Listen To An Interview With The Last Surviving Union Civil War Veteran

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Duluth resident Albert Woolson, the last surviving Union veteran of the Civil War, circa early 1950s. (News Tribune file photo)

Today (Aug. 2, 2016) is the 60th anniversary of the death of Albert Woolson, a Duluth resident who was the last surviving Union Civil War veteran. Woolson died in Duluth on Aug. 2, 1956, at the age of either 106 or 109 – depending on the source. A ceremony in his honor is planned for today at the Depot in Duluth.

There’s an interesting artifact relating to Woolson in the News Tribune archives. Read more about it in this edited version of an Attic post that originally ran in 2011:

Amid the yellowed, brittle news clips about Albert Woolson in the News Tribune archives was a cryptically-labeled cassette tape. I found a cassette player, popped the tape in and discovered that it was audio of a 1954 interview with Woolson — then either 107 years old (according to Woolson) or 104 (according to census records).

The audio quality isn’t great (since they didn’t have cassettes in 1954, I assume the one in the News Tribune files was dubbed from an old reel-to-reel audio tape). Also, at that time Woolson was quite hard-of-hearing and, understandably for his age, it can be a bit difficult to understand what he is saying. But it isn’t every day that you get to hear a Civil War veteran talk, so I’ve digitized a couple excerpts from the tape. They’re part of this video (edited by the News Tribune’s Samantha Erkkila) that also features some file photos of Woolson:

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To give you some idea of what Woolson is saying in response to the questions (which he is given on slips of paper, because he can’t hear), he starts out by giving his place of birth, and then his age. Then he goes a bit off-track and says that, as a boy, he saw actor John Wilkes Booth perform on stage – the same John Wilkes Booth who shot Lincoln in 1865. Woolson talks about the assassination, too – mentioning how Booth yelled “Sic semper tyrannis” (thus always to tyrants) after shooting Lincoln, among other details.

According to news accounts from the time, Mr. Woolson had a great interest in history, and it seems that he wanted to share that interest with the interviewers. He has some details wrong, but the value in this recording isn’t necessarily historical accuracy – it’s the chance to hear the voice of someone who was born 166 (or more) years ago.

In the second part of the video, Woolson gives his take on a meeting of Gens. Grant and Lee at the end of the war. Again, Mr. Woolson was not at that meeting – and the historical accuracy of his account is questionable – but he WAS in the Union Army at the time of the surrender, and reports of those events certainly left an impression on him. As in the first clip, it can be a bit hard to understand all that he is saying.

I’m not sure of the origins of the interview. From the audio, I know it was conducted by Bob and Carl Wombacher (spelling?) and Jim Bernard in August 1954. If anyone can provide more context for the interview, please post a comment or send an e-mail to akrueger@duluthnews.com.

Read more about Albert Woolson in this previous News Tribune Attic post.