E. E. Norton: His story versus history

The Norton Mausoleum in Stroudsburg Cemetery.

By Amy Leiser, Executive Director

Monroe County Historical Association

It’s human nature to tell stories, and it’s human nature to use exaggeration to make stories sound a little more exciting than they might be. We all know how a fisherman’s catch grows in size each time the story is retold.

And most of us can think of a family elder who “in his day,” had to walk five miles uphill in three feet of snow (even in May) to get to school, and how the trip home usually had more snow and was also uphill. Sometimes, an embellished story takes on a life of its own, becoming entertaining folklore or providing a needed moral for a children’s story.

Enhancing an event or creating a legend can be exciting and fun, but it is the job of a historian to distinguish between the facts of history and the exaggerated tale that may have been passed down through storytelling.

Last month, the Monroe County Historical Association held a historic walking tour of the Stroudsburg Cemetery, and the tour’s focus was on local Civil War veterans and their contribution to the Union Army. While researching the backgrounds of the soldiers whom we wanted to highlight on the tour, volunteers contacted the National Archives to obtain copies of the men’s military records. The records contain a wealth of historic information about our nation’s veterans, and sometimes, the records can shed new light on the stories we have heard about some of these men.

One of these men in particular was a legend in his own time, and the tales he told about his own service were certainly exciting. His stories, however rousing they may have been and however embellished they may have become, do not altogether match the history presented by his service record.

The veteran was Emery E. Norton.

What is clear about E.E. Norton is that he was a Civil War veteran who lived in Stroudsburg after the war. His home literally was his castle, a large stone structure he had built on Dreher Avenue. After his death, Norton was interred alongside his wife in a predominant stone mausoleum on a hilltop in Stroudsburg Cemetery.

Much of the rest of the story of his life (as he told it) is less clear.

According to Norton, he enlisted in the war effort in 1861, immediately following the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. He claimed to have joined the Cassius M. Clay Battalion of 100 men whose mission was to protect the White House, the city of Washington D.C, and President Abraham Lincoln until federal troops could arrive as reinforcements.

Norton asserted that by 1862, he had been appointed the commissary general of staff under Nathaniel F. Banks with the rank of colonel. Norton boasted that he also “saw active and very perilous service at Vicksburg, Port Hudson, Brazier City, and the Red River Campaign. And for some time he was stationed at Baton Rouge, Louisiana.”

In his version of history, Norton left the army in 1865 and opened a law firm in New Orleans before moving to Stroudsburg in 1867.

Norton’s tale of military achievement is indeed exciting, but in 1975, Bobby Westbrook, a well-known and respected local journalist, wrote an article in which she hinted there was a great deal of whispering about Norton’s character when he moved to Stroudsburg in 1867.

She wrote, “Though posing as a Southern gentleman and creating quite a social stir, Col. Norton was dismissed by other natives as a ‘carpetbagger.’”

Norton’s descendants rebutted the article and stood by their ancestor’s story of military and professional accomplishments, citing as reference Norton’s own biography and obituary.

Herein lies the historian’s dilemma — separating embellished story from factual history.

All of the records that corroborate Norton’s account of his life were written in the late 19th century and were furnished either by Norton himself or by his descendants. The story does indeed contain some (thinly stretched) truth, but there has been no available primary source written by a third party to confirm or contradict the history of Norton’s military service — until the Monroe County Historical Association staff obtained official copies of his service record from the National Archives. The official records chronicle Norton’s service and contain a page indicating that Norton’s entire military record was included in the file.

In reviewing the information in the War Department records, some holes begin to appear in Emery E. Norton’s personal account of his service during the Civil War. That is to say, very little of Norton’s legend is backed up by the official records.

The service records do uphold the story that E.E. Norton was a “Commissary of Substance” and that he was stationed in Louisiana.

The 1860 U.S. Census recorded E.E. Norton as living in New York City. While it is unclear exactly where Norton was in 1861, his military service record does not begin until 1863. His claim to have served with Cassius M. Clay’s “Washington Defender” Battalion in the first days of the war is unsupported. No roster of men for that informal unit has ever been found, and it is unlikely that anyone in Stroudsburg in the 1800s would have known anyone else who served in that group.

