Pa. man remembers encounter with the last Union soldier
By Joseph Cress
The Sentinel, Carlisle, Pa.
Published: May 24, 2013
CARLISLE, Pa. — Despite the march of time, Albert Woolson held on to the rhythm to carry the tune.
At age 102, he was old and feeble, but his wrinkled hands moved sure and quick to accompany the beat played by the Sons of the Union Veterans Fife and Drum Corps in late August 1949.
“He had a big smile on his face,” recalled Dave Klinepeter, 87, of Lower Paxton Township and Andrew Curtin re-enactor. “He was thoroughly enjoying himself. He was in his element.”
In 1949, Klinepeter was a fife player with the Harrisburg-area ensemble that attended the last national encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic in Indianapolis, Ind.
Woolson was one of only six Union Army veterans healthy enough to travel to the final reunion of what was once a national organization of about 400,000 members.
Woolson died almost seven years later, on Aug. 2, 1956, the last surviving member of the Union Army, which at its peak, numbered more than 2 million soldiers.
Born Feb. 11, 1847, the same day as inventor Thomas Edison, Woolson enlisted as a rifleman on Oct. 10, 1864, but served as a drummer and bugler with Company C of the 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery, according to the St. Louis County Historical Society in Duluth, Minn.
In late 1864, the regiment was part of the Army of the Cumberland in Tennessee. Woolson was discharged as a private on Sept. 27, 1865.
For Klinepeter, his brief encounter with Woolson only reinforced a love of military history that started when he was boy and continues to this day.
Fife and drum corps members went to the hotel that afternoon to play Civil War tunes to entertain the six delegates, Klinepeter recalled. Woolson was only one with enough energy to walk down the stairs to the hotel lobby where he was waiting to get his supper when the musicians arrived.
The health of these veterans was so fragile that each had assigned to them a nurse to monitor their condition and a military police officer to fend off the hugs and handshakes of an adoring public, Klinepeter said. “You did not approach them too close. They were precious.”
As Klinepeter performed, he said he noticed how Woolson used his hands and arms to beat out a rhythm in the air. It was as if the old soldier was grasping onto drumsticks while recalling some distant memory of when he was an Army musician some 80-plus years prior. But the most touching moment was yet to come.
Sensing in Woolson a desire to participate, Maj. John Runkle, leader of the Harrisburg ensemble, walked up to the old man hunched over in a chair and handed him a pair of drumsticks. A drum was then placed between his legs.
From that point on, Woolson played right along with the other musicians.
“We made his day,” Klinepeter recalled. “He played a good half dozen. It was one of the highlights of my life.”
Runkle introduced the musicians to Woolson.
“He thanked us,” Klinepeter said of Woolson. “We did not talk to him. We did not have the time to hold a conversation.”
The fife and drum corps were among the groups that marched in a parade through Indianapolis to honor the delegates and to salute the end of an era.
“Thousands of people lined the streets,” Klinepeter recalled. “The veterans were put up on a pedestal. We treated them with the utmost respect. They were gems.”
Each of the six soldiers rode in a convertible at the head of the parade followed closely by color guards representing the Grand Army of the Republic and the Sons of Union Veterans.
The six veterans were given the honor of sitting in the review stand as the parade moved forward. That didn’t last long. A thunderstorm was fast approaching and caretakers moved the veterans to safety in their hotel.
“In the distance, you could hear rumbling and see flashes of lightning,” Klinepeter said. “A reporter said it sounded like the firing of the cannons. You can see the flashes of charges going off.”