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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.



Albert Woolson February 1, 1847 - August 2, 1956

from The New York Times, August 2, 1956:

Last Union Army Veteran Dies; Drummer at 17, He Lived to 109 Albert Woolson of Duluth Also Was Sole Survivor of Grand Army of Republic DULUTH, Minn., Aug. 2

Albert Woolson, the last member of the Civil War's Union Army, died today at the age of 109. Mr. Woolson, who answered President Lincoln's call to arms and marched off to war as a drummer boy when he was 17, had been hospitalized for nine weeks with a recurring lung congestion condition. He lapsed into a coma early Saturday and did not regain consciousness. Since then, he had been fed intravenously and received oxygen through a nasal tube. Members of his family were at his bedside when he died in St. Luke's Hospital. Full-scale military funeral services will be conducted at the National Guard Armory here Monday at 2 P.M.

Burial will be in the family lot at Park Hill Cemetery here. Only three veterans of the Civil War, all members of the Confederate forces, survive. They are Walter W. Williams, 113, of Franklin, Tex.; John Salling, 110, of Slant, Va.; and William A. Lundy, 108, of Laurel Hill, Fla. Informed of Mr. Woolson's death, Mr. Lundy said "I regret very much the passing of Mr. Woolson." Mr. Woolson's last comrade of the Union Army, James A. Hard of Rochester, N.Y., died in 1953 at the age of 111. 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." With Mr. Woolson's death, only the Confederate veterans will get a medal being prepared for the last survivors of the Civil War unless the law is changed or broadly interpreted.

Last month Congress passed a law directing the Secretary of the Treasury to prepare gold medals with suitable inscriptions honoring the remaining veterans of the North and South. Representative John A. Blatnik, Democrat of Minnesota, pushed for a quick award of the decoration to Mr. Woolson when the old soldier became critically ill. But Mr. Blatnik's office said today the Treasury would be unable to get the medal finished before Oct. 1. There is no definite provision in the law for a posthumous award.

Mr. Woolson married Sarah Jane Sloper in 1868. She died in 1901. Three years later he married Anna Haugen, who died in 1948. Survivors include six daughters, Mrs. John Kobus, Mrs. Arthur Johnson and Mrs. Robert Campbell, all of Duluth; Mrs. Adelaid Wellcome, Mrs. F. W. Rye and Mrs. J.C. Barrett, all of Seattle, and two sons, Dr. A.H. Woolson of Spokane, Wash., and R.C. Woolson of Dayton, Wash. The Kobus family had lived with Mr. Woolson for several years. Mrs. Kobus said late today that instead of floral memorials the family preferred contributions to the Albert Woolson Scholarship Fund at the Duluth Branch of the University of Minnesota.  Outlasted 2,200,000 Mr. Woolson was the sole officially listed survivor of the more than 2,200,000 men of the Union armed forces. He also was the last survivor of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans that exerted wide influence in American politics for many years after the Civil War.

Mr. Woolson's great age carried him into what was virtually another world of warfare as well as of politics. As a boy, he could have spoken with venerable men who had fought in the Revolutionary War. Veterans of the War of 1812 were numerous in his youth. When the war in which he served began in 1861, the commanding general of the Army was Winfield Scott, a hero of the War of 1812. The War with Mexico started in 1846, the year before Mr. Woolson was born. Last year, when he was 108, several dependents of veterans of that conflict still were receiving Government benefits. This year, Mr. Woolson could include himself among the more than 19,000,000 living persons who had served in the United States armed forces. Of these, as of May 2, 2,715.896 were receiving cash compensation or pension payments from the Government. This included some but not all of the 826,657 former members of the armed forces receiving education benefits. Mr. Woolson, who had been a bugler-drummer rather than a rifleman, might have been excused if, in his later years, he had only a passing interest in the progress made in the art of war between the period of his Civil War service and the middle of the twentieth century. In 1865 the most expert rifleman could kill no more than two or three persons in a minute. In 1945, when Mr. Woolson was in his noneties, an estimated total of 100,000 persons were killed by atomic bombs. Civil War Still a Live Topic In 1956, ninety-one years after Appomattox, popular interest in the war in which Mr. Woolson had fought showed few signs of diminishing.

