Summary

Conflict Period:
Civil War (Union) 1
Birth:
11 Feb 1847 1
Antwerp NY 1
Death:
02 Aug 1956 1
Duluth MN 1
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Personal Details

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Full Name:
Albert Woolson 1
Birth:
11 Feb 1847 1
Antwerp NY 1
Death:
02 Aug 1956 1
Duluth MN 1

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Albert Woolson: The Last Civil War Veteran

Albert Woolson was a former Union drummer boy and the last surviving Civil War veteran. Born in Antwerp, Minnesota on February 11 in 1847, he died at the age of 109 on August 2 in 1956 in Duluth, Minnesota.

Although other men, such as Walter Williams, John Salling and William Lundy, died after Woolson and also claimed to be Civil War soldiers, no evidence could be found to verify their claims. Lying about serving in the Civil War in order to get a Civil War pension was a common practice, especially during hard times like the Great Depression. Many actual veterans also lied about their age as well when enlisting in order to gain entry into the military, making the matter even more confusing.

Albert Woolson

Woolson’s father, Willard Woolson, also fought in the Civil War but died from wounds received in the battle of Shiloh. After his father died, Albert Woolson enlisted as a rifleman on October 10, 1864 but served as a drummer boy for Company C in the 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment. The company never saw combat and Woolson was honorably discharged in September of 1865.

After the war, Woolson returned to civilian life in Minnesota where he worked as a carpenter. He married Jane Sloper in 1868 and remained married until her death in 1901. Woolson remarried a few years later to a woman named Anna Haugen. Haugen died in 1949. The two marriages produced a total of six daughters and two sons.

In the late 1800s, Woolson joined the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization made up of Civil War veterans. According to the book “Minnesota in the Civil War”, Woolson was one of only six Civil War veterans to attend the group’s last encampment in Indianapolis in 1949. Woolson also served as the organization’s senior vice commander in chief in 1953. Since he was the last surviving Civil War soldier, the organization was dissolved after his death.

Late in his life, Woolson was interviewed by a number of news organizations. During one interview, Woolson spoke about his experience firing a practice round of a cannon during the war: “One day the colonel handed me the end of a long rope. He said, ‘When I yell, you stand on your toes, open your mouth, and pull.’ First time the cannon went off, I was scared to death.” Woolson also explained his personal feelings about the war, stating: “We were fighting our brothers. In that there was no glory.”

Woolson also said that he voted for Abraham Lincoln in 1864, when he was 17 years old, under a special law that allowed soldiers to vote. During an interview with Bob Wombacker, Carl Wombacker and Jim Bernard in August of 1954, he described his childhood experiences meeting Lincoln and watching John Wilkes Booth perform at Ford’s Theater:

“One day father and I went to the capitol building at Albany, N.Y. There was a meeting there and one man was tall, had large bony hands. It was old Uncle Abe, and he talked about human slavery….Antwerp, New York. When I was nine years old, I went in with my father to Ford’s Theater. Two brothers, actors on the stage, the youngest one is the one that shot Lincoln, later on. We were that evening at the theater, the first time I was in there. About a week later, one evening, the President of the United States and his wife were sitting in the audience, and he walked up and shot him right through the back of the head. He lived about three, four hours…Poor old Abe.”

On his 107 birthday, Woolson gave an interview with Life magazine in which he discussed what it was like being the last Civil War veteran:

“It seems sad, all those friends gone. It’s hard to realize, of all those two and a half million men I am the only one left…But don’t you count me out yet, I’m going to be around for three of four of these birthdays.”

When Woolson died two years later, of a recurring lung condition, he was buried with full military honors at the Park Hill cemetery in Duluth. On the day of his death, the New York Times published an obituary about Woolson with a statement from President Eisenhower:

“In Washington, President Eisenhower said today the death of Mr. Woolson ‘brings sorrow to the hearts’ of Americans. The President said: ‘The American people have lost the last personal link with the Union Army. His passing brings sorrow to the hearts of all of us who cherished the memory of the brave men on both sides of the War Between the States.’”

Life magazine later ran a seven page article highlighting the significance of his death:

“The Civil War, the greatest single experience we ever had, was both an end and a beginning. But when the final handful of dust drifted down on Albert Woolson’s casket, and the last note of the bugle hung against the sky, the door swung shut. It cannot be reopened.”

