History of the Town of Schaghticoke

the results of research about the history of the town of Schaghticoke

Monthly Archives: October 2012

John Ellis Wool- Was HE the greatest man ever to live in Schaghticoke?

Tombstone of John Wool in Oakwood Cemetery, Troy

The next time you drive east on Alternate Route 7 toward Troy, take a minute to notice the tall granite shaft sticking up on the side of the wooded hill, just to the left or north. It looks like the Washington Monument, only smaller. It is the tombstone of General John Ellis Wool, in Oakwood Cemetery, Troy. If you haven’t been in the cemetery, turn on in, and head over to the edge of the hill to see the tombstone and the view to the west. Or keep your eye out for the notice of tours of the cemetery. The tombstone is definitely worth a look, as is the rest of the cemetery. The Gardner Earl Chapel is a National Historic Landmark.
I am claiming John Ellis Wool as a product of Schaghticoke, which will not seem true if you Google him. What Wikipedia and I agree on is that John Wool was one of the most important men in the U.S. Army in the 19th century.
John Wool’s great-grandfather Jurgen Woll arrived in New York City from Finland around 1700. One of his sons, James Wool was born about 1725 in New York City. James and his second wife and five of his seven children moved to a farm in Schaghticoke in 1762. The farm was located off Fogarty Road on what is now Wetsel Road. James’son John stayed behind in New York City as an apprentice to a heel and last maker, (a last is a form around which shoes are made), but he and his wife Ann joined his father by the time of the Revolutionary War. John and his brother James, Jr. served in the 14th Albany County Militia under Colonel Knickerbocker. Two of James Sr.’s sons ended up as prisoners of war, confined on British prison hulks in New York Harbor. One died during that ordeal.
In December 1783, the war over, John the heel and last maker decided that he and his family would return to New York City. En route, they stopped in Newburgh. Perhaps he tarried there because of the imminent birth of his sixth child, the future general, John Ellis Wool, on January 31, 1784. John Sr. continued on to New York, and set up a heel shop in the city, returning for his family in August. In July, 1790, John Sr. died, just before the birth of his eighth child. His poor widow sent six-year-old John north to live with his grandfather in Schaghticoke. She remarried and died shortly after. In 1796, grandfather James apprenticed twelve-year old John to a merchant in the new city of Troy. Troy had just been surveyed in 1787 and only had about 500 residents. So John Ellis Wool spent the formative years of his childhood, from age six to twelve, in our town, on his grandfather’s farm.
John Ellis Wool opened his own dry goods store in 1803, quite an accomplishment for a young man of 19. It was on River Street, facing the river, in the downstairs of the building that housed “The Northern Budget” newspaper. The business thrived, and John began to get involved in his community. In 1808 he joined the “Troy Invincibles”, a militia unit, in which he was an ensign. In 1809, the joined the Saint Tammany Association, a civic and political group, which marched in elaborate uniforms in parades. He also married Sarah Moulton that year. She was the daughter of one of his first employers in the city. In 1810, a fire began in the printing office which burned John’s store. His livelihood destroyed, John tried clerking for a lawyer in Troy, and ran for county sheriff, but lost. When the War of 1812 began, Wool enlisted in the Army and obtained a captaincy in the 13th Regiment, due to his militia service.

An interesting sidelight to this career is that John was the executor of his grandfather’s estate when James died in 1805. Why this 21-year-old was the executor and not one of his grandfather’s children, his uncles, we do not know. Perhaps it was in recognition of his intelligence. The will does not survive, but the inventory of the estate is in the files of the Rensselaer County Historical Society. The total value of James Wool’s personal estate was $224.77, almost half of which was debts owed to him by his neighbors. The only animals listed were two cows and eight sheep. The next most valuable possessions were two featherbeds and a fanning mill.
When John Wool joined the Army in 1812, he found his destiny. He was a hero of the War of 1812, promoted to Major after the battle of Queenston, Ontario in 1813, when he served in the regiment of Stephen VanRensselaer. General Van Rensselaer ordered his men to cross the treacherous Niagara River in too few boats at night, then to scale a vertical cliff with the British Army at the top. His nephew Lt. Colonel Solomon VanRensselaer was in the first wave with Captain John Wool. They made it up the cliff and attacked the British. Solomon was badly wounded almost immediately, and Wool stepped in and led the charge, despite the fact that he was also wounded. The attack and invasion ultimately failed, but Wool’s heroism and skill were noted. He served with distinction in the battle of Plattsburgh in 1814, and was promoted to Colonel. By the end of the War, he was Inspector General of the whole U. S. Army.

The original uniform coat of John Wool during the war of 1812-preserved and owned by the Rensselaer County Historical Society in Troy.

One of Wool’s later responsibilities was to relocate the Cherokee Indians in what came to be called “The Trail of Tears.” He came under criticism at the time because he refused to allow the state militia working with his federal troops to abuse the Indians. He did his job, but was very sympathetic to the plight of the Indians. By 1841, he was a Brigadier General and Commander of the Department of the East. He traveled throughout the East, visiting each of the military installations under his command. He also traveled to Europe to inspect installations there. Wool had come a long way from Schaghticoke.