Biographical studies of Civil War figures from Lincoln down to generals such as "Fighting Joe" Hooker were in bookstores, and a dramatic reading of Stephen Vincent Benet's "John Brown's Body" had been presented successfully on Broadway within a year or two. Mr. Woolson fought in no Civil War battles, although he drummed to their graves many who had. When he was 106 he remembered it all pretty well. He recalled himself as a drummer boy of 17 in a rakish blue forage cap in the precise line of drummers who beat out the resonant slow step on muffled drums or, again, thudded the quick step -- most likely "The Girl I Left Behind Me." "We went along with a burying detail," he said. "Going out we played proper sad music, but coming back we kinda hit it up. Once a woman came onto the road and asked what kind of music that was to bury some- body, I told her that we had taken care of the dead and that now we were cheering up the living."

Mr. Woolson was born in the New York farm hamlet of Antwerp, twenty-two miles northeast of Watertown, on Feb. 11, 1847, the same day Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor, was born. James K. Polk, the dark horse Democrat, was in the White House and the issues that were to bring about the Civil War were being drawn into focus. Willard Woolson, his father, was a carpenter in Water- town and apprenticed his son to this trade. The senior Woolson had, however, a second vocation. He was a musician in the band of a traveling circus. When Pres- ident Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers in 1861, the father and his fellow musicians enlisted as a body. Traced Father to Minnesota When his family did not hear from him for more than a year they traced him through Army records to a hospital in Minnesota. The younger Woolson and his mother undertook the difficult journey by Great Lakes boat and stage coach to Win- dom, where they found the fath- er suffering from a leg wound received at the battle of Shiloh. Shortly after the family was re- united his leg had to be ampu- tated and he died. Mr. Woolson and his mother remained in Windom and the boy went to work as a carpenter. But it was wartime. The sound of drum and bugle was in the air and it was agony for a spirited boy -- mostly especially one in the drummer-bugler tradition-- not to be in uniform. Minnesota's manpower was stretched thin to furnish its quota for the Union forces and at the same time to hold back the Sioux Indians, who went off the reservation in 1863. Mr. Woolson recalled the day he left for the Army he had seen thirty- eight Sioux hanged in Mankota. In the South, the war was dragging out its course. It had been a war of maneuver and field entrenchment, but by 1864 the Confederates were beginning to dig in to save manpower and the Union needed heavy artillery. Col. William Colville organized a Minnesota heavy artillery regiment of 1,800 men. Mr. Woolson got his mother's consent and was accepted into Company C, First Minnesota Volunteer Heavy Artillery. His military service dated from Oct. 10, 1864. Enlisted as a rifleman, he wanted to be assigned as drummer and bugler, but Company C already had its quota of one field musician. "I got the job by knocking his block off," Mr. Woolson recalled many years later. Late in 1864, the regiment joined the Army of the Cumberland in Tennessee. It was commanded by Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, known to history as "The Rock of Chickamauga," but more familiarly to his men as "Pap." Recalled Firing Cannon Minnesota's ponderous cannon and their north-country cannoneers waited hopefully at Fort Oglethorpe to be called into action, but the call never came. Mr. Woolson got to fire a cannon, though. It was the outstanding recollection of his Civil War service. The bored gunners of the First Minnesota Heavy Artillery pre- pared to fire one of their pieces just to hear the noise. Mr. Woolson recalled it thus: "The colonel handed me the end of a rope and said: 'When I yell you stand on your toes, open your mouth wide, give a yell yourself and pull the rope.' I yanked the lanyard and the cannon went off and scared me half to death." The First Minnesota sat out the spring and early summer of 1865 in the shadow of Lookout Mountain, near Chattanooga, and in August the regiment was ordered home. Mr. Woolson received his discharge on Sept. 7, 1865.

