Local View: Duluth's Woolson's life, death reminders of military sacrifice

From the column: "Minnesota played a major role in the Civil War, contributing the very first volunteers to heed President Abraham Lincoln’s call for a ... volunteer militia after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter ... in 1861."

Children and teachers from Nettleton Elementary School pay a visit and tribute to Civil War veteran Albert Woolson in front his home on the 200 block of East Fifth Street in May 1953. The visit was part of the students' Memorial Day observance. (News Tribune file photo)

Memorial Day has a long and storied history dating back to the Civil War, and Duluth’s share of that history remains significant, even nearly 160 years later.

Known originally as Decoration Day, the holiday commemorating deceased military members was first conducted by southern women in 1866 when they placed flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers. The tradition was picked up by former Union officers and spread across the nation. The holiday was officially designated for May 30, but the date often fell inconveniently in the middle of the week or not on a weekend. Congress tidied that up in 1971 by designating the holiday for the fourth Monday of May, creating a three-day holiday weekend. Memorial Day has been celebrated on that date since, displacing the Indianapolis 500, now held on the Sunday before.

Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer, which in the Northland is lucky to last three months until Labor Day.

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The Albert Woolson statue sits outside the Depot in Duluth. (File / News Tribune)

Minnesota played a major role in the Civil War, contributing the very first volunteers to heed President Abraham Lincoln’s call for a 300,000-member volunteer militia after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter at the end of April 1861. The Minnesota 1st Regiment turned the tide of the three-day battle of Gettysburg in July, 1863, which was the turning point in the war, culminating by fending off a fierce Confederate attack at a key strategic spot, a portion of the battlefield later to be christened by Lincoln as the “hallowed” Gettysburg grounds.

Most Minnesotans who fought in the Civil War came from outside Duluth, which was incorporated in 1857, and, like the North Shore, was sparsely populated then. But a smattering of those from the area did serve in the war among the 22,000 militia from Minnesota and were among the 2,500 killed in it, along with other casualties.


The area’s greatest prominence stems from a noted Civil War veteran who lived half his life and died in Duluth, Albert Woolson, reputedly the oldest living Civil War veteran when he died on Aug. 2, 1956, at St. Luke’s due to recurring lung cancer.

Although the dates ascribed for his birth are varied, it appears he enlisted as a 14-year-old volunteer and was one of the youngest in the Union army. He was living at the time in southern Minnesota, where his father, himself in the Union Army, had moved from New York state, where Woolson had been born. He may have lied about his age to join the Union Army in October 1864 as a rifleman because the Army had an official 18-year minimum, which was often overlooked in the need for manpower.

Albert Woolson (center), sole survivor of the Civil War's Union Army, opens Memorial Day services in downtown Duluth in May 1953 by placing a wreath at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the Civic Center. (News Tribune file photo)

Woolson served as a $16-a-month bugler and drummer, without seeing combat, until his discharge about a year later, several months after the war had ended

After the war, he drifted around to various places and various jobs, including as a musician and music teacher. He settled in Duluth in the early part of the 20th century and lived a fairly sedate life here. He was newsworthy in 1912 when he filed a lawsuit against the governor, claiming that he had been wrongfully deprived of a job as a state boiler inspector in spite of a statute giving preference to Civil War veterans. A judge ruled, however, that the statute was an unconstitutional intrusion on the governor’s appointment authority and threw out Woolson’s case.

Woolson managed to survive his litigation defeat for five decades; he worked as an electrician, mechanic, and engineer. He married twice, including to a wife who died, and fathered a number of children, eight of whom survived into adulthood. He last lived at 258 E. Fifth St., until passing away on Aug. 2, 1956. He was 106.

He is recognized as the last survivor of some 2 million Union Army veterans and possibly the last survivor of the 3 million total Civil War participants.

He was buried with full military honors at Park Hill Cemetery in Duluth, following a large funeral attended by more than 1,500 people, including Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey and past and present governors. The grandson of Civil War Gen. Ulysses S. Grant served as an honorary pallbearer.

Woolson was praised by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said his death “brought sorrow to the hearts of all of us who cherish the memory of the brave men on both sides of the war.”


A monument to Woolson was erected in Gettysburg as a memorial to the Union Army. A twin statue is on display outside the St. Louis County Depot in downtown Duluth. Although hardly a hero in the traditional sense of the word, Wolson did make his mark, and a mark was made for him. The memorial created for him at the Depot notes his longevity and demise in Duluth.

Woolson’s life and death are reminders of the sacrifices so many men and women have made on behalf of this country in the armed services. The memories of those who perished in the country’s service are fittingly remembered on Memorial Day, in Duluth and around the country.

Marshall H. Tanick is a constitutional law attorney in Minneapolis, an historian, and a regular contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page.

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Marshall H. Tanick

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