General John Ellis Wool

During the Mexican War of 1845-1846, General Wool first led his troops 900 miles from San Antonio into Mexico, capturing the city of Saltillo. Then he led his troops in the Battle of Buena Vista, so distinguishing himself that he was awarded a Congressional sword and promoted to Major General. Incidentally, he is the subject of the oldest surviving military photographic image, a daguerreotype of him riding into Saltillo during the War. Wool was mentioned as a possible candidate for Governor of New York in 1850.

the hilt of one of the ceremonial swords given to John Ellis Wool. This one is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

After the War, Wool also headed the Department of the Pacific and settled the Indian Wars in Oregon. His letters at the time showed that he was very much against the persecution of the Indians. His reputation as a General was that he was very strict, believed in firm discipline and following the rules to the letter. He did not smoke, used no profanity in a very profane age, and drank in moderation. Interestingly, Wool was only 5’2” tall, but did not need height to have a strong command presence. He felt that honor was man’s chief virtue. But he was no prude. He entertained lavishly, was a wine connoisseur, read widely and often quoted Shakespeare. Throughout his life, he tried to maintain his headquarters in Troy. Wool was famous. He was mentioned as a Presidential candidate in 1852, 1856, and 1860, though he declined any interest in politics.

This glorious hat, one of those belonging to John Wool, is in the collection of the Rensselaer County Historical Society in Troy.

When the Civil War began, Major General Wool was 76 years old. Despite his age, he rode several hours each day, and was in vigorous health. He also was the General in command of the Department of the East- stretching from the Great lakes and the Mississippi to his home in Troy. His headquarters was in Troy, where he was much of the time. The 1860 census lists Wool and his wife Sarah at their home on First Street, with a family including Mr. Isaac Hart, gentleman, and his wife, plus three female and two male servants, all but one black. Wool was a Democrat, but a determined Unionist, who attended a peace conference in February 1861, after the election of Lincoln.

Wool went to Washington, D.C. as war neared, certainly a strong supporter of his country no matter his political party, and helped with preparations for Lincoln’s inauguration. Soon after he moved his headquarters to New York City and was very active in getting the northern military on a war footing. He drew on arms and ammunition from both the Watervliet and Springfield, Illinois armories to supply new troops. On April 23, 1861 he wrote to Lt. General Winfield Scott, commander of the US Army and his contemporary in age and experience, worried that Washington, D.C. could easily be taken by the new Confederate Army and stating that New York City was ready to furnish him 80,000 men. Wool’s initiative was not appreciated by the more lethargic and perhaps jealous Scott, who ordered him back to Troy. He stated that this was due to Wool’s “feeble health,” not true.

By August Scott was ready to call on Wool for help, offering him command of the Department of Virginia.  Wool served for a year, taking initiative to secure Fortress Monroe, near Norfolk, Virginia, for the Union, vitally important for strategic control of the James River and Chesapeake Bay. He was in command when the Rensselaer County Regiment, the 125th, was among those surrendered at Harpers Ferry in September of 1862. He had told the commander, Colonel Miles, not to surrender under any circumstances.

In June 1862, Wool was transferred to command of the Middle Department of Maryland. As such he was in charge of a major camp of instruction and the defense of many strategic railroad lines.  His last command was back to the Department of the East in 1863. As summer advanced, he was concerned that he kept losing troops from New York City to reinforce General Meade in Pennsylvania. His concern was justified when the notorious draft riots broke out in July 1863 and he had few resources. He complained that there was a confusion of command between state and federal authorities.  At that point he was almost 80 years old, the oldest General to serve on either side in the Civil War. The Army retired him, much to his dismay.

John Ellis Wool returned to his home on First Street in Troy, an extremely celebrated man. Military bands from Troy and Albany came by to serenade him often. By 1867, he was in ill health, but supported five families, relatives of his sister and his wife, on the income from his investments. In 1869 he received an honorary degree from Williams College. Later that year, he fell while walking in his garden, and died shortly after. His funeral, out of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, drew 30,000 people into the streets of Troy. 30,000 people- imagine the scene!
He left bequests amounting to $650,000 in his will, a huge sum at the time. He had investments in 25 different banks. Among the inheritors were RPI and Williams College, several orphan asylums, and his Wool cousins in Schaghticoke. His cousin Benjamin was a blacksmith/farmer in Speigletown at the time, and lived on the original family farm. Wool also gave large sums of money to relatives of one of his sisters and to relatives of his wife.