 

Albert Woolson (arrowed) in Company C of the 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment

Albert Woolson’s funeral in 1956

excerpt from Last of the Blue and Grey

Albert Woolson loved the parades. For Memorial Day in Duluth, Minnesota, he rode in the biggest car down the widest streets of his hometown. The city etched his name in the Duluth Honor Roll, and he was celebrated at conventions and banquets across the North. Even the president wrote him letters on his birthday. Because everyone said he was the last surviving member of the Grand Army of

the Republic, a fraternal organization of Union veterans once nearly half a million strong, they erected a life-size statue of him on the most hallowed ground of that entire horrible conflict—Gettysburg.

Though deaf and often ill, he was still spry enough that, even at 109 years of age, he could be polite and mannerly, always a gentleman. He was especially fond of children and enjoyed visiting schools and exciting the boys with stories of cannon and steel and unbelievable courage on the fields around Chattanooga. The boys called him “Grandpa Al.”

But Woolson could be fussy. His breakfast eggs had to be scrambled and his bacon crisp. He continued to smoke; he had probably lit up more than a thousand cigars just since he had hit the century mark. And no one kept him from his half-ounce of brandy before dinner.

Albert Woolson, the last in blue in the twilight of his old age, still could hit the drums like a boy sounding the march to war. (Courtesy of Whitman College and Northwest Archives, Walla Walla, Washington)

His grandfather had served in the War of 1812, and when guns were fired on Fort Sumter in 1861, his father went off to fight for Lincoln. He lost a leg and died. So, as the story goes, young Albert, blue-eyed and blonde-haired, a mere five and a half feet tall, took his father’s place. With just a year left in the war, he enlisted as a drummer boy with the 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment, rolling his snare as they marched south to Tennessee.

But that had been long ago, more than 90 years past. Now Albert Woolson’s days were fading, the muffled drum of his youth a softening memory. At St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth, his health deteriorating, he would sometimes feel his old self, quoting Civil War verse or the Gettysburg Address. But then on a Saturday in late July, 1956, he slipped into a coma. Just before he drifted off, he asked a nurse’s aide for a dish of lemon sherbet. She gave him some soft candy too. As she shut the door she glanced back at her patient. “I thought he was looking very old,” she recalled. For a week he lay quietly in his hospital bed, awaiting death.

Down in Houston, old Walter Washington Williams had sent Woolson a telegram congratulating him on turning 109. “Happy birthday greetings from Colonel Walter Williams,” the wire said.

Williams was blind, nearly deaf, rail-thin, and confined to a bed in his daughter’s house. He had served as a Confederate forage master for Hood’s Brigade, they said, and now he was bound and determined to be the last on either side still alive when America’s great Civil War Centennial commemoration began in 1961. “I’m going to wait around until the others are gone,” he said, “to see what happens.”

Williams had ridden in a parade too. He was named in presidential proclamations and tributes in the press. Life magazine devoted a three-page spread to the old Rebel, including a photograph of Williams propped up on his pillows, a large Stars and Bars flag hanging on the wall. An American Legion band serenaded at his window, and he tapped his long, spindly fingers in time with “Old Soldiers Never Die.” But Williams was a Southern boy deep in his bones. He would have preferred “Cotton-Eyed Joe” on the radio:

O Lawd, O Lawd,

Come pity my case.

For I’m gettin’ old

An’ wrinkled in de face.

Like Woolson, Williams could be cantankerous. On his last birthday, when he said he was 117, they served him his favorite barbecued pork, though his daughter and a nurse had to feed him. His bed was piled high with cards and telegrams, but he could not read them. He could hardly pick them up. “I’m tired of staying here,” he complained in his son’s ear. The son smiled and told visitors how they had hunted deer together when his father was 101. “He rode a horse until he was 103,” the son said.

Williams’ last public outing was in an Armed Forces Day parade in Houston in May 1959, when he rode in an air-conditioned ambulance. As he passed the reviewing stand, he struggled to raise his arm in salute. Then they took him home and put him back to bed.

Four times he suffered bouts of pneumonia; twice they hung an oxygen tent over his bed. His doctor was doubtful, and his daughter feared the worst. “There’s too many years; too many miles,” she said.

And so the clock ticked down, not just on Albert Woolson and Walter Williams, but for a whole generation, an entire era, the closing of a searing chapter in American history: four years of brutal civil war. Like the old soldiers, memories of the North and South and how they had splintered and then remade America were slowly dying out too. Starting in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, Civil War soldiers began passing away in rapid numbers, nearly three a day. The glorious reunions of proud veterans at Gettysburg and the cities of the South were coming to an end; there were too few healthy enough to attend. The Grand Army of the Republic closed its last local chapter. The Rebel yell fell silent. The campfires went dark. Echoing down the years were Gen. Robert E. Lee’s last words: “Strike the tent.”

