath, Norton sheds light on the relationship between Norton and his sister, and portrays the soldier as a keen-minded buglist. If anything, it’s a story that revolves around the birth of 24 notes.

Keeping in mind its solemn tone, Taps had nothing to do with funerals until it was played at Gen. Butterfield’s funeral at West Point in 1893, which “bid a fine farewell to its author,” as Norton wrote. Until then, the melancholic melody of the “Butterfield Brigade” had a less significant meaning.

And ever since Oliver Willcox Norton himself died in 1920, with his ashes supposedly spread out around Chautauqua Lake, historians like Villanueva wonder if the call was played to put to rest the first man to blow it.

“I’m not sure,” Villanueva said. “And if they didn’t, they sure should have.”

*Correction (Aug. 3, 2014): This article incorrectly referred to Ralph Norton as Cynthia Norton’s father when he is her great uncle. Changes have been made to this article to correct this mistake.