The tombstone of John Wool being erected in Oakwood Cemetery in Troy

General Wool’s tombstone, quarried in Maine, was the largest single piece of granite to have been excavated to that point, about 60 feet tall. It took four tries for an obelisk to be quarried successfully. It was laboriously moved from Maine to Troy by sea. Mounted on rollers, it was pulled up Hoosick Street by horses, a process which took ten days, and erected in Oakwood Cemetery on an Egyptian-style base, resulting in a total height of about 75 feet. Wool’s home, at the corner of First and Ferry Streets is now owned by Russell Sage College, and is used as an honor students’ dormitory. It still has a Victorian sofa in its living room which was Wool’s. Its wooden parts are carved with his name, plus “Buena Vista”- his important battle in the Mexican War, and “Fortress Monroe,” the fort in Chesapeake Bay which he had responsibility for defending at the start of the Civil War. Fort Wool is close to it today. The Rensselaer County Historical Society owns more of Wool’s furniture, including a beautiful bed, plus one of his presentation swords, his uniform coat from the War of 1812 (a very rare survival), his saddle, a chapeau de bras, and some other uniform parts. The very small coat is proof of Wool’s 5’2” stature. Currently it is a centerpiece of an exhibit at the Candadian War Museum in honor of the Bicentennial of the War of 1812. The gorgeous sword is in the War of 1812 exhibit at the Rensselaer County Historical Society, 57 2nd Street, Troy.

home of John Ellis Wool on 1st Street in Troy, now an honor student dormitory for Russell Sage College

John Wool certainly traveled a long way from his birth en route to New York City, a childhood spent on a farm in rural Schaghticoke with his grandparents, an early apprenticeship and very little formal education, to total success in the US Army, wealth, philanthropy, fame, and sophistication. He must have been an amazing man. It is the quintessential American experience.

Bibliography: Hinton, Harwood; John Wool, U. of Wisconsin, 1960.
Will of John Ellis Wool in the collection of the Rensselaer County Historical Society
Obituary of John Ellis Wool, “New York Times”, Nov. 11, 1869
1860 Federal census

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The Recruitment, Departure, and Early History of the 125th NYS Volunteer Regiment-

By summer 1862 it was clear that the Civil War was not going to be over any time soon. It was also clear that many, many men were going to die in the fighting and that more troops were needed. The “Troy Times”, a daily newspaper in the city, had extensive daily updates on the progress of the war and more specifically on the movements of the 2nd New York Infantry, the Troy Regiment.

Regimental Color of the 125th Regiment, thanks to the website of the Division of Military and Naval Affairs

It seems amazing to me that the 125th NYS Volunteers, the Rensselaer County regiment, was recruited and on its way to Virginia in only six weeks that summer. On July 17, an article entitled “Defend the Country, Uphold the Government” appeared. It advertised a patriotic rally to be held the next evening at the courthouse in Troy to begin the recruitment for another local regiment to enter the fight so that “the government may be upheld, the constitution vindicated, the country preserved, the rebellion crushed, and traitors defeated and punished.” Notice that abolishing slavery was not mentioned. That was not a stated goal of the war at the beginning.

This reproduction of a recruiting poster for the 125th was printed at the Farmers Museum in Cooperstown. The sunny South?


An article the next day called the rally “The Great War Meeting,” and reported that doubtless “the towns along the Troy and Boston Railroad will turn out very large delegations” as a special free train just for the purpose had left Petersburgh at 2. This train would have passed through Schaghticoke. And on July 19, the paper reported that 5000 men had attended the rally, so that there was one meeting inside the courthouse, of as many who could fit, and of the “quality” man, and another on the steps outside. Let’s imagine the scene: 5000 men, many young, of all sorts, from many parts of the county, on a hot July evening in the middle of the city of Troy, some jamming the un-air conditioned court house, others gathering around the steps outside, ready for a long evening of inspiring speeches.
The meeting had a formal chairman, one William Kemp, with a vice president from each town. John A Quackenbush, a 31-year old farmer, was the vice-president for Schaghticoke. They adopted a set of resolutions: 1.) that the war should be brought to a speedy end, 2.) that it is a war for preservation and defense, 3.) that there is a need to serve the county and nation, 4.) praising the NYS bounty of $50 offered to each enlistee, 5.) that there is a need to set up recruiting offices and enlist men as soon as possible, and 6.) that Rensselaer County should match the state bounty. The crowd heard a number of people, judges, professors, lawyers, and clergy speak. At one point a heckler in the outdoor meeting called out to them, “why don’t you enlist yourself? The rich should go too!” At 10 p.m. there was music by Jones’ Band and a Colonel Arnold shot off his cannon, “a babywaker.” He left the ramrod in the barrel and it went through the awning and store window of Mr Staude’s Cigar Store – fortunately without hurting anyone

