I will begin a series of bios of men with a connection to Schaghticoke who served in the Civil War with the first Captain of the company primarily raised in Schaghticoke, Company K, and continue with the heroic Colonel of the 125th NY Volunteer Infantry Regiment, George Lamb Willard.
John VanWort Vandenburgh
John V.W. Vandenburgh was the original Captain of Company K of the 125th. According to the “Regimental History of the 125th”, he was born in Schuylerville in 1833 and received a good education. After working as a carpenter and a master builder he went into the hardware business. And there is a John V.W. Vandenburgh in the U.S. Census for the village of Schaghticoke in 1860- a 26- year- old hardware merchant with a wife, Lizzie.
While working in the hardware business, John set off on a military career as well. In 1856 he formed a N.Y.S. Militia unit called “the Black Plumed Rifles” and moved on to the “Ellsworth Zouaves” in 1858. The Regimental History calls him “the best drilled officer in the N.Y.S. Militia.” He was a friend of George Willard, Colonel of the 125th. The records of the N.Y.S. National Guard reflect this experience. John V.W. Vandenburgh was a Captain in the 29th Regiment in 1858, 1862, and 1863- and then a Major in the 106th and 107th Regiment in 1865 and 1867, after the war. Company K certainly started the war with an experienced leader, albeit not in combat.
John V. W. Vandenburgh’s NYS Muster card
George Bryan of Schaghticoke and Company K refers to Captain Vandenburgh in several of his letters home to Jennie Ackart. On September 25, 1862, he wrote, “At one time the shot and shell flew all around our company, yet not one moved from his place until ordered to by our captain. I sat next to the Captain smoking a cigar; none need doubt the courage of Captain Vandenburg.” He also refers to him as having accompanied the body of Ezra Burch home- Ezra died of typhoid fever while the company was paroled in Chicago in the winter of 1862, after having been captured at Harper’s Ferry. But Bryan was upset that Vandenburg only brought the body as far as Troy.
In January of 1863, Bryan stated that “he would make a good Field Officer.” But by March his opinion had changed. Bryan had been reassigned to Company D, and he stated “I have a good captain. He is far ahead of Captain Vandenburgh as concerning his morals.” By May, he stated that Vandenburgh had “been dismissed from the service of the US for altering a pass, but a slight offence to be dismissed from the service. He thinks he will be reinstated again. Time will tell.” In one part of Vandenburgh’s service records, it states he was dismissed on April 22, 1863 for disability, in another that it was for being absent without leave and altering a pass.
The Regimental History adds that John had received a 30-day sick leave in December 1862, extended by 40 days by a furlough. Some paper work was apparently lost, ending in John first being accused of being AWOL, then of falsifying a pass. After an appeal to President Lincoln, he was recommissioned on May 31, 1864, though he didn’t get reassigned to a regiment.
This letter was attached to Captain Vandenburgh’s record card.
An article in the “Troy Times” on June 13, 1865, reported that Captain Vandenburgh of the 125th had been promoted to Major.
After the war, John remained in Washington, D.C., where he worked for the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands until 1868. Better known simply as “the Freedmen’s Bureau,” this organization attempted to ease the transition of southern slaves to freedom by helping them find work and by providing education. Its mission was weakened by lack of funding by the time John left in 1868. He then became a contractor in Washington, D.C., and acted as an aide to Henry D. Cook while he was Governor of the District of Columbia.
A tantalizing article in the “Saratoga Sentinel” on May 5, 1881 in the Stillwater column reports on Major John V.W. Vandenburgh, “a native of this town,” who “arrived here a few days ago from the wilds of Colorado.” It states that before the war, he was the captain of a “suave” (Zouave) company, and that he led his company to the front when the war began. “He survived the war”- quite an obvious statement, I should have thought- but perhaps the most that could be said about his service, given his problems, and “has been successful in many of his speculations, including some heavy jobs in Washington.” He was visiting George H. Lansing in Stillwater. What does “heavy jobs” mean? His obituary states he was “engaged in mining and contracting in the West,” returning home when his health failed. (The Evening Star, August 27, 1892)
I have been unable to find John in any census after the war except the 1890 Veterans Schedule, when he merely stated that he had served in 1862. He did stay in touch with the 125th Veterans Association, which gave his address as Brooklyn. He died in at Carroll Springs Sanitarium in Forest Glen, Maryland on August 12, 1892. 1892, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. John’s widow, Elizabeth M. applied for a widow’s pension on April 27, 1899 in Washington, D.C..
Tombstone of John VW Vandenburgh at Arlington National Cemetery
George Lamb Willard
George Willard was the first Colonel of the 125th Regiment. According to the Willard Genealogy, he was born in New York City in 1827, the son of John Moses and Susan Lamb Willard. John Willard was born in Saratoga in 1794. He began a career as a merchant there, then moved to New York. He died in 1834, leaving many young children. George enlisted in the U.S. Army and fought in the Mexican War. He was cited for gallantry at Chapultepec and promoted to Lieutenant. An 1847 enlistment book of the U.S. Army records he was 19- years- old, with hazel eyes, brown hair, a clerk who was 5’7” tall. The 1850 US Census listed Willard as a Lieutenant, aged 22, in a garrison in Milam, Texas.
George Lamb Willard
In 1854 George married Mary Gould Plum, the daughter of banker and businessman Elias Plum from Troy, NY. I don’t know how he met her, perhaps through General John Wool, prominent citizen of Troy and another hero of the Mexican War. The 1861 Troy City Directory shows George as a boarder in the Plum home, 57 2nd Street, now Historic Rensselaer County. By the time the Civil War began, George was a Major in the 19th U.S. Infantry. When what became the 2nd NY Infantry Regiment began recruiting at the start of the war, the organizers tried to get Willard as its Colonel. At that point, the Regular Army refused to release him.
By the time the 125th began recruiting in July of 1862, the Army had realized that these volunteer regiments needed qualified Colonels, and they did release Willard. The Troy “Times” was full of stories about Willard’s imminent arrival to become Colonel all during July and August. He got there just in time to take charge as the regiment left on September 1 for Virginia.
New York State Muster Card for George Willard
Of course George was in charge of the 125th when the whole garrison at Harpers Ferry was surrendered to Stonewall Jackson a couple of weeks later. He testified at a government investigation shortly afterwards that his men hadn’t even gotten to fire their weapons. A few sources say that the 125th ran from the Confederates. That was not the case, though the men later felt they had to overcome the shame of having to surrender without firing a shot.
At the battle of Gettysburg, George was put in charge of a brigade. He was shot and killed on the evening of July 2, 1863. A marker put up years later by his men marks the spot. A small fort built during the war in Fairfax County, Virginia was named for him.
Marker to Colonel Willard on the battlefield at Gettysburg
George’s body was returned home to Troy for burial. His body lay in state at his wife’s home, and a funeral procession accompanied his body to Oakwood Cemetery, where he was interred on July 9.
Mary Willard remained in her father’s house the rest of her life. She applied for a widow’s pension in 1864, but certainly didn’t need it. The 1870 US Census recorded her father as a leather dealer with real estate worth $90,000, and a personal estate of $400,000. She never remarried and died in 1888, aged 50.
Tombstone of George and Mary Willard at Oakwood Cemetery, Troy