He again practiced carpentry. Veterans of both the Union and Confederate armies were return- ing to their homes or perhaps seeking new homes in the West. He was but one of thousands returning to civilian life and, in the case of Union veterans, an organization was soon formed that was to make the former wearers of the blue the most po- tent force in their country's politics for the next twenty years. This organization was the Grand Army of the Republic, of which Mr. Woolson became the last member in 1953. He had been named senior vice commander in chief in 1950. The first G.A.R. post was formed at Decatur, Ill., in April, 1866. Mr. Woolson was still in his 'teens when the G.A.R. was founded, and it is probable that, in common with most of the younger veterans, he did not join it for many years. The G.A.R. had a tinge of the secret society popular in the day. There was an oath and a ritual, and the organization was ostensibly free from politics and dedicated to good works. In a few years, however, it became one of the prin- cipal instruments for keeping the Republican party in power and for obtaing pensions and Government job preferences for Union veterans. The G.A.R., as Mr. Woolson first knew it, was dominated by such figures as Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, a swarthy Illinois poli- tician nicknamed "Black Jack." A gallant and successful general and a thundering orator with a black mane, he never failed to remind his hearers that while "not all Democrats were rebels, all rebels had been Democrats." Mr. Woolson was a member of the G.A.R. in 1890, when it reached its peak of membership of 408,489. Its political influence had declined in the Eighties, al- though it was a force to be reckoned with until the turn of the century. Mr. Woolson did not receive a pension until 1900. Immediately after the Civil War, pensions were limited to men who had suffered physical disability, but in time they were extended to all with recognized Civil War service with the Union forces. Unsuccessful attempts were made from time to time to obtain Federal payments for Con- federate veterans. In the South the states paid small pensions to their Civil War veterans. At his death, Mr. Woolson was receiving a pension of $135 a month. He was then getting no other benefits, but was entitled to hospitalization and out-patient care. In May, records showed that 5,784 widows and children of Union veterans were receiv- ing pensions or payments under special acts of Congress. Formed Drum Corps Mr. Woolson and Robert Rhodes, an old friend who had been bandmaster of the Second Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, formed a drum and bugle corps in 1867. Mr. Woolson beat his old Civil War drum. "We played fine lively music," he said. "Nothing sad." With the passing of years, the G.A.R.'s, as they came to be called, became older men and fi- nally old men. Their fellow coun- trymen seemed to recall them only on Memorial Day, which their organization had helped to establish. The National Encamp- ments of the G.A.R., lively and often more or less rowdy affairs in the early days, became quiet get-togethers. Mr. Woolson and his comrades wore the blue uniform coat and slouch hat of the G.A.R. and marched in the Memorial Day parades as long as they could. Finally they became very old men sitting quietly in the sun. There were other veterans of later wars to tell of the deeds they had done. Mr. Woolson was one of six Union veterans attending the last National Encampment of the G.A.R. in Indianapolis in August, 1949. Here these last survivors of the organization voted to disband it. With Mr. Woolson's death the Grand Army of the Republic passed out of existence. Its records will be turned over to the Congressional Library in Washington, and its flags, badges and official seal to the Smithsonian Institution. In the Nineties, Mr. Woolson moved to Duluth and it was there that he discovered he had a knack for storytelling to supplement his brisk bugle and drum. He would drop into a near- by school, tell a couple of fanci ful tales, give a little lecture on thrift and pass out a few bright, new pennies. In 1952 the children of Duluth's schools turned the tables on him. They collected 27,652 pennies and commissioned an oil portrait of Mr. Woolson that was hung in the City Council chamber. The aged veteran liked to say that he was born a Republican. He voted for President Lincoln when he was 17 under a special dispensation that gave the ballot to soldiers. He admitted he voted for the Democratic ticket once. That was for Franklin D. Roosevelt in his first bid for the Presidency. Mr. Woolson did not retire until 1930. In his later years, Mr. Wool- son liked to recite poetry and his favorite poem was "After the Battle, Mother." And it is un- likely that his school children friends for several generations let him forget that great sentimental poem of the post Civil War period, "The Blue and the Gray," by Frances Niles Finch. It ends: "Under the sod and dew, waiting the judgment day, Love and tears for the Blue, Tears and love for the Gray."