As the month of July went on, towns throughout the county had their own patriotic rallies, designed to encourage new enlistees. Recruiting offices were set up in Troy, and rumors began to fly about who the Colonel of the new regiment would be. Various men advertised themselves as Captains of companies in the new regiment, and offered various bounties. On July 24 there was a meeting of those authorized to recruit for the new regiment, including John VW Vandenburgh and McGregor Steele for Schaghticoke. The night before there had been a war meeting in Lansingburgh, with speeches and a performance by a glee club. Chauncy Filley of St. Louis, who was visiting in town, said he would give $100 to the first five volunteers, and Dr. I.G. Frazier would give $100 to the next five. The August 4 paper stated that there had been a war meeting in Schaghticoke “last Friday night,” which resolved “we see dangers to our unity, prosperity, and our very being as a nation,” and that the town “ought …to furnish speedily its full quota and more.”
On August 5, President Lincoln announced a draft of 300,000 men for nine months. This pushed the recruitment of the local regiment ahead, as it offered bounties to enlistees, which would not go to draftees. About half the necessary 1000 men had been recruited at that point. Another resolution in the paper called for “a vigorous war ..to be waged on a bitter and relentless foe.” This was signed by prominent men of the area, including Amos Briggs, industrialist of Schaghticoke.
The “Troy Times” announced the completion of each company of 100 men as it occurred. By August 11 the Hoosick Falls company was full, and a camp was opened on the river around Glen St. and River St- then the north end of Troy, where the men reported to be equipped and trained. By August 12,800 men had been recruited, but 347 men had filed claims for military exemptions. Most were firemen, who had important jobs at home, but others had varicose veins, liver complaints, defective vision, or amputated toes or fingers. That day, Captain Diamond’s Company from Nassau and Stephentown marched into camp to be mustered in. The paper trumpeted “Mr TD Platt of Stephentown was compelled to shut down his mill and suspend operations on his farm- his working men having all enlisted! Truly the mountaineers are ablaze with patriotism!”
On August 13 there was a war meeting at James Morrison’s hotel in Speigletown. “A large gathering of the citizens of Lansingburgh, Pittstown, and Schaghticoke is expected to take place, as it promises to be the largest gathering of its kind outside the city of Troy.” Several men from Troy, and Amos Briggs of Schaghticoke were to speak, and “a brass band from Troy will be in attendance and discourse some patriotic airs.”
A full company of 101 had been organized by August 15 in Schaghticoke and was headed for camp in Troy. That day the regiment received the designation as the 125th Also the paper reported that George Lamb Willard, who was already in the regular Army, had been released from his unit and would become the Colonel of the newly numbered regiment. Willard arrived in town on August 22. The paper began to speculate about the departure day of the regiment. . At this point the enlistees were to receive bounties from New York State and Rensselaer County, amounting to about $140, some payable upon enlistment, the rest after several months.

In 1861 George Lamb Willard had worked hard to recruit the first Civil War regiment raised in Rensselaer County, the 2nd NY, expecting to become its Colonel. His picture illustrates this column. He was in the regular Army. He had risen to the officers’ ranks following his heroism in the Mexican-American War as a youth, and was a Captain by the time the Civil War began. An Army regulation forbad currently serving officers from transferring to the new volunteer regiments, so he was not allowed to lead the 2nd. By the time the 125th was being recruited in July and August of 1862, the regulation had been changed due to the lack of qualified officers as the numbers of men in the Union Army grew and grew. So just before the 125th shipped out, Willard arrived to become its commander. The “Troy Times” newspaper reported every step of his progress from his base in the Washington, DC area to Troy.
George Willard had married a girl from Troy, Mary Gould Plum. She was the daughter of Elias Plum, wealthy leather merchant and bank president. They lived at 57 Second Street, now the home of the Rensselaer County Historical Society. The 1861 Troy City Directory lists George Willard as living there.
As men throughout the county enlisted in the 125th, and the companies reached their complement of 100 men, the newspaper named the men appointed Captains of the various companies. They were lettered A-K, and each company was focused on a town in the county. Captain John VW Vandenburgh, became the Captain of Company K of Schaghticoke. Charles A Picket became its 1st Lieutentant and McGregor Steele its 2nd Lieutenant. From my research, Captain Vandenburgh may have had experience as a New York National Guard officer before the war. I know very little about McGregor Steele, who was only in the unit until December of 1862, when he was discharged for unknown reasons.


But Charles Picket was son of an entrepreneur in Schaghticoke named Lewis Picket. In the years before the War, father and son were melodeon manufacturers, and they started a paper mill after the war. Picket had no military experience as far as I know. The newspaper recorded that Picket’s friend William P Bliss presented him with a sword, sash, and belt, and David Myers a uniform on behalf of his friends of Schaghticoke. William Bliss was the President of the Schaghticoke Powder Mill and really a friend of Picket’s father. The sword he presented him survives, owned locally. Myers was a peer of Picket’s, and probably his friends took up a collection to purchase the uniform. The newspaper does report a couple of similar presentations of swords in the regiment, but not the extensive gift that Charles received. We can only speculate about the charisma of the young man who inspired such a gift and/or the patriotism and enthusiasm of the village of Schaghticoke to make such a splendid purchase.

