Albert Henry Woolson (February 11, 1850 – August 2, 1956) was the last surviving member of the Union Army who served in the American Civil War. He was also the last surviving Civil War veteran on either side whose status is undisputed.
On December 19, 1959, Walter Washington Williams, reputed near the time of his death to be the last surviving veteran of the Confederate States Army, died in Houston, Texas. Williams's status as the last Confederate veteran already had been debunked by a September 3, 1959.
When Williams's status was disproved, attention turned to the alleged second longest surviving Confederate veteran, John B. Salling of Slant in Scott County, Virginia. Records showed that when he applied for a pension in 1933, officials could not find a war record for him in the records of the Department of Confederate Military Records Salling received a pension anyway after providing a notarized statement attesting to his service.
Every one of the last dozen recognized Confederates was bogus. When researchers were able to prove they were only small children during the Civil War. The motive for claims of Confederate Army service almost always was to obtain a pension during the hard times of the Great Depression.
Woolson was born in Antwerp, New York; he claimed to be born on February 11, 1847, but his entry in the 1850 United States Census lists him as born in 1850 and entries in the later census records and in the 1905 Minnesota State Census support the conclusion.
His father, Willard Woolson, enlisted in the Union Army and was wounded at the Battle of Shiloh and was transported to an Army hospital in Windom, Minnesota, where he eventually died of his wounds. Albert and his mother moved to Windom to be with Willard and enlisted as a drummer boy in Company C, 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment on October 10, 1864 as a drummer boy. He served as head drummer boy and later became drum major.
The regiment was assigned to the garrison of Chattanooga, Tennessee, where it was in charge of the heavy guns and forts because it was feared General John Hood might try and retake the city. The regiment, which saw no combat action, remained there until the close of the war. The 1st Minnesota "Heavies" were mustered out of service on September 27, 1865. Woolson was discharged on September 7, 1865.
Many soldiers who fought in the Civil War were still in their teens even though the Union Army rule was that soldiers had to be 18; many younger boys answered “I’m over 18, sir,” when the recruiter asked and that was sufficient.
Many of the youngest boys served as drummers. They did not fight, but they did a very important job. In the noise and confusion of battle, it was often impossible to hear the officers’ orders, so each order was given a series of drumbeats to represent it. As the drummer beat other drummers in hearing distance would repeat the orders. Drummer boys also served as stretcher bearers, walking around the battlefield looking for the wounded and brought them to medical care. The Civil War's most famous drummer boy was John Klem.
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. He moved to Duluth in 1905 from Michigan 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. 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.
As the years went by, and he looked forward to interviews with newspaper, radio and television reporters and 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.
Even after his 100th birthday, Woolson took walks and 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. Woolson claimed he remembered seeing Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C., in 1859 on a trip there with his father. He 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.
Woolson was a celebrity during his final years. Thousands mourned his passing and his funeral in the Duluth, Minnesota Armory was attended by high government and military officials and thousands lined the route of the four-mile procession to the cemetery.
The death of Woolson also meant the end of the Grand Army of the Republic. 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.”
Woolson's favorite president was Ulysses S. Grant and he was an expert on Grant’s life and times. In 1956 a monument of Woolson was erected in Gettysburg as a memorial to the Grand Army of the Republic.