Memorial / Obituary

Last Union Civil War vet dies in Duluth, 1956 

A few hours ago, the Associated Press reported that Frank Buckles, the last surviving U.S. veteran of World War I, died at age 110. You can find more information here.

That sparked memories of Duluth’s own “last veteran” – in our case, it was Albert Woolson, the last surviving Union veteran of the Civil War, who died in Duluth on August 2, 1956, at age 109.

There are a lot of stories and photos of Woolson in the News Tribune archives; some of those items are included below. Unfortunately, many of the photos are lacking specific dates and caption information, but most are from the 1950s.

Duluth resident Albert Woolson, the last surviving Union veteran of the Civil War, circa early 1950s. (News Tribune file photo)

ALBERT WOOLSON DIES Last survivor of Union army succumbs at 109

Duluth News-Tribune, Aug. 3, 1956

Albert Woolson died quietly in his sleep yesterday, and an era died with him.

As a final salute to the last man of the Civil War’s Union army, national figures will meet in Duluth Monday at his funeral.

His passing brought a flood of regrets, from the President of the United States to the nurse who tended him at St. Luke’s hospital.

Funeral services for the 109-year-old veteran will be held at 2 p.m. Monday in the Duluth National Guard armory. …

Mr. Woolson died at 9:45 a.m. after lying in a semi-coma since last Saturday. Members of his family were at the bedside when death came.

In Washington, D.C., President Eisenhower, who always sent greetings to Mr. Woolson on his birthday, said the old soldier’s death “brings sorrow to the hearts” of Americans.

In a statement, 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.” …

Mr. Woolson’s funeral procession will consist of 109 Army National Guardsmen, one for each of his years of life. … Burial will be in Park Hill cemetery.

Albert Woolson (center) at a ceremony in front of the St. Louis County Courthouse, circa early 1950s. (News Tribune file photo)


Schoolchildren gather to greet Albert Woolson of Duluth, the last surviving Union veteran of the Civil War, circa early 1950s. (News-Tribune file photo)

Woolson was a celebrity of sorts during his final years. A special News-Tribune history issue published in 1970 contained this retrospective of Woolson’s life:


Nine years before Duluth was platted as a village, a boy was born in Watertown, N.Y., who later became the most famous war veteran of the future city at the Head of the Lakes.

When he died Aug. 2, 1956, Duluth and the nation lost a symbol of more than a century of Americans.

Albert Woolson, born Feb. 11, 1847, was the last of more than 2.6 million Boys in Blue who served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Thousands mourned his passing, and his funeral was attended by high government and military officials. More than 1,500 attended last rites in the Duluth Armory, thousands lined the route of the four-mile procession to Park Hill Cemetery, and 2,000 bowed their heads at the sound of the bugle’s final “Taps.”

Woolson’s father was a cabinet maker, painter, builder of fine furniture and a musician. A soldier in the Union Army, he was injured in the battle of Shiloh in 1862. He was mustered out of service and sent his family money to come to Janesville, Minn.

When President Lincoln issued an appeal for troops, Albert, then 17, enlisted in October 1864 as a volunteer private in the First Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment. He started in the drum corps. He served as head drummer boy and later became drum major.

While with the regiment, he saw a “most glorious sight.” It was Sherman’s march to the sea through the heart of the Confederacy.

The drummer boy, who also like to play the cornet, was mustered out in September 1865 and returned to Minnesota. In later years, talking about the Civil War, he said, “We were fighting our brothers. In that there was no glory.”

For 16 years in St. Peter, Minn., he was a wood turner in a furniture factory. He also played cello and guitar with a 20-member band and was general manager and treasurer of a minstrel group.

Woolson came to Duluth in 1905 from Ontonagon, Mich., where he had worked in mills and logging camps. In Duluth, he worked at various jobs. He was a stationary engineer and also did pattern work.

