Iowa’s Last (Known) 100 Union Soldiers of the American Civil War in Each of the State’s 99 Counties
I do not know why it was such a chore to figure out how to title this essay on a project that has been a part of my life for the past six years. “Union” was added because the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, the heir to the Grand Army of the Republic, needs to find those who fought to keep this nation whole. Also, I cannot call any of these one hundred gentlemen the last, because tomorrow one that died later may be found and my database is, once again, incorrect.
(The Iowa Last Soldier list may be downloaded via the link at the bottom of this essay)
Now, if you are asking why we have one hundred men for ninety-nine counties, the answer is that the last two veterans in Lucas County passed away on the same day, January 25, 1941. These two veterans had survived nearly 75 years from the end of the war. Being of the same county, they would have known of each other and attended the others funeral if possible. They survived that long, so it is not for me to choose one over another.
An obituary for each of these one hundred men will be transcribed and placed into a booklet format. Also, in the booklet will be information on Past Commander-in-Chiefs of the Grand Army of the Republic from Iowa, a few officers who were of importance to the organization in its waning days, and its last secretary, Amy Noll.
This project could have not even been started without the G.A.R. records and archives saved by Miss Noll, after the loss of the last soldier, James Martin, in September of 1949. An office was being kept in the basement of the Iowa capitol building and with the death of Mr. Martin, legislators no longer had a need to serve the strong political arm those veterans had wielded. Even Albert Woolson, the last surviving Union veteran of the American Civil War, who died in 1956, came to Amy’s defense on the subject. Without this nationally publicized dispute, Iowa would not, today, be the greatest archive of the Grand Army records in our nation.
I started this project by going through the annual reports of the Iowa Grand Army of the Republic from 1949 and working backwards until I had a list of about 500 names. They were then associated with a county and then an obituary of the last member was researched. If the obit said, “last of the county”, I saved them. If it mentioned a veteran as the last in a town, it was necessary to check newspapers for the previous and next Memorial Day edition.
In those days, people were more interested in America’s history and that of their neighbors – Memorial Day parades were common in almost every community. Many times, surviving Civil War veterans were mentioned in the papers. Sometimes, it was news that the last CW veteran of the county died in the previous year. But, things are not always that easy.
Sometimes it is required to crank through the microfilm records of every Grand Army member of a county and write names and dates of the next that died later than the previous one noted. Then, once again, do the Memorial Day newspaper excursion after the last member died. Just like the American Legion or VFW, today, many veterans were not joiners.
If not for Linda and Roy Linn, I would still be Googling several counties for records. Linda has access to newspaper records and Roy is our Department of Iowa Graves Registration officer.
As I thought I had the last in some counties, and then found another who passed on at a later date, it is impossible to forget the one who didn’t make the list. To get to these 100 names, I have acquired at least 120 friends that didn’t exist to me before this project started.
I pray the Department of Iowa, SUVCW, finds a common way to honor each and every Last Soldier. Lately, I visit Ebenezer McMurray in Tuscarawas County, Ohio every time I head to Gettysburg. After his death, only Martin was left in Iowa.
When my time comes to leave my Earthly bonds, I expect to meet a hundred new “old friends” on the other side.
Following are just a few examples that are worth noting from the obits:
The Marcus News on N. T. Wells:
…The ranks of those veterans of the Civil War are growing thin and ever thinner. Ere long the roll will be called vainly and there will be no answer. There will be left with a nation a memory of faded uniforms, clippings from newspapers, keepsakes, but above all a sacred memory. This memory will be ever kept verdant and green with glory that will never fade from the memory of a nation. …One by one we have tenderly laid them to rest. They are not only individuals but also symbols of the idealism of a nation. Though soon they shall all be gone that idealism will live on through the ages, making this nation great and good. It is ever our obligation to rededicate ourselves to the high purposes of God for our nation – and pray that we shall be faithful.
Fredericksburg News on John N. Coleman:
…If it be true that each of us has a certain influence upon the people we meet and the communities we live in as we travel the highway of life, then it must be equally true that the longer we live and the more widely we travel, the greater must be the sphere of influence we exert. This fact being true how great must have been the influence and impact of the life of John N. Coleman upon the world in which he was most intimately associated for he first saw the light of day in Ontario, Canada then lived in Illinois and finally in our own state of Iowa where that life ended in Fredericksburg.
…At the immature age of 16, he entered the service of the Northern Army as a member of the 44th regiment of Illinois Infantry and thus began a phase of his life, which was not only to influence his own existence but also to play a very important part in the solidarity and development of the whole country. Being discharged from his regiment, while it was in Missouri on account of measles, he might have given up his purpose of army life but, as soon as he was again able, he re-enlisted in the 95th Illinois Infantry as a member of Company K and marched, fought, and suffered