Soldiers’ Stories: Sergeants Durgin and Wray

For William Durgin of Maine, April 20, 1865 was a typical day. He was garrisoned at the Camp Frye Barracks in Washington, D.C., assigned with the 10th Veterans Reserve Corps. His typical duties with the regiment consisted of nothing more than garrison duty after suffering from rheumatism in his arms and being struck in the ankle with a cannonball during the amphibious landing at Fernadina, Florida in 1862. Yet, when he received his orders for that day, they looked far different from his daily duties. The order read as follows:

Special Order No. 88

Pursuant to orders from Headquarters, 1st Brigade Veteran Reserve Corps requiring four First Sergeants should be selected with reference to their age, length of service and good soldierly conduct for escort duty to the remains of President Lincoln to Springfield, Illinois.

1st Sergeant William W. Durgin of Company F 10th Regiment V.R.C. is hereby detailed for that duty and will report to Capt. McCamly 9th Regiment Vet. Res. Corps at Camp Frye at 9:00 o’clock A.M. this day.
By command of

Major George Bowers Commanding Regiment

Collage of newspaper from early 1900s, image of young Durgin and one of old Durgin
Sgt. William Durgin was proud of his role as one of Lincoln’s Pallbearers, and was the last one living by the early 1900s. Credit:

From his clerical duties at Camp Frye Barracks, Durgin’s place in history rose greatly as he became one of Lincoln’s pallbearers, traveling across the nation with the casket. His war-record carries on his roll call for April 1865 “Absent – on escort duty with remains of President Lincoln.”

Drawing of Lincoln's funeral with casket carried by Invalid Corps pallbearers, soldiers, horses
Harper’s Weekly drawing of Lincoln’s funeral procession in New York, May 13, 1865. Credit: Library of Congress

While Durgin seems to be a typical soldier offered the honor as a token of great luck, in many ways the assignment was and did boost the prestige of one of the most neglected regiments in the U.S. Army: the Veterans Reserve Corps (VRC).

Created in 1863, the VRC started as the Invalids Corps, and began as a project to give disabled veterans like Durgin a second chance at active service. Yet their corps did not go unscathed. Other soldiers derided the corps as a group of cowards and rejects; the initials of the Invalids Corps matched a stamp of the Quartermaster’s Department that stood for “Inspected – Condemned.” Soon after, to boost the morale of recruits and entice more volunteers, it was renamed “Veterans Reserve Corps.” The disabled veterans that re-enlisted were assigned various rear-echelon duties, ranging from guard duty to censoring mail.

To honor one of the corps members as a pallbearer presented in a greater sense a place for disabled soldiers in American military history alongside regular soldiers in memorializing the Civil War, and recognizes the potential of disabled veterans, or civilians, as capable individuals that can still contribute despite their sacrifice.

Image of Fort Stevens with soldiers and carts around
Fort Stevens. Credit: Library of Congress

Enlistment in the corps did not always entail monotonous, clerical duties. For Sergeant William Wray, fate would lead to a reprisal of his combat duties. After losing his right eye and parts of his nose at Fredericksburg, Wray joined the 1st Veterans Reserve Corps. While stationed at Fort Stevens, he miraculously found himself at the center of a surprise attack by a corps of 10,000 men led by Jubal Early. In the midst of battle, while a number of his VRC comrades were confused and scattered, Wray rallied his men to the defenses during a critical attack, and helped prevent the fort from falling. Although his actions did not go recognized until much later, with some speculation regarding the fact that he was a member of the undesirable VRC, Wray was eventually awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions.

After the Civil War, programs for injured soldiers and disabled veterans returned around World War I, when the massive amounts of casualties and disabling injuries permitted for the resurrection of the Veterans Reserve Corps. In the age of modern warfare, disabled veterans have been able to carve a niche for themselves with the Continuation on Active Duty program, allowing wounded soldiers to serve their country within the limits of their abilities. Thus, heroes like Sergeants Durgin and Wray show what makes a soldier a great leader and a hero is not how well or straight a soldier stands, but what a soldier stands for in fighting for their country.

Jon van Harmelen

Jonathan van Harmelen is currently studying American History at Pomona College, and has conducted research with Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. He also works at Pomona College as manager for the Orchestra and as assistant to the History Department. He enjoys collecting military antiques, playing drums, and attempting to learn French, German, and Dutch all at once.

Please don’t forget we are in the middle of our Kickstarter to raise funds to tell the story of the Invalid Corps; of soldiers with disabilities who continued to serve:

Posted on: September 29, 2015