Albert Woolson in his 80s, circa early 1930s

He retired at 85 to “take life easy” and after the death of his second wife in 1949, he made his home with his daughter and son-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. John Kobus, 215 E. 5th St. Of his 14 children, four daughters survive: Mrs. Kobus, Mrs. Robert H. Campbell, 628 N. 40th Ave. E., Mrs. Arthur E. Johnson, 132 E. Arrowhead Road; and Mrs. Josephine Burtt, in California.

Duluth became increasingly fond of Albert Woolson as the years went by, and he looked forward to interviews with newspaper, radio and television reporters.

On his birthday each year he was deluged with greetings from throughout the nation and foreign countries. He tried to answer all personally. On his 106th birthday he received more than 8,000 cards.

In later years, Mrs. Kobus took on the mammoth task of answering greetings and inquiries, and in about the last three years of the old soldier’s life, she was helped by Dr. J.F. Robinson through the David Wisted-Zenith City post of the American Legion.

Mrs. Kobus, who used to write at least 200 letters a month when her father was alive, says many persons have continued to send Christmas cards.

Inquiries are still received, mainly from older persons and young children interested in history. Mrs. Kobus appreciates notes from the younger, because “my father just loved children.”

Albert Woolson shoveling snow outside his home at age 106, circa 1953. (Duluth Herald file photo)

Even after his 100th birthday, Woolson took walks along Fifth Street or shoveled snow from the walk of his home. And one of his proudest moments came in 1952 when he was elected to Duluth’s Hall of Fame.

The death of Woolson also meant the end of the Grand Army of the Republic and the last existing post which, fittingly enough, was named after Col. Joshua B. Culver, one of Duluth’s prominent early citizens. Culver was among the first to enlist in the Union Army and later became active in many political and business enterprises in the city.

Woolson was among early supporters of Gen. Eisenhower in the White House. Only a few hours after learning of Woolson’s death, President Eisenhower said:

“By the death of Albert Woolson, 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.”

Albert Woolson of Duluth with one of his ubiquitous cigars, circa early 1950s. (News-Tribune file photo)

One last excerpt, from the News-Tribune’s coverage of Woolson’s 109th birthday on Feb. 11, 1956:

Albert Woolson is 109 today and his eyes are set on a horizon of peace for all men.

The eyes may be dimming, but his thoughts and his voice are not.

In booming tones that belie his recent illness, the sole survivor of the Union Army of the Civil War trumpeted:

“The business about war is all nonsense.” …

Never one to let an opinion go by, Woolson likes to talk about the future.

“I see a peaceful life ahead of us, if the Lord lets us live,” said the old veteran who today starts on his 110th year. …

Woolson makes no bones about his favorite president – Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. He’s an expert on Grant’s life and times.

“Now there was a great man,” Woolson declared. “No palaver about that fellow. No nonsense, either.” …

Albert Woolson at a ceremony in Duluth with granddaughter Frances Kobus, circa early 1950s. (News-Tribune file photo)

Woolson still loves to recite poetry. Last week he rattled off “Just Before the Battle, Mother” and “Minnehaha, Laughing Water” with no prompting.

He loves to talk of old times and remembers his service at Chattanooga, Tenn., with surprising vividness.

“Those nine-inch cannon on high ground there were nothing to fool with,” he recalled. Woolson, then a drummer boy, once was given the opportunity to pull the lanyard and has never forgotten the thrill.

From Fort Blackmore, Va., the hand of friendship was extended yesterday by John B. Salling, 109, a Confederate veteran.

In a statement to the United Press, Salling said “that old scutter is one of my best personal friends.” Scutter is defined by Webster as “one who runs, scurries.”

Salling sent birthday greetings and expressed the hope “that we can meet before we get passed to the Great Beyond.” …

(Woolson) says he remembers seeing Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C., in 1859 on a trip there with his father. (Woolson also said he cast a vote for Lincoln in 1864 at age 17, under special rules that allowed Union soldiers to vote even if underage).


Funeral procession for Albert Woolson, August 1956. (News-Tribune file photo)


A rifle team fires a volley over the grave of Albert Woolson during burial services in August 1956. (News-Tribune file photo)

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