By April 1863, Norton’s service records show that he was stationed in Alexandria, Va. He was moved to “before Port Hudson, LA” in June of that year. In August, Norton was sent to Baton Rouge, La., where he was listed as “Commissary of Substance.” From September to December 1863, Norton remained in this position, but he was stationed in New Orleans. By January of 1864, Norton “resigns special orders No. 11 – January 8th 1864.”

The Siege at Vicksburg was a series of strategic battles between the North and South for control of the Vicksburg, located along the Mississippi River. The river was an important asset, and Union forces wanted to capture the city and gain control of transportation.

The first skirmish was on May 18, 1863; the surrender of Confederate forces occurred two months later on July 4th. With the Union’s victory, Confederate supply lines were severed and Union supplies could easily be transported along this major waterway.

After Vicksburg, the Confederate’s last stronghold, Port Hudson, also fell.

While Norton claimed to have served in both of these campaigns, his military records report that he was stationed in Alexandria from April to May 1863 before moving to “before Port Hudson, La.” sometime between June and July of that year. That is, Norton was in the Port Hudson area near the end of the siege, but he was in Virginia during most of the Vicksburg campaign.

The Red River Campaign was the largest navy-army operation of the Civil War and was the last major victory for Confederate forces — even though it did not affect the outcome of the war. Occurring along the Red River in Louisiana from March 10 to May 22, 1864, the Union, under the leadership of Maj. Gen. Nathaniel F. Banks sought to capture Shreveport, La., in order to separate Texas from the rest of the Confederacy.

While Norton claimed to have served under Banks, his military records disprove the story that he saw battle during the Red River Campaign. Two months before the Red River Campaign began, Norton had resigned his commission under special orders No. 11 on January 8, 1864. Special Orders No. 11 was the transfer of military personnel to the Invalid Corps; E.E. Norton was 47 at the time he was discharged.

Norton was indeed a commissary and in charge of ordering food for Union troops, but there is no indication that he was a part of Nathaniel Banks’s staff. In addition, he liked to refer to himself as “Colonel” Norton, but his own military records indicate that in his one year or so of service, Emery E. Norton never achieved a rank higher than captain.

Norton’s tale of his military exploits wanes after the war, when he indicates that he remained in Louisiana and Mississippi to practice law following his discharge before moving to Stroudsburg. By all accounts, the castle he had built was impressive, as is the mausoleum of his final resting place.

Neither is quite as impressive as the legend of “Colonel” E.E. Norton.

The intention of this article is not to embarrass Norton's descendants or to discredit previous authors who have written about the man (myself included). E.E. Norton was a Civil War veteran who served as a captain. There's nothing in the official record showing that he was one of "Washington's Defenders" with Cassius M. Clay and nothing showing he held any rank above captain.

As with all stories, a historian asks “Is there more?”

The same process of research that showed lack of documents about Norton simultaneously revealed that other local Civil War veterans, including Col. John Schoonover, served in greater capacities than believed. Perhaps there's more original documentation about Norton lingering in the attics and stored furniture of descendants and local historians?

During the late 1800s, there was no easy method to fact-check a soldier’s “first-hand” Civil War accounts — some of which were undoubtedly exaggerated fish tales.

Times have changed greatly over the past 150 years. Many military records are just now becoming readily available, searchable, and obtainable. In addition, the 19th Century certainly had no Internet, and no one could “Google” a person’s past. We can now more easily question a story or account of an experience that sounds exaggerated. Current politicians and national newscasters have been caught stretching the truth, and it has cost them their positions and careers.

The duty of a historian is to find fact, even if that fact is not as exciting as the tales people tell. We must correct misinformation, even when the truth sheds unfortunate light on a historical character, and we must give credit to those veterans, both Union and Confederate soldiers, who actually did fight in those terrible battles.

Thank you to the members of the 142nd Company G Civil War reenactors who obtained the military records from the National Archives and assisted with the writing of this article.