What We Can Learn from the Letters of Thomas Hill Norwood
    by Lauren Johnson, Undergraduate Researcher

Norwood Information Screenshot

Thomas Hill Norwood

Thomas Hill Norwood was a University of Virginia (UVA) student during the antebellum period (specifically, from 1859-1861). He lived in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. and become the Captain of the 44th North Carolina Infantry during the Civil War, after graduating. His writing captured my eye because of its intense humanity and poignant writing style. After reading his letters to his family and friends, it became obvious to me that he was a young man with an intriguing personality. He spoke often of three subjects: university life and classes, girls, and, of course, the political atmosphere of the antebellum period. The humor and honesty that he brought to his writing convey a candid look into the life of a UVA student during that time period.

 1860 US Census, Georgetown Ward 2

The 1860 Census showing Thomas Norwood living in Georgetown Ward 2

On School:

In 1860, Norwood writes,  “I devote myself wholly to the classes, as you will perceive before I finish,” (1860-04-01) and we certainly do get an image of a studious and analytical mind in his letters. Much of his life seems to concern examinations in courses like Calculus, which he describes as “interesting + delightful (?) [Sic]” (1861-01-05), Ancient Languages, German, and Rhetoric. From these letters, Norwood provides insight into the quotidian life of the UVA student. For example, in his first mention of Latin, he alludes to the honor system when describing the difficulty of preparing for an exam:

“We had an examination on Latin today and Mr Coleman put up a term list of history, grammar, exercises &e for us to write without "any assistance from anyone" as says the oath which must be written at the bottom of your papers; and I tell you it is not as easy as some may imagine, to write and exercise, translates from Tacitus, without a dictionary.” (1859-12-21)

And he sings high praise in regards to Maximilian Schele de Vere, the professor of Modern Languages: “I have taken a great fancy to German, although the pronunciation has a tendency to extract a person's tongue. Our Professor of Modern Languages is on of the best teachers I have ever seen + his lectures are very interesting” (1860-12-16). Because of Norwood's studious nature, he graduates in three years, and his decision to graduate early seems to be a premeditated. On multiple occasions he writes to Bill, saying, "I will try my best to graduate at this Intermediate, for I really do not wish to be troubled with it next year” (1861-01-05). It is hard to know if his decision directly related to the war or his family or any number of other factors, but from his phrasing, it seems more like a personal decision that was made independently from politics.

 

Moreover, Norwood does not shy away from talking about university life. He mentions extracurricular clubs and school events. In one letter in particular, he describes the cricket club observing, “there is a cricket club here, but I don't see any great fun in it; perhaps it is because I have never played it, for the club seems to enjoy themselves very much” (1860-03-18). He also references daily life with a relatable sense of humor. For example, he signs off one letter like this, “Listen! Hark! What melodious sound is that, which strikes my ears agreeably? P.S. I believe it is the dinner Bell, so Good Bye, Billy” (1860-03-18). While UVA does not all take dinner as a whole university as it once did, certainly college students now still hold this agreeable relationship with meals. Consider another example, this time concerning distracting roommates: “I will write though John Maury is in my room, and if he does not keep quiet while I am writing I will be under painful necessity of committing manslaughter, as I told him just now. Dern that boy!! he is singing some infernal song now” (1860-11-01). It is incredibly humbling (not to mention interesting) to see that the same themes that permeate the life of a contemporary college student were prevalent even in Norwood’s time. Personally, these instances of humor help me relate to Norwood more and add to the picture of c. 1860 UVA that I have floating around in my head.

 

On Girls:

            Thomas Hill Norwood, though devoted to school, certainly had his mind on other matters, chiefly girls and the love lives of his friends. He describes a Friday-night party at one of his professor’s houses, commenting that while he is invited, he will not go, because, “some parties consist of about 15 ladies and a hundred and fifteen men,” and it “wouldn't be a circumstance talking to a lady with 9 other fellows” (1859-12-21). This combination of desire and flippancy appears in most of his descriptions of ladies. In one particular letter, he describes the hypothetical (and apparently tantalizing) view of feminine ankles, only to have a bit of a cruel punch line:

“Perhaps you think that angels do not walk on the earth as in days of yond, but if you had seen an ankle that was accidentally presented to the vision of these unworthy spies you would have ..... well I guess you know what you would do under such circumstances; methinks I see them yet, but the lovely vision passed from my sight; for all mud puddles will be erissen sooner or later.

But my eye turns in another direction, I see, O Jeruselum!!! I see a pair in about this situation, [sketch of a pair of ladies feet below the knee] my eyes remain fired on them charmed by the sight, but at last I raise my organs of vision to the countenance of the imagined angel, Thunder!!! A dern nigger-gal.” (1859-12-21)

It is clear that he is using religious diction to both add a dramatic tone and to emphasize the apparent wrongness of his attraction to a Black woman. Clearly this joke is a sign of the times, and I hope it would not be told at UVA today, but it does shed light on what Norwood and his acquaintances were focused on, and his emphatic writing certainly highlights his personality.

