On September 12, 1956, a crowd of nearly 3,000 people gathered at Zeigler’s Grove on Gettysburg’s Cemetery Hill to witness the dedication of a monument of Albert Woolson, known formally as the Grand Army of the Republic Monument. This event was the highlight of the 75th National Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), held from Sunday, September 9th through Thursday, September 13th. Woolson, a native of Antwerp, New York, who grew up in Minnesota, was born on February 11, 1847. He died on August 2, 1956, at the age of 109, only a month before the dedication of the monument bearing his likeness. Woolson is credited with being the last Union survivor of the war, and soon after his death, the G.A.R. was officially dissolved.
Albert Woolson’s story offers us a portal through which we can examine the spirit of the Grand Army of the Republic and its commemoration activities. Woolson was the son of a Civil War soldier; his father Willard enlisted as a musician in the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Heavy Artillery in 1861 and was wounded at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. Young Albert and his mother were able to track him to an army hospital in Minnesota, where he eventually died as a result of his wounds. Though Albert’s mother was overwhelmed with grief, in October 1864 she allowed her son to take his father’s place as a drummer boy in the regiment. Woolson was just seventeen at the time, but he was undoubtedly motivated by duty—to his country, but also to the memory of his father. Having enlisted more than a year after the Battle of Gettysburg, Woolson was not present for the fight. In fact, he saw no major action between the time he enlisted and the war’s end six months later in April 1865.
Following the war, Woolson returned to Minnesota, where he spent his life working in a furniture factory, then as a logger and an engineer. He also kept his musical talent alive, forming a band and touring Minnesota. Woolson was not a career soldier or officer; on the contrary, he resumed his civilian life after his soldierly duties were complete. Why, then, is Woolson immortalized forever in a monument on the Gettysburg battlefield, arguably the most historically sacred piece of ground in the nation?
The Grand Army of the Republic’s monument to Woolson represents far more than the celebration of one man. The Woolson memorial embodies a larger commemoration, and a commitment to a specific memory and legacy of the war. As the monument depicts him, Woolson is dignified and refined, but decorated with the medals and insignia of a celebrated warrior. Rather than casting Woolson as the youthful seventeen year old he once was, sculptor Avard Fairbanks memorialized him as an older man, a choice that conveys a sense of wisdom and calm. As G.A.R. Commander-in-Chief Frederic G. Bauer noted of Woolson’s statue at the monument’s September 1956 dedication, “the front of the statue does not bear his name. It bears the wording ‘In Memory of the Grand Army of the Republic.’ Comrade Albert Woolson symbolizes all the great virtues of the common, ordinary citizen, the citizen who becomes a soldier and then returns to ordinary life.” Bauer’s comments highlight the monument’s true intention: the recognition and honoring of the “common, ordinary citizen,” and the everyday rank-and-file soldier he became when his nation needed him. While the monument had likely been intended from the beginning to stand as a memorial to all Union soldiers, as well as a testament to the spirit of fellowship and the legacy of good-natured commemoration, Woolson’s death just before the dedication certainly emphasized this feeling. There were countless men like Albert Woolson, and no individual’s contributions to the war or its legacy was more important than his comrades’.
Woolson was an active G.A.R. member, serving as Department Commander of his local Minnesota Post from 1943-1947. On the national stage, Woolson served in several capacities, first as National Patriotic Instructor in 1946, then as Chief of Staff in 1948. He was appointed to the vacant offices of Junior Vice Commander-in-Chief and Senior Vice Commander-in-Chief following the deaths of those officers. The base of the monument at Gettysburg makes special note of Woolson’s position as Senior Vice Commander-in-Chief, honoring his dedication to the organization even though he was not a career soldier.
Careful observers will note the G.A.R. medal (much like this one, belonging to Robert B. Arms of the 16th Vermont Infantry Regiment) on the bronze-cast Woolson’s chest, and the wreath encircling the G.A.R. insignia on his hat. These details emphasize sculptor Fairbanks’ intention to make the monument speak for all Union veterans. Commander-in-Chief Bauer’s comments, noting that the purpose of the monument was to honor all citizen soldiers, also demonstrate the spirit of fraternity and strong sense of identity in the Grand Army of the Republic’s commemoration activities. Though Woolson did not fight at Gettysburg, many of his comrades did. These men left behind lives of comfortable familiarity and sacrificed their own freedom on behalf of national liberty. Some would never return, but all answered a larger calling. For this reason, there is no better location for the Woolson G.A.R. monument than on the field at Gettysburg. For many, Gettysburg represents the beginning of the end of the American Civil War. However, the battle remains synonymous with the common bravery exhibited by men fighting for different sides and varying, often competing causes. This ground continues to symbolize the reconciliation and reconstruction of the United States. With the 1913 reunion held on the battlefield, and similar events in the years that followed, veterans made clear that while the conflict was put behind them in favor of good sectional feelings and camaraderie, they would never forget its costs and consequences. Soldiers like Woolson, who performed his soldierly duties and quietly returned to his civilian life without seeking celebratory accolades, exemplify the spirit of humility and courage evoked by the fields of Gettysburg.
For further reading on Woolson:
On The G.A.R:
McConnell, Stuart. Glorious Contentment: The Grand Army of the Republic, 1865-1900. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.