By the start of the 1950s, about 65 of the blue and gray veterans were left; by 1955, just a half dozen. As their numbers dwindled they became artifacts of a shuttered era, curiosities of an ancient time, sepia-toned figures still inhabiting a modern world from their rocking chairs and oxygen tents. They had gone to war with rifles and sabers and in horse-mounted patrols. They had lived off hardtack and beans. Now they seemed lost in a new American century that had endured two devastating world wars fought with armored tank divisions, deadly mustard gas, and atomic bombs that fell from the sky.

Bruce Catton, long a chronicler of the Civil War, could recall his boyhood in the “pre-automobile age” of rural Michigan and how a group of old Union veterans in white whiskers and blue greatcoats had delighted his young eyes. He remembered one selling summer berries from a pail he hooked over the stub of his forearm, an arm he had lost in the Battle of the Wilderness. A church deacon had fought with the 2nd Ohio Cavalry in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, burning barns and killing livestock. Another had returned to Gettysburg for the 50th anniversary there, and when he arrived back by train and his buggy was late, the 70-year-old simply hoisted his bag and walked the five miles home. “They were grave, dignified, and thoughtful,” Catton would write of his hometown heroes. “For the most part they had never been 50 miles away from the farm or the dusty village streets; yet once, ages ago, they had been everywhere and had seen everything. . . . All that was real had taken place when they were young; everything after that had simply been a process of waiting for death.” Eventually, one by one the old men were carried up a small hilltop to the town cemetery. “As they departed,” Catton wrote, “we began to lose more than we knew we were losing.”

By the close of the 1950s, as the nation was preparing for the 100th anniversary of the Civil War, much of the pubic watched transfixed, marking the passing of each of the final veterans, wondering who might be the last, wondering if any would make it to the centennial, curious how anyone could live so long. Could anyone be so old?

That question seemed never more poignant than when a Confederate veteran from Georgia disrupted a Civil War museum and jabbed his cane in sudden bayonet thrusts, threatening the portraits of Yankee soldiers hanging on the wall. “Let me at him!” he yelled at a painting of Union hero Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, the scourge of Atlanta. Sadly, the old Rebel appeared a pitiful figure, a misfit, more a caricature of himself than a gallant hero from an epic time.

Because it turns out that many of the men were not so old after all.

Many who claimed to be well over 100 and survivors of that great war were really imposters, some flat-out frauds. In truth they had been mere children and too young to march off to war in the early 1860s. Or they had not even been born. Yet as they grew old, they fabricated stories about past heroic adventures and brazenly applied for Civil War pensions during the long, lean years of the Great Depression. Some backdated their birth dates. Some made up the names of comrades and commanding officers. Some lied to their friends and neighbors and to newspapers and government officials. Over the years, some accepted so many accolades as Civil War veterans that they never could muster the courage or the humility to own up to the truth, even as they lay near death. Many ended up believing their own fabrications. Driven by money, ego, or a craving to belong to something grand and glorious, these men defrauded a nation. They especially dishonored those who had served, those who had been wounded, and above all those who had died. Many of them fooled their own families. One fooled the White House.

The last veteran who said he fought for the Union was Albert Woolson; Walter Williams said he was the last Confederate. One of them indeed was a soldier, but one, according to the best evidence, was a fake. One of them had been living a great big lie.

Grand Army of the Republic Monument at Gettysburg

When was it dedicated? Installed 1955. Dedicated Sept. 12, 1956.

What is it made out of? Sculpture: bronze; Base: granite.

What size is it? Sculpture: approx. 64 x 51 x 42 in.; Base: approx. 43.5 in. x 7 ft. x 6 in.

Who made it? Fairbanks, Avard, 1897-1987, sculptor. Roman Bronze Works, founder.

What does it depict? A seated portrait of an elderly Albert Woolson holding a walking stick in his proper right hand and resting his proper left hand on a GAR hat which rests on the bench beside him. The sculpture is installed on a rectangular base made of polished granite. Surrounding the monument is a flagstone plaza adorned with two mahogany granite benches. The portrait was modeled from life in the year he died. Flagstone surrounding the monument was added in Oct. 1963 and mahogany granite benches were added to the site on Nov. 20. 1965. A dedicatory plaque was later added. Woolson, of Duluth, Minnesota, was the last surviving member of the Union Army. He did not fight at Gettysburg.

How is it inscribed? DEDICATED ON SEPTEMBER 12, 1956/BY NATIONAL AUXILIARY TO/SONS OF UNION VETERANS/OF THE CIVIL WAR 1861-1865

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