The oldest boy was Oliver, later to become the father of Norvell. The birth date on his grave inscription in Harlem is December 5 1841, which was never challenged by any of the family, but other authorities say he was born in 1842, 1843 or 1844. An 1880 census gives his age at 37, suggesting a birth date of 1843, but historian and archivist Marshall Williams says he lived to the age of 50 – two weeks short of 51 – corroborating the 1841 birth date on the gravestone. All dates at this time are hampered by the absence of certification, but there is no reason to doubt the 1841 birth date, nor the 1892 date of death on the original tombstone despite the more recent addition of a second headstone, with the erroneous death date of 1891. Census information is also untrustworthy.
After growing up on the plantation, and preparing to follow in his father’s footsteps, Oliver Hardy embarked on a military career, joining the 16th Georgia Regiment (Company K) at the start of the Civil War in 1861. He achieved a distinguished record, for which he was highly decorated, but he suffered extensive wounding at the Battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam Creek) on September 17 1862. At the time of his demob he was a recruiting officer based in Georgia. (See Appendix II).
After the war ended in 1865, Oliver reverted to running the family plantation with his new wife Sarah Olive, a Columbia County girl he married on November 5 in the same year. She is said to have died in childbirth in 1867 along with the baby.
Other than details of his second marriage, few solid facts are available for Hardy’s life in the 10 years between 1867 and 1877 – the years following the abolition of slavery. Much of his time must have been spent in rescheduling the plantation’s business, renegotiating contracts with customers, rethinking employment terms, studying public decrees and taking over from his ageing father. At this time, Georgia farmers were busy supporting and even bankrolling each other in the wake of the Sherman “burn ‘em out” plan which had devastated the South, as so graphically portrayed in “Birth of A Nation” and “Gone With the Wind”.
Hardy’s close connections with the Magruder family would have strongly involved him in this process, and he was elected Tax Collector for Columbia County, Georgia in 1877. In readiness for the anticipated demise of the plantation, he also bought an interest in a retail business. Through his high office, and as an injured war hero, he became a noted figure in the Georgia community, literally larger than life (one source describes him as “a kind of Falstaff”). His penchant for good food in large quantities and liquor in equal measure, became legendary, and he was much in demand as guest of honour and raconteur at hundreds of gatherings in rural Columbia County.
In view of this, it is difficult to see how the tradition arose that he worked as a railroad foreman in this part of Georgia during the 1800s.
The Augusta – Athens track, with a branch to Madison, had been completed by 1845, when he was only 4. However there is a confusion of Georgia railroad companies at this time, with numerous mergers, takeovers and closures. Milledgeville was on a branch line which extended to Macon from the main line, and a line from Milledgeville to the state mental institution was already in existence. This was run jointly by the extraordinarily-named Milledgeville and Asylum Dummy Railroad Company, and The Old Capitol Railroad. (See Appendix III). The Georgia Southern Railroad, with which Hardy is said to have been involved, existed from 1874 to 1881, so it is possible he had some connection, fitting it in with running the farm, attending to his retail business and fulfilling his functions as Columbia County Tax Collector. Just possible, extremely unlikely and not supported by any railroad company records.