As August 1862 drew to a close, Companies A-K of the 125th NYS Volunteers filled up, 100 men each. Officers were appointed, Colonel Willard arrived. The “Troy Times” reported that its departure was expected any day. The men were mostly in tents in Camp Halleck, located near the Hudson River, at the junction of Glen and River Streets at what was then the north end of Troy.
We can only imagine the scene at the camp- lots of young men away from home from the first time, confusion as to when the regiment would depart, outfitting with new uniforms and weapons, visits from relatives and friends. The camp wasn’t fenced off in any way and was fully accessible to the city. In camp about August 15, a member of Captain Vandenburgh’s company “accidentally shot himself in the hand.” The ball was extracted and the wound dressed. There was also a lot of marching around. On August 21 Captain Myer’s company marched through the city proceeded by Doring’s Band, which “furnished the usual good music.” After saluting the residences of Mayor Thorn, Hon. J.A. Griswold and others, “the company partook of a fine meal at the American House, Alderman Eddy being the generous host of the occasion.” The Saturday before, Captain Esmond’s company had paraded through Lansingburgh.
A lot went into the outfitting a regiment of 1000 men to go to war. In October, the “Troy Times” gave this list: “a full requisition for a regiment calls for the following articles of clothing and equipment: 1015 great coats, 1015 trousers, 1015 blouses, 1015 bootees , 1015 caps, 1030 shirts, 4030 stockings, 2030 great coat straps, 1015 knapsacks, 1015 haversacks, 1015 canteens, 993 privates coats, 343 mess pans, 68 Sibley tents, 28 wall tents, 170 common tents, 1 hospital tent, 161 axes with handles, 161 hatchets with handles, 136 pickaxes with handles, 136 spades, 136 camp kettles, 20 bugles, 10 drums, 10 fifes, 10 camp colors, and 1 national color.” So everyone got a heavy coat, a pair of pants, what we would call a casual or fatigue coat, but they called a blouse, a shirt, a more formal uniform coat boots, a cap, two pairs of socks, a back pack to carry it all, a haversack to carry ammunition and a few small items needed in battle, and a canteen. The mess pans and kettles would be large enough for several men to cook together and the tents big enough for several to sleep together. About half of the men had to carry a digging tool or an axe. They would have to figure out their own bed and bedding.
The “Troy Times” reported the imminent departure of the 1000-man Rensselaer County Regiment for Virginia for about a week in August 1862 before the newly named-125th NYS Volunteer Regiment finally did leave. There must have been much excitement in the camp along the Hudson River as the farm boys and city boys did some marching and bid final good-byes to their families and friends. There was a final delay of a couple of days due to non-payment of the promised enlistment bounties from the county and the state- amounting to $140 in total- a huge amount at the time. But they were finally paid- and either handed over to families or pocketed. It was just a short walk from the camp east to the tracks of the Troy and Boston Railroad. The regiment entrained on 28 cars pulled by two steam locomotives and left at 8 p.m. on August 30. A large crowd assembled at the huge train depot in downtown Troy to watch the train pass through. Many had marched through the streets in a “war procession” to the station. They arrived at the depot just as the train did and “set off vollies (sic) of Roman candles which illuminated the scene. The cars passed through at a very swift pace, presenting a line of fluttering handkerchiefs and joyous faces at each and every window.”
This stirring scene was somewhat spoiled by one of those unexplained train stoppages. The train halted for an hour in south Troy, where some of the men got off to visit friends, and forty didn’t return! The train arrived in New York City at 7 a.m. Spectators waved as they passed Staten Island. After a brief rest at the Park Barracks, the men entrained again in the afternoon, now a total of 976 armed with Enfield rifles. They were fed supper by volunteers in Philadelphia, and then loaded on to freight cars to go on to Baltimore. They suffered their first real discomfort on that journey, from “the fearful jostling of springless cars.” They proceeded directly to Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), through what the newspaper’s correspondent described as “poverty stricken country,” with “rumors of rebels close by.”

