George Willard, thirty-five, was a New Yorker, a descendant of generals in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. His family had wanted young George to pursue a less dangerous profession, and sent him to Ohio at a young age to "become a practical business man." But when the Mexican War came, he enlisted in the 15th Infantry at the age of eighteen and became a first sergeant. He received an officer's commission in the Regular Army in 1848. He did remarkably well for an officer without a West Point education, rising to the rank of captain by the time of the Civil War.
When Lincoln first called for two-year volunteers in 1861, Captain Willard responded by raising an entire regiment, the 2nd New York, fully expecting to be named its colonel. At the time, however, regulations prohibited Regular Army officers from commanding volunteer troops while retaining their old commissions. Unwilling to part with his captaincy in the U.S. Army, Willard gave up his chance to have his own volunteer regiment. Staying with the Regulars, he was promoted to major, and fought with the 19th United States in the Peninsula Campaign in the spring and early summer of 1862, several times commanding his regiment. In August 1862, as the volunteer ranks swelled and qualified officers were more and more desperately neeeded, the earlier regulation was relaxed, and Willard was allowed to keep his Regular Army rank while he joined the volunteer army as colonel of the new 125th New York Volunteers. The regimental historian waxed rhapsodic on the new colonel, commenting on his "striking personal appearance" and "rare soldierly accomplishments."
The regiment entrained for the War, and learned they were being routed to West Virginia. One month later, in September 1862, Willard and his regiment were captured at Harper's Ferry through the folly of Colonel Dixon S. Miles, the officer commanding the garrison, a major Union debacle during the Maryland Campaign. Willard's career was stalled. For seven months, from the fall of 1862 to the spring of 1863, he marked time the best way he could, drilling his paroled, demoralized brigade in a Chicago camp. Exchanged and thus allowed to rejoin the Union army in November 1862, they were transferred to the defenses of Washington and brigaded with other New York regiments, all bitter veterans of the Harper's Ferry humiliation. They remained in the "outer defenses" of Washington, near Bull Run, until June. Then, less than a week before the battle of Gettysburg, the brigade was attached to the Third Division, Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac as reinforcements, without even time to fasten the blue trefoil badges of the division on their caps before the fighting started. Willard, as senior colonel, took command of the brigade on the march north toward Pennsylvania, when its previous commander, Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays, was put at the head of the division.
As Willard's men swung into the moving column, the hardfighting veterans of the Second Corps immediately disparaged Willard's men as the "Harper's Ferry Brigade," calling them "band-box soldiers."
Thus, as they marched toward Gettysburg, Willard and his New Yorkers were itching to erase the stain of their earlier surrender. Willard himself, though only in command by virtue of his date of commission and completely inexperienced as a brigade commander, was the right man to lead the Harper's Ferry men into battle. He shared their feeling, he had the expertise of a career soldier, and in the summer of 1863 seemed to be an officer of promise.
| A few minutes before dark on the evening of July 2, Willard's first day
on the field, Second Corps commander Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock led him and
his brigade from their position near Cemetery Hill towards the confused
fighting to the south. There, at that moment, Barksdale's Mississippians were
surging forward through a huge hole in the Union line. Hancock appeared with
Willard and ordered him to attack Barksdale and blunt the charge.|
The "Harper's Ferry Brigade" recognized this as their chance to erase the shame of their infamous surrender. Willard formed his lines carefully in a terrific hail of missiles and ordered the men to fix bayonets. Then someone shouted "Remember Harper's Ferry!" and hundreds of other voices took up the cry. Willard yelled "Forward!" and the brigade hurled itself at the advancing Mississipians. When they hit the Rebel line, in the low ground along Plum Run, it was the Southerners who broke, and Barksdale went down, hit with several wounds. Willard's men pursued, recapturing Yankee guns as they went. Thus redeemed and at the height of his glory, riding at the head of his brigade, George Willard was hit by a shell fragment that tore away his face and part of his head, killing him instantly.
For further reading:
Campbell, Eric. "'Remember Harper's Ferry': The Degradation, Humiliation, and Redemption of George L. Willard's Brigade." Gettysburg Magazine 7&8, Jul 1992 & Jan 1993