On Veterans Day 59 years after he died and 150 years after he served in the Union Army, Albert Woolson received military honors once again Wednesday at Duluth's Park Hill Cemetery, where he is buried.
The last surviving soldier confirmed to have served on either side of the Civil War, Woolson died in 1956 in Duluth, prompting national attention that lingers to this day.
On a mild, sunny afternoon Wednesday, about 70 people gathered to watch Civil War buffs dressed in Union uniforms re-enact parts of the service Woolson received at his funeral in 1956. One dressed and played a military drum much as Woolson did 150 years ago.
Civil War-era rifles rested against Woolson's headstone where a wreath, a rose and other flowers were laid in his honor.
It was Woolson and his fellow Union veterans of the Civil War who won the landmark struggle that solidified the union of states and "gave subsequent veterans something to fight for," said Randal Dietrich of the Minnesota Historical Society.
Doug Von Busch of Proctor said he came to pay respects to Woolson and to recall the August 1956 funeral in which he served as part of the Minnesota National Guard color guard that stood watch over Woolson's body.
"There were six of us sergeants that stayed with him" serving as pallbearers and accompanying Woolson's casket from the funeral at the armory on London Road to the cemetery on Vermilion Road, Von Busch noted.
"I'm a Korean War veteran. My dad was a veteran. My grandfather was a veteran. It's a family thing," said Von Busch, 85. "I got to be part of the funeral when he (Woolson) died and I thought I should be here today."
Wednesday afternoon's event also marked the last official act of Minnesota's Civil War Commemoration, a governor-appointed task force that was charged with heading the state's recognition of the sesquicentennial of the war. The task force has been leading 150th anniversary events to highlight Minnesota's role in the great national conflict over the past four years, with events across the state and at many Civil War battlefields where Minnesota units played key roles.
The war between the states "was our nation's most traumatic and transformative event, which in many ways we struggle with to this day," said Darryl Sannes, the task force historian.
Albert Henry Woolson was born in either 1847, as he claimed, or in 1850, as most records note, in Antwerp, N.Y. His father, Willard Woolson, served in the Union Army but it's unclear with exactly what unit, Sannes said. Little is known of the elder Woolson's service except that he ended up in southwestern Minnesota late in 1864 and that his wife and son, Albert, came there to meet him.
Willard apparently died soon after their arrival. Albert enlisted in Company C, 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment on Oct. 10, 1864, eventually becoming the company's lead drummer.
Sannes said Woolson probably fibbed about his birthdate - he was 14 and listed 17 - so he could enlist. Even when Woolson died, newspapers heralded him as 109 when he really was just 106. Historians found the error later, when more census records became available online.
"It doesn't change his legacy," Sannes said. "In fact, it showed how badly Albert wanted to serve his country."
Woolson wasn't a hero during the war. In fact, his company never saw action. He was discharged from service on Sept. 7, 1865. (The last surviving Union soldier to see combat was James Hard, who died in 1953 in Rochester, N.Y.)
Woolson returned to Minnesota after the war and later settled in Duluth. He was a carpenter and later a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal and political group of Civil War veterans, of which he became senior vice commander in chief in 1953 as one of the group's last members.
Woolson lived out his final days at 215 E. Fifth St. in Duluth and died at St. Luke's hospital on August 2, 1956, of a "recurring lung congestion condition." Following his death, President Dwight Eisenhower said that "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."
According to his obituary, Woolson married Sarah Jane Sloper in 1868. She died in 1901. Three years later he married Anna Haugen, who died in 1948. He had 14 children, the last of whom died in 2008, Sannes said.
In addition to a plaque at his gravesite, a statue of Woolson is located in front of the Depot in downtown Duluth, with the same statue in a high-profile location at the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
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