           

Norwood’s relationship with girls is not limited to just staring longingly at their ankles. In fact he seems both optimistic and a bit jaded towards romance when he advises his friend Bill. For example, he writes, “concerning certain damsels in Philadelphia and Pittsburg, I hope you will succeed,” but then immediately follows that positive sentiment with a negative one, “although those flowers did miserably and go to Miss Molly. I suppose the flowers thought that they would be dry before they arrived at Philadelphia” (1860-03-18).  In another instance he is more clearly pessimistic: “And moreover I sincerely advise you to withdraw you heart from the "Quakers City"; for the lady will certainly fall in love with some dashing fellow and forget old "Hungry" [i.e. Bill]. Such is the perversity of the feminine nature !!!” (1860-03-18). Such harsh words seem to be coming from someone with experience in failed flirtations. On two occasions Norwood writes briefly about a girl, whose name he wishes to be kept secret:

“I will send you this [letter] as a present,  and will hope for such a present in return or if convenient a lock of Miss.....'s hair; which you can send, as you always keep a supply on hand for old customers, no doubt.” (1859-12-21)

“Give my love to ....... the Lord knows who.” (1859-12-21)

We know that Norwood eventually married Ellen Moore Price, who was also born in Richmond, VA. Perhaps this mystery girl is she. However, that seems unlikely given that she was born in 1849, and would have been a little girl at the time of his writing.

 

Norwood's unique perspective also could be the result of his jealousy over his friend’s ability to socialize with girls. Apparently the girls in Charlottesville were not to his liking:

“I was walking in Charlottesville the other evening and turning the corner, a vision, or at least the derndest ugly crowd of girls that I ever had the pleasure of seeing avert my eyes; why, I don't believe that there are 7 pretty girls in Charlottesville, as you might perceive from the fact that the glasses of the windows are cracked.” (1860-04-01)

Norwood also writes to Bill in a melodramatic manner, begging him to remind the girls that Norwood is alive: “Good Bye. P.S. My Love to all the girls. Just let them know that I am yet alive” (1860-04-01). And apparently one of Norwood's banes was his great withdrawal from women: “I have not heard from my young lady friends for so long that I am become almost home-side. Relieve me” (1860-12-16). Or maybe Norwood is simply trying to be both a good friend and comic, for which there is also evidence:

“Georgetown must be waking up! I'll be dearned!! After all the trouble Mills took to go to choir-meetings and church with her so devotedly for the last 2 years!!! Shameful! Shameful! horrid! Miss M's first & last experience in flirting. Mills grilled at last. ‘Sic semper pueris’, as the psalmist sweetly remarked, I am sorry she has kicked Mills, but I hope you will endeavor to console him.” (1860-04-01)

In particular the “sic semper pueris” rings clever. It of course means “thus always to boys,” but more importantly, it is a play on the Virginian motto, “sic semper tyrannus.” It would appear that the aforementioned quote is thus evidence that Norwood does not insult women purely because he is a misogynist, but rather he follows “The Bro Code,” i.e. he supports his friends while also discussing girls, which is clearly a common topic in his social crowd. Norwood in the end does seem to consider women good-naturedly, once he gets over the lack of women at university: “If young ladies will grow, why, of course, as a natural consequence, we must move aside and give them room, Bless their hearts!” (1860-04-24).

 

On Secession/War:

            Some of the most interesting parts of Norwood’ letters deal with the political atmosphere of the antebellum South. Norwood considers small movements, like that of the Army of Northern Virginia (i.e. the Army of the Potomacs): “I suppose the ‘Potomacs’ created a great sensation on the 22nd. I have been in the papers that the status was a failure and I would like to have your opinion of it” (1860-03-18). He also relates the national situation to the happenings at UVA. In particular, he discusses the election for a student debater in relation to the political preferences of the student body. Norwood writes, “I hope the Virginia fathers will not follow the university example of their sons, for some of the best Democrats voted for Bell. But we will see, next Tuesday” (1860-11-01). From this it appear that Norwood was a Democrat, and mostly likely a Southern Democrat. This distinction is important, because Southern Democrats were unequivocally in favor of slavery, while Northern Democrats questions the specific legal bounds of slavery, particularly at the Supreme Court level—this party split was somewhat instigated by the decision in the 1857 Dred Scott case, which essentially ruled that slavery was to be allowed in the West, because Blacks like Dred Scott were not citizens, and worse, were considered property and therefore could not be taken away (that is, freed) without due process of law [1].

