The Last Surviving Civil War Veteran Died in Texas in 1959—Or Did He?

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Walter Washington Williams was the last surviving veteran of the Civil War when he passed away at the ripe old age of 117 in Houston, Texas, during December of 1959. President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared a day of national mourning. Americans across the nation bid goodbye to the last Civil War veteran. But was Williams’ story truth or fiction? Over 150 years since the end of the Civil War and 59 years since Williams’ passing, we examine this tale of the last living Confederate.

Williams claimed to have been born in Mississippi in 1842 and to have gone on to serve under Confederate General John Bell Hood. According to Williams, he was a foragemaster under Hood, in charge of locating and transporting food supplies, and later he rode with Quantrill’s raiders. In 1870, five years after the close of the war, Williams began farming 20 acres in Eaton, Texas. He lived a quiet life with his family until the 1940s, when newspapermen began showcasing the final surviving veterans of the bloody War Between the States. It was then that Williams became a small-town celebrity, earning the nicknames “Honorable Colonel” and “Five Star General Williams.”

The Last Surviving Civil War Veteran Died in Texas in 1959—Or Did He?

Photo: Pixabay.com

Williams offered The Dallas Morning News this bit of wisdom about how to reach old age: “I never et much. I get up for breakfast, turn around for dinner, and go to bed for supper. When I was riding up the Chisholm Trail the range cooks sort of held it against me because I was a light-eating man. I’ve always drunk lots of coffee, chewed plenty of tobacco, and haven’t tried to avoid any of this good Texas weather.”

Scandal struck only months before Williams passed away. A reporter named Lowell Bridwell published an expose that called into question William’s date of birth and veteran claims. Bridwell referred to Williams as an “enfeebled old man” who was a “Confederate veteran only in his memory-clouded mind.” Bridwell backed up his debunking with the fact that the 1860 census listed Willimas as a five-year-old, making the year of his birth 1854. If this was his true year of birth, Williams would have been only nine in 1864, making it unlikely he fought in the war. Bridwell also noted the National Archives didn’t list any Walter W. or Walter G. or Walter L. Williams from Mississippi as serving in the Confederate Army. One historian who met Mr. Williams as a boy wrote to TexasHillCountry.com to say that his grandfather once told him that Mr. Williams was too young to have fought in the war, but Williams’ older brother had served in the Confederate Army. Mr. Williams later claimed his brother’s Civil War veteran’s pension check and told reporters he was older than his actual years.

The Last Surviving Civil War Veteran Died in Texas in 1959—Or Did He?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Williams’ defenders contended that official records from that time period were frequently unreliable. This was especially the case for the Confederacy during the final year of the war, when their records were often nonexistent or contained inaccurate dates of birth. It was also discovered that a Jackson, Mississippi archive did indeed list “Private Walter L. Williams” in the 5th Mississippi Cavalry. Williams claimed that he often used different middle initials in his youth. Many Texans were offended at Bridwell’s questioning of Williams’ credentials. Charles Morris, the Texas Veteran Affairs Commissioner, stated, “They’ll have an awful hard time proving he wasn’t a Confederate veteran.”

Williams was laid to rest at Mount Pleasant Church Cemetery not far from New Baden, Texas. The Texas Civil War Centennial Commision placed a marker there in 1963, though reports indicate it has since been removed. The sign read: “Reputed to have been the last surviving soldier of the Civil War…he had lived very quietly until in extreme old age he gained fame as one of the very few remaining veterans. After the nation lost all other men who had fought in the Civil War, he was given the honorary rank of General by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. When Gen. Williams died in Houston at home of a daughter, President Eisenhower proclaimed a period of national mourning.” If Williams wasn’t the true last surviving veteran of the Civil War, that title falls to Albert Woolson, who died three years before Williams and was known to have served as a drummer boy in the Union Army.