I was partly inspired to begin writing about our local men in the Civil War because Joe Sticklemyer published the letters that George Bryan wrote home to his friend Jennie Ackart describing his experiences as a soldier in the Rensselaer County Regiment, the 125th. George made me think about the impact of the experiences of being a soldier on the Schaghticoke boys who enlisted. Most of them had never been away from home, much less faced death across a battlefield. As I wrote of the battles of the 125th from September 1862 to June 1864, using George’s letters as a vivid source, I was well aware that the end was coming. I feel I got to know him so well that I genuinely mourn him. He enlisted as an aimless young man who found he had a true talent as a leader of men, and knew he couldn’t go back home and resume small town life. Of course we don’t know what could have been, as he was killed on June 16, 1864 at the start of the siege of Petersburg.
George A. Bryan enlisted in August 1862 as a private in Company K at age 23, listing his occupation as farmer. He had black eyes and hair and was 5’8” tall. He was the child of Benjamin and Ellen Bryan. George was born in 1840 in Stillwater and had two older brothers and a younger sister. Father Benjamin was a farmer, who owned his father’s farm in shares with two sisters. Through the years, Benjamin farmed on his own and with other members of his family, but his sisters seem to have been more successful than he. For example, in the 1870 census, his sister Lydia had real estate of $21,000. Benjamin and family lived in the house with her, but he listed no real estate and a personal estate of less than $2000. Their farm was on Verbeck Avenue.
Interestingly, though many children worked on their fathers’ farms, in the 1855 census, George was a teenage clerk living in the family of the Percys, who were merchants, and in the 1860 census he was a farm laborer on the farm of David Ackart. His older brothers John and Leonard had moved to Iowa and Kansas respectively. Perhaps the whole complicated family situation with their aunts in charge made the boys realize that they should strike out on their own, not counting on inheriting any land in Schaghticoke. Or perhaps the family needed the income that George got from working out, rather than on the family farm.
Lt. George Bryan
His superiors must have recognized George as a good soldier from the start. He was promoted to Sergeant by October of 1862, while the 125th was in internment camp in Chicago. Over that winter back in camp in Virginia, he wrote that he was studying to be an officer. He was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant on December 11, 1862, having to move to Company D, and to 1st Lieutenant in Company F on November 18, 1863. Though George suffered a couple of sicknesses during his service, went through horrible battles, and certainly lived in primitive conditions, he wrote to Jennie late in 1863, “I would not leave the army. I like it too well. I have done working on a farm. I will not deny that I love the society of my friends and the comforts of home, but I have got used to it now.”
In his last letter, in May 1864, George wrote to Jennie, “I cannot help but think how long it will be before I am either killed or wounded. But if either you know that it will not be running away from the enemy, and you know it is glorious to die in such a cause.” It seems amazing to me that after all he had seen and been through that Bryan maintained that attitude.
Before the Union and Confederate Armies settled in for a nine month siege at Petersburg, there were several Union attempts to take the city. On June 16, the 125th attacked and suffered many casualties. The regimental history describes how “the brave Lt. George A. Bryan” was shot, “A group of officers were standing in a ravine after the first rush of the charge was over,…when Lt. Bryan fell, (shot by a Confederate sniper). He lingered about a half hour in agony and then passed from earth.” The history records extensive biographies for most of the other officers of the regiment, but Bryan had worked his way through the ranks, and was not from Troy, so perhaps the author, Chaplain Ezra Simon, just did not know him as well as many others, and said nothing else about him.
George’s body was returned home for burial in Hudsonview Cemetery in Mechanicville. Thanks to Knickerbocker historian Jon Stevens, I learned that George’s mother, Ellen, had a twin sister who married a Cromwell. They were the daughters of Rebecca Knickerbocker Bradshaw. The sister also had a son, Edward A. Cromwell, who was killed in the Civil War, at the second battle of Manassas. George and his parents are buried in the Bradshaw family plot at Hudsonview. Jon said the cemetery began as a Bradshaw family cemetery.
tombstone of George Bryan
George’s parents Benjamin and Ellen moved to Iowa by 1880, settling near another of their sons, John, a farmer. In 1882, in an application for a pension based on George’s service, Benjamin stated that before he enlisted, his son had given them all his pay, except for a small amount for his clothes, and that he had sent home all his military pay as well. Ellen had been bedridden for several years, and had needed expensive treatments at Saratoga. Now that Benjamin was retired, he needed the support his deceased son would have provided. Indeed, they had moved in with John by 1885. Benjamin died in 1887. As for Jennie, or Clarissa Jane Ackart, the recipient of George’s letters, she never married and was a school teacher for many years. In the 1900 census she lived alone. She died at age 69 in 1903 and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery.
Were Jennie and George really more than friends? Would they have become so after the war? What would George have become if he survived the war? George’s story was repeated so many times during the Civil War: young and promising men dying in battle. Of those who survived the war, I have found that some seemed to go on as before, while others were irrevocably changed for the better or worse by their experiences. I can’t help but see the similarities in both the Vietnam vets and our new Iraq and Afghanistan vets, though the Civil War group was much, much larger.