The United States of America is a very sentimental country. Its citizens, like those of other countries, idolize its great figures, glorify its achievements and even bemoan its own unjust actions from the past. It should be no surprise that one such area of history the citizens of the United States are understandably drawn to is the U. S. Civil War (1861-1865), a topic viewed in America with simultaneous fascination and horror. With the Civil War being such an important piece of U. S. History, intense debates can arise out the most mundane of questions—such as, who was the last surviving veteran of the American Civil War?
In this debate two names are prominent: Walter Washington Williams (c. 1842-1959) and Albert Woolson (c. 1847-1956). Mr. Williams claimed to have been a member of the Confederate Army, and for a long time was the frontrunner in the battle to seize to the spot as the last living veteran of the Civil War. Very close behind Williams, however, was Mr. Woolson, who had a stronger trail of evidence than his competitor. There were other self-proclaimed Civil War veterans who died between Woolson and Williams, nevertheless, Albert Woolson’s Civil War career remained the best documented of all these veterans.
To get a sense of the divide between the supporters of these two men, compare Ken Burns’ 1990 documentary series, The Civil War, against articles on the subject published by the Smithsonian. On the one hand, Burns affirms that Walter Washington Williams was the last surviving Civil War veteran. In another take, Smithsonian writer and author, Richard A. Serrano, championed Albert Woolson and claimed Williams to be a fraud.
Walter Washington Williams claimed to be the forage master for Confederate General Hood’s Texas Brigade during the American Civil War. For the most part, his story was believed and he was even given an honorary rank of general by President Eisenhower (presidential term, 1953-1961). After Williams’ death in 1959, the Texas Historical Survey Committee put up a memorial in his honor, stating he was “Reputed to have been [the] last surviving soldier of the Civil War (1861-1865).” Click HERE for a picture of that monument.
As for Albert Woolson; he claimed to have joined the Union Army after his father died at the Battle of Shiloh. Woolson enlisted in 1864 and became a drummer boy for the 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment. He died in 1956, three years before the death of Walter Washington Williams. Until after the 1950s, the decade when both of these men died, Woolson was, for the most part, overshadowed by his rival, Williams. Now, however, the supporters of Albert Woolson seem to be gaining the upper hand in the debate of who was the last surviving veteran of the American Civil War. The seemingly impeccable trail of evidence backing up Albert Woolson’s claims, compared against the more dubious evidence of veterans such as Walter Washington Williams, makes Woolson the last undisputed Civil War veteran to die.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Civil War, a documentary by Ken Burns. PBS, 1990.