If we think for a minute about the men of Company K, the Schaghticoke boys, they would have been a mixture of farm boys and mill hands, with a couple of clerks thrown in, none with any military experience. Some had been enticed to enlist by the promise of adventure, others fired by patriotism, still others thrilled with the size of the bounty- more money in hand than they had ever seen before. Perhaps others were unsure what they wanted to do with their futures, and figured, why not? They had done a bit of drilling and marching in camp in Troy, but most had arrived there in mid-August, and they were at the front lines at Harpers Ferry, Virginia by early September, probably never having fired their weapons.
Then the whole 125th Regiment met a horrible fate for men set out to fight the rebels and reunite their country: they were captured en masse when the post at Harper’s Ferry surrendered to the Confederates on September 15, without having fired a shot. The regiment was immediately paroled, as the Confederates had no way to imprison the 12,700 men in total who had surrendered. They were stationed at a parole camp, Camp Douglas, in Chicago for two months. Then they were declared exchanged and returned to Virginia. This was the largest surrender of Union soldiers during the war, but has been little written about. In part, I suppose Union historians didn’t want to examine such a major defeat. In part, a much more important battle, Antietam, with 26,000 casualties in one day, occurred just a couple of days later. Let’s look at this event which was so important to our local regiment more closely.
General Robert E. Lee had achieved several victories through the summer of 1862, and was preparing to invade the North. The Union garrison at Harpers Ferry, Virginia stood in his way. It would end up being in his rear as he advanced northward. Stonewall Jackson was sent to take the post with 26,000 men. He conceived a complicated plan of dividing his army in three parts and surrounding the armory and supply depot on three mountains around it. According to Dennis E. Frye, chief historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Jackson succeeded brilliantly in surrounding the town, and began an artillery bombardment on September 15. Colonel Dixon Miles, the Union Commander at Harpers Ferry, had orders from his superior, Major General John G. Wool, to “be energetic and active, and defend all places to the last extremity.” This is an important statement to us in Schaghticoke, as General Wool was raised here and had his home in Troy all of his life. But Miles and his advisors, facing annihilation by the Confederate artillery, surrendered the post on September 16. As Miles himself raised the white flag, he was hit by a piece of shrapnel and mortally wounded. Jackson captured 73 cannon, 200 wagons, about 13,000 rifles, and 12,700 prisoners, at the cost of 289 casualties: the biggest Confederate victory of the war.

General Stonewall Jackson led the Army that surrounded Harpers Ferry.

We are fortunate to have local views of the capture of Harpers Ferry. Joe Sticklemeyer found, edited, and published the letters of George Bryan of Company K, the Schaghticoke boys, written home to his friend Jennie Ackart. And the “Troy Daily Times” newspaper continued its comprehensive coverage.
On September 8, the newspaper reported that Constable McManus and Chief of Police Barron of Troy had gone south with twenty men they had rounded up who had deserted from the 125th as it was leaving town the preceding week. They had many adventures, but finally reached the camp in Martinsburg, named Camp Wool,“leaving their friends on the eve of battle” and bringing home 100 letters from soldiers to friends and family. The next day the paper’s correspondent reported that “the enemy are appearing from every direction…if the Confederates march up the heights, Harpers Ferry will be at their mercy. What has the Union done to meet the crisis?” The correspondent was Axiel Ellis, who had worked for the paper and enlisted in the 125th. So it appears that ordinary soldiers were aware of the danger.
Over the next few days, the paper was full of conflicting reports about events at Harpers Ferry. Often stories appearing on the first page of the paper would be contradicted on later pages, as the reporters updated events with new telegrams coming in. On September 15, the paper first stated that General Miles (actually Colonel) and all his command had been captured, “but it is only a rumor of the vaguest sort”, then that there had been no battle at Harpers Ferry. On September 16, the paper reported that the 125th had retreated from Martinsburg to Harpers Ferry, that there had been a battle at Harpers Ferry on Saturday and that Union troops had taken 6000 prisoners! And that Stonewall Jackson had been whipped in three battles. If only that had been true!
After the battle, Axiel Ellis added that during that march from Martinsburg the inexperienced and untrained 125th had “suffered exceedingly” due to their heavy knapsacks, and most men had ended up throwing away “everything except their arms.” From conversations with National Park Service Rangers, I learned that the 125th was at one end of the Union line by September 14. Their location was on a steep side hill leading down to the railroad line, which ran along the Shenandoah River. It must have been frightening for the very inexperienced men from Rensselaer County to be so exposed, but they held their ground. The 126th NY Infantry Regiment broke and ran under the barrage, but with their experienced Colonel, George Willard, the 125th held.
On September 21, the Times reported that several soldiers from the 125th had reached Troy with on-the-spot accounts. One dramatic story reported about the Regiment’s Colonel. “A round shot passed directly under Colonel Willard’s horse. He turned toward the battery from which the shot was fired, took off his hat as coolly as if on parade, and bowed to the enemy.” With an example like that, how could the men do otherwise than stay put!

map of Harpers Ferry from the website of the National Park Service


By September 17 the truth was reported, that the Union had surrendered Harpers Ferry and Colonel Miles had been killed. The September 19 issue gave a full story of the battle, adding that the white flag was “raised to prevent useless sacrifice of life,” but that the men were not happy about it, “a murmur of disapprobation ran along the whole line when it became known that we had surrendered, “though after the surrender, “soldiers on both sides set down to friendly conversation.” The reporter got to see the Confederate commander, Stonewall Jackson. He said “he was dressed in the coarsest kind of homespun, seedy and dirty at that, wore an old hat which any Northern beggar would consider an insult to offer him.” As to the Confederate troops, “the decayed appearance of the rebel soldiers…Ireland in her worst straits could present no parallel.” Also, the reporter was present when Colonel Miles died, and reported his extensive last words very dramatically.

Lt. George Bryan wrote home to his friend Jennie Ackart in Schaghticoke.


