Albert Woolson

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       Albert Woolson: The Last Survivor of the Civil War

 

                   

                              Albert Woolson, ca. early 1950s

 

Albert Woolson was born in the state of New York and lived there with his family until the Civil War began. In 1861, his father, Willard Woolson, enlisted in the Army to fight for the Union during the war. Willard Woolson was injured in 1862 and sent to Minnesota for treatment. The family, including Albert, moved to the state to be near him and probably settled in or near Mankato in south central Minnesota.

After Willard Woolson died, the family stayed in Minnesota. Shortly after their move to the state, in August 1862, the U.S.-Dakota War broke out. The fighting ended with the hanging of 38 Dakota men in Mankato on December 26, 1862. The Woolson family lived in an area affected by the war and would have known about it. In an interview later in his life, Woolson commented on the mass hanging and mentioned being in the crowd on the day of the execution.

 

                            

                                 Albert Woolson as a Union soldier
                         Reprinted from Life Magazine, August 13, 1956

 

On October 10, 1864, Albert Woolson enlisted in the First Minnesota Heavy Artillery, a unit formed in the summer of 1864. He gave his age as 17 and his birth date as February 11, 1847, though records indicate he probably was born in 1849 or 1850. He appears to have added several years to his age to make himself appear older than he actually was. He signed up as a rifleman but served as a drummer and bugler with Company C. His regiment was part of the Army of the Cumberland, assigned to protect a garrison in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

 

     

           Albert Woolson (arrow) in Chattanooga, Tennessee
              Reprinted from Life Magazine, August 13, 1956

 

Many years later, he poked a little fun at himself when he told a story about his time in Tennessee. "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."

He remained in Tennessee throughout his enlistment, but did not see combat. He was in Tennessee when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865 and was discharged as a Private on September 27, 1865.

After his discharge from the Army, Woolson returned to Minnesota. He married Sarah Sloper in 1869 and began a family that eventually numbered seven children, including son, Albert, Jr., who served in the Spanish-American War.

The Woolsons lived in Mankato and in St. Peter, where he worked as a wood turner in a furniture factory, before moving to Windom, Minnesota, in 1895. The town was new—it was founded after the Civil War in 1870—and there were opportunities for work.

He became Superintendent of the Windom Waterworks and Electric Plant, a position he held for about a decade. In 1903, while still living in Windom, he also taught Band, Music, and Mechanical Engineering at Breck School. The school moved from its original location in Wilder to St. Paul in 1916.

 

            

Albert Woolson during his years as Superintendent of the Windom (MN) Waterworks and Electric Plant Courtesy of the Cottonwood County Historical Society, Windom, Minnesota

 

Sarah Woolson died in December 1901. She is buried in the Lakeview Cemetery in Windom. Three years later, in 1904, Woolson married Anna Haugen of Windom; they eventually had three daughters. A year after their marriage, Anna and Albert Woolson, along with several members of the Haugen family, moved to Duluth. In Duluth,

Woolson worked as an electrician with the Duluth Carbolite Company, as a wood turner for the Scott Graff Lumber Company, and for the Hirschy Company, a manufacturer of washing machines. He joined the Duluth Kiwanis Club and the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), a powerful national group of Union veterans. In many of the photos taken of him in his later years, his G.A.R. pin with the five-pointed star is clearly visible.

Woolson retired in 1933. After the death of Anna Woolson in 1949, he lived in the West End area of Duluth with his daughter and son-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. John Kobus.

 

                  

                                    Albert Woolson, ca. 1930s

 

For many years, in growing recognition of his status as one of the few remaining Union veterans, Woolson’s birthday drew letters, telegrams, and visits from people around the country.

In his later years, he often visited local schools to tell his story. He would recount the role of President Abraham Lincoln in ending slavery in the United States, but also often commented on the effects of war saying, "We were fighting our brothers. In that there was no glory."

When Albert Woolson died on August 2, 1956, he was the last surviving member of the Union Army, the last surviving member of the Grand Army of the Republic, and the last Civil War veteran. About 1,500 people attended his funeral service in the Duluth National Guard Armory and hundreds lined the route of his funeral procession to Park Hill Cemetery. At the cemetery, 2,000 people attended his burial. Vice President Richard Nixon was among those sending condolences to the family.

Guests of honor at the funeral included William Bruckner, Secretary of the Army, Senators Hubert H. Humphrey and Edward J. Thye, Representative John A. Blatnik, Governor Orville Freeman, Lt. Gen. William H. Arnold, Fifth Army Commander, and Major General Jos. A. Nelson, State Adjutant General.

 

      

          Albert Woolson burial service, Park Hill Cemetery, August 1956.
                              Duluth News-Tribune file photo

 

On September 12, 1956, the National Auxiliary to Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War dedicated a statue of Albert Woolson at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. It is in a fitting location—Gettysburg is the site of the Civil War battle in 1863 that turned the tide of the war in favor of Union forces. At the ceremony for the unveiling of the statue, the National Auxiliary Commander-in-Chief said:

"We dedicate today a statue of Albert Woolson.  He was the last of the Grand Army of the Republic.  He also was the son of a veteran … Here we have a statue of a man … who symbolizes all the great virtues of the common, ordinary citizen; the citizen who becomes a soldier and then returns to ordinary life."

 

                              

Statue of Albert Woolson at Gettysburg National Military Park, Avard Fairbanks, sculptor.
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org    /wiki/List_of_monuments_of_the_Gettysburg_Battlefield#Other_monuments

A copy of the statue stands outside the entrance to the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center (the Depot) in Duluth.

 
Thank you to the Cottonwood County Historical Society in Windom, Minnesota, for contributing information for this story.
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