           

In December of 1860, Norwood also somewhat casually discusses the beginnings of succession:

“Two companies (military) have been organized here + they will send the captains…to ask for arms. But it is in question whether they get them or not. Time will show.

I have the pleasure of informing you that there are two theatrical companies now performing in Charlottesville.

Tomorrow is the day for South Carolina to secede.”(1860-12-16)

Norwood cleverly employs the word “company” in two different ways. This zeugma creates a contrast between the martial tone of the first part and the civil tone of the second. However, his final line comes out of nowhere and is a bit jaunting. Yet, Norwood was nearly correct; South Carolina became the first Southern state to secede on December 20, 1860.  About a month later, it is clear the Norwood supports the formation of the Confederate States:

“I am afraid that the Union (submissionate men will carry Virginia. [Sic] I have heard so, but hope it is not true. Virginia will be a hard place to live in, if she stays in the
Northern Union…I think that the concentration of troops in Washington is just bullying the South and Virginia + Maryland in particular. Well six have seceded. Good for them.” (1861-01-05).

Still, Norwood values friendship over politics, assuring his Northern friend that, “Whatever happens, I remain your true friend” (1861-01-05).

  

Arguably one of the most fascinating aspects of Norwood to me is his eventual leadership in the Confederate Army. His role as a Confederate Captain in North Carolina may not seem surprising, because he was a Virginian student, but it is intriguing because of Norwood's letters. For one, Norwood was born to Rev. Norwood in Richmond, but he and his family lived in Georgetown, D.C., which was Union territory (not Confederate), and as the aforementioned snippet from the 1861 letter shows, some of his friends who were also from D.C. were not Confederate supporters. There is, however, one episode in his letters that makes his eventual Captainship surprising; he writes to Bill in response to the “President’s Message”:

“I suppose you sent that [catalogue] and also the ‘President's Message’, but you frightened me very much by sending it in a government envelope, for I thought that, they were inviting me to Washington to stand trail for Aiding Ossawaltamie Brown. I was very much relieved when I found that it was only the ‘President's Message.’” (1860-03-18)

While it is more than likely that Norwood is simply teasing his friend for using a government envelope, if his statement holds any verity, Norwood is not as Southern Democratic as his other writings would suggest.

 

In this letter, “Ossawaltamie Brown” is most certain John Brown, an anti-slavery abolitionist who was hanged for inciting a slave rebellion in the referenced “trail” (Virginia v. John Abolitionist John Brown PortraitBrown). Brown led a raid on the Harper’s Ferry federal armory, and for it stood trail in the winter of 1859. This trail must have been big news for the UVA students, because it was relatively close to the school. Furthermore, it incited tensions between the Democrats and Republicans nationally and was a key catalyst to Southern secession, since it showed--to Southerners at least-- the destructive nature of abolitionists. If Norwood actually “aided” Brown or even supported Brown, as his letters suggest, that would insinuate that Norwood was against slavery. And yet, he fought for the Confederate side. Part of Norwood’s ultimate role in North Carolina was certainly to due his father, who was born and raised there. Norwood was probably an obedient son; in that same 1861 letter, he opens, “I requested you in my last to give my respects to both [parents], and not my love to one…I don't care about getting Mr T.H.N [his father] mixed up in a row” (1861-01-05). Perhaps Norwood was inspired by the Reverend Norwood, his school, and his own political beliefs to fight for the Confederates. Norwood's decision, however intriguing at its core, goes to show that blood may be thicker than one’s opinion on slaves. At the very least, during the Civil War, economic ideologies seemed to be far more important to most Southerners, including Norwood, than human rights. 

 

Thomas Hill Norwood certainly had a complicated relationship with the changing world around him, but through his letters we can understand the mindset of UVA students a bit more and truly put ourselves in their shoes. Norwood went on to fight in the Civil War, getting wounded at Cold Harbor in 1864, and eventually dying on November 23, 1917, at the age of 76.

Thomas Norwood Death Certificate

Thomas Norwood's certificate of death: he died in 1917, at the age of 76. 

Thomas Norwood's Grave

The grave of Capt. Thomas Norwood in Richmond, VA. 

 


[1] For more information read http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/dred-scott-decision

Last Updated: August 10, 2016

References: 
  1. Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. URL:http://www.biography.com/people/john-brown-9228496#related-video-gallery
  2. "Capt Thomas Hill Norwood (1842 - 1917)." Find A Grave Photos. Find A Grave, n.d. Web. URL: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=8677519&PIpi=10974...
  3. "The Letter of Thomas Hill Norwood", University of Virginia Library and JUEL
  4. National archives and records administration, 1860 US Census, Georgetown Ward 2, via ancestry.com
  5. Students of the University of Virginia. A Semi-centennial Catalogue with Brief Biographical Sketches. Baltimore: C. Harvey, 1878. Print.