On September 25, George Bryan gave wrote his version home to his friend Jennie Ackart. “I suppose you have heard of our misfortune in being taken prisoners by the rebel Jackson’s army. You can judge yourself how I felt when I gave up my gun and equipment to the rebels. I had to march away amidst the cheers of the rebel forces.” George and the 125th were in camp on Sunday morning in Harpers Ferry when the Confederates “opened fire with six or seven batteries on us….they shelled us until dark…they shelled us three or four hours Monday morning” Then the army was surrendered. Bryan already had what became the prevailing opinion of the commander, Colonel Miles: “when the traitor Miles ran up the (white) flag….he was struck by a piece of shell and killed. He met his just reward. At one time the shot and shell flew all around our company, yet not one moved from his place…” Bryan was ready to fight and was deprived of the opportunity.
The US government investigated the facts of the surrender just a couple of months later. They pulled in all the officers involved and questioned them. Colonel Willard testified that the 125th had arrived at Harpers Ferry on September 12. . The Confederate artillery batteries on Loudon Heights- across the Shenandoah River opened fire, and many troops retreated “in considerable disorder.” By September 14, they were located as I described above. There had been rumors that the soldiers didn’t have enough ammunition to fight, giving the General in charge, General Miles, further reason to surrender. Colonel Willard testified that they did have ammunition, but had not been given the opportunity to fire a shot. But he also said, “I felt we were in very desperate circumstances,” meaning they were surrounded. It was easy to blame the defeat on Miles, as he had been killed as he raised the white flag, but by September 15, the Army probably didn’t have many options left.
The Times correspondent Ellis reported that the 125th marched 125 miles to Annapolis, Maryland after the surrender. “The regiment is at present somewhat discontented, dispirited and desirous of returning home until exchanged. The men are much opposed to being retained in camp or garrison.” Rumors swirled about what would become of them. One said that they would be sent to Chicago, another, more hopeful, that Governor Morgan of New York would make arrangements for them to go home. I’m sure that whoever was in charge felt that if the 125th were paroled to their homes, they would never return to the war.
But by the end of September 1862, the 125th was safely, if unhappily, in Camp Douglas in Chicago, Illinois. They had traveled by freight car with rations of “hard bread and partially cooked pork,” but patriotic people along the route had fed them. On the one hand, it must have been interesting for the boys from Schaghticoke to see a part of the country certainly none of them had ever seen before. On the other hand, they were captives in a not-very-sanitary camp. Ellis reported that Camp Douglas, on the shores of Lake Michigan, had comfortable tents, but on October 16, George Bryan wrote to Jennie, “The health of our company is poor. There is about twenty on the sick list.”- out of 100 in the company. George was not feeling well himself, but was still ready to fight, “I should like to meet a rebel hand to hand.” Ellis concurred that the men didn’t want a discharge, were “ready to take up arms, but feel they should have a short furlough.”

This is a photo of the camp of the 2nd Vermont, from the website of the National Archives- the camp of the 125th was undoubtedly quite similar


