Albert Henry Woolson had outlived over two million Civil War Union Army comrades when he died in Duluth on August 2, 1956, at the age of 106. At his death, he was recognized as the last surviving Union Army veteran. Civil War historians, however, now recognize him as the last survivor of both the Union and Confederate armies.
Albert Woolson was born in Jefferson County, New York, on February 11, 1850. His parents were Caroline Baldwin Woolson and Willard Paul Woolson — a chair maker, painter, and musician. An 1850 census lists his age as six months old, and an 1855 census lists his age as five; thus his often-reported birth year (1847) and age of death (109) are incorrect. His age on official records varied throughout the years.
In 1861, Willard Woolson migrated to southern Minnesota without his family. On November 9 of that year, he enlisted in Company I, Fourth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment; later, he was a member of a regimental brass band. A common fallacy is that his leg was wounded at the battle of Shiloh and he recuperated in a Windom hospital. His company was not at Shiloh, nor did Windom exist then. His leg was damaged in the Gladiator steamboat accident on the Tennessee River on May 13, 1862.
Willard received a disability discharge on July 19, 1862. His family moved to Minnesota to join him, and by June of 1865 was living in Blue Earth County. Shortly after, he died in Elysian following a leg amputation.
When Albert enlisted in the Union Army as a private at Okaman on October 10, 1864, he was fourteen years old. He may have lied about his age or received parental permission to enlist, since the minimum enlistment age was eighteen. He served in Company C, First Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment. Since he was young, he became a drummer boy and bugler. As a private, he earned sixteen dollars per month.
On October 30, 1864, the members of Company C began their journey to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where their first assignment was to build winter quarters. They served garrison duty there until the fall of 1865 and did not see combat. Woolson was discharged on September 27, 1865, and returned to Minnesota.
In 1868, Albert played the cornet and guitar in a traveling group of minstrels—white performers who blackened their faces to imitate African Americans in a mocking and degrading way. His group included a band, a Highland Scottish dancer, and an acrobat. In that same year he married Sarah Sloper, who died in 1901. In 1904, he married Anna Haugen, who died in 1949. The June 1905 Minnesota census listed his age as fifty-six (he was in fact fifty-three); Anna was twenty-three. Eight children from the two marriages survived to adulthood.
Woolson held several different jobs as he and his family moved around southern Minnesota. When in Windom, he served on the state board of boiler inspectors and was the city water works and electric power plant superintendent. He taught mechanical engineering and music at the Breck School in nearby Wilder. In 1905, he and his family moved to Duluth, where he worked as an electrician, mechanic, and stationary engineer.
In March 1911, Woolson filed suit against Governor A. O. Eberhart when he was not appointed boiler inspector for the three-county area. In addition to his thirty-five years of boiler experience, he claimed that state law gave him preference as a war veteran. The judge ruled the law was unconstitutional in its preference for veterans because it limited the appointment power of the governor.
Woolson was an active member of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) and proudly wore its blue uniform. He was involved in veteran activities statewide, and was in many parades. As Civil War veterans aged and died, he became a nationally known figure and received much recognition. He was the model for the GAR memorial monument “Last Survivor,” located in the Gettysburg National Military Park, and received 8,000 cards and letters on his 104th birthday (celebrated as his 107th).
When he died in 1956, Woolson was buried with full military honors. Over 1,500 people attended the funeral in the Duluth Armory, including Senators Hubert Humphrey and Edward Thye and Governor Orville Freeman. Ulysses S. Grant III, a grandson of the Civil War US Army general, was honorary pallbearer. Burial was in Park Hill Cemetery in Duluth.
For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.