George described some of the living conditions of the company. The breakfast food was roast corn. Just before the fight at Harpers Ferry, he stated, “I have eaten enough roast corn since I have been out here to fat a hog. You know I used to tell you that hogs eat corn. I think as far as eating is concerned I have degenerated to a hog. I have made many a meal of hard crackers and raw bacon and pork, yet I am well and hearty and like to have a good time as well as I ever did.”
In Camp Douglas on October 16, he reported, “I have no place to sleep but on the ground.” It must have been getting chilly in Chicago in October. Bryan signed that letter as orderly sergeant, so he had already been promoted from his mustering in as a private. By November 2, 33 of the 100 men of Company K were sick, his and Jennie’s friend, Chauncey Crandall was in the hospital, and Ezra Burch had typhoid fever. He died a few days later. He was just the first to die. George wrote, “there is someone to blame from the many diseases of this camp…it is a sickly place around Chicago.” I’m sure that there was no intent to lose men to sickness and death due to bad conditions. Partly the system must have been overwhelmed by the sudden arrival of almost 13,000 men, and partly the sanitation of the time was just not what we have today.
Morale was poor. Axiel Ellis reported that “a spirit bordering on mutiny has been manifested. George added that men were deserting as well. The company was down to 85. At least two of their officers were allowed furloughs. Captain Vandenburgh accompanied the body of Ezra Burch at least as far as Troy, and Lieutenant Steele had a twenty day furlough due to his ill health. Ordinary soldiers did not receive furloughs, however. How could there not be great frustration to just be sitting around- if they couldn’t go fight, why couldn’t they go home?!
In my research into Company K of the 125th, I have found nine men who deserted in October in Chicago: Emery Beauchamp, Thomas Brand, Levi Buffett, Martin Roddy, James Scott, Joseph Slocum, and William Wolf deserted for good. William Martin returned to duty in May, 1863, presumably having spent the winter and spring at home, just in time to be wounded at Gettysburg in July. George Wolf also returned. In general, there just wasn’t sufficient manpower to search for men who went AWOL. And those who returned to duty were allowed to do so, perhaps with loss of pay as a penalty. I also found that musician Francis Hagadorn was discharged for disability in Chicago in March, 1863, long after the 125th had gone back to Virginia. He must have been in the hospital all that time. Josiah Slocum, an old soldier at 44, was also discharged for disability in Chicago, and David Johnson died in December in Chicago.
On the bright side, George told Jennie he was “glad to hear that you have formed an aid society for the benefit of the soldiers.” Only a month or so after the 125th had shipped out, the folks at home were thinking of their welfare. On September 13th “Troy Times” printed a long, long list of items put together by the ladies of Hoosick to the Sanitary Commission, the organization formed to help supply the troops. The list ranged from $150 in cash to quarts of currant jelly, jars of pickles, clothing and fabric for hospital use, pillows, canned tomatoes and onions, woolen socks, bottles of wine, gallons of vinegar, dried fruit, and pairs of pants, stockings, and slippers.
By the time George wrote to Jennie again, it was December 8th, 1862, and the address was “camp near Bullrun, Virginia.” The 125th had left Chicago by train on November 22, and “three days and four nights later” they were at Washington, DC. The 1000 man regiment was down to 675 men and 55 sick soldiers. Some soldiers were too sick to travel, including the “Troy Times” correspondent, Axiel Ellis, who died November 27 in Chicago, leaving a widow and two children.
The regiment received supplies and tents, and then was moved around several times in the vicinity of Centerville, Virginia. Each time George told Jennie about the winterization of their camp, they would have to move again, “but such is the life of a soldier.” George finally received a box that Jennie had sent him on January 2, 1863. “My box had been opened and some of the things taken out. All that was left was the stockings and mittens and some apples and crackers and paper and envelopes…I was sorry when I read your letters and found that most of the things had been lost. Yet I am thankful for them. It is very pleasant to me to know that I have friends at home.” If that was what was left in the box, it must have been incredibly stuffed.
The rations had improved since Chicago. “We have fresh beef once in five days and bread twice in five days; so we fare very well now.” For one supper, George described, “there is three of us in my tent…Fried some bread and meat together, it was kind of hash. We had bread and coffee to eat with it.” The men had to group together and cook for themselves- there was no Army mess as there is now.
For heat in that winter, he said, “We get a pan of coals in our tents and we get seated around it. And can have merry times.” George was keeping busy studying for promotion. They were all waiting for spring and the campaign season to begin.
In February, George described the land around the camp to Jennie. “We are camped on the top of a hill…We are in sight of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Manassas plains. There is earthworks all around our camp…” He states that 150,000 Rebels had camped in the area the winter before. George also answered questions she had asked in previous letters. What were the prospects of a battle? “we may be attacked before morning and we may stay here a year and not see any Rebels.” How would he feel about going into battle? “I enlisted to fight and do not mean to go home..until I have seen some more fight.”
In March, George reported he had been promoted to lieutenant and assigned to Company D, away from his friends in Company K. “At first I was quite lonesome, but now I am at home; I like the company.” There were raids by the Confederate cavalry quite frequently, and George spent many nights on picket duty. “I would much rather risk my life in battle than to be out so often all night in rainy weather…one is a slow death, the other honor or quick death.” Jennie must have asked if he was a Christian, as George replied, “I am far from being a Christian. I am sorry to have to say..” The lousy weather and strain of being on picket duty one night out of three were really wearing him down. He was eager to get going and participate in a decisive battle.
In May 1863 the regiment finally moved, but only about five miles. George went to Washington, D.C. for a day, and came back to find the regiment “encamped in a pine grove. It was the pleasantest place I have seen since I have been in the army. ….the first night I stayed there it was as pleasant a time as I have enjoyed in a long time. From retreat until tattoo the officers all met together around a large campfire. I passed about two hours in telling stories and singing. I wish you could have been where you could have seen us.”
That “pleasant” letter contrasts strongly with a slightly later one in May, where George describes having “seen men that have died in almost all ways, have seen one that was murdered by a soldier, and those that have died of disease in hospitals, and those that have been killed by accident, and some that were killed in battle.” “I used to dread the sight of a corpse, but now it is no new sight.” “Yet one thing we always try and do to those that die in our camp, that is to give them a military burial.”
On June 19, George wrote, “I have just had some lemonade and figs and now have lit my cigar, so you can see that I do not suffer any.” But excitement was building, “we expect a fight here every day.” More and more troops were arriving at camp. “It is so noisy and much exerting here that I cannot have much time to write.”
Those who are familiar with the history of the Civil War will know what fight was coming……but I will deal with it this July.

Bibliography
Frye, Dennis, E. website of the Harpers Ferry National Park:
http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/harpersferry/harpers-ferry-history-articles/harpersferrytriumphfrye.html
Stickelmyer, Joseph, ed., “Friend Jennie,” 2009.
“Times Record” newspaper- various editions through July-September, 1862, on microfilm
Website of the Division of Military and Naval Affairs: http://dmna.ny.gov/historic/reghist/civil/infantry/125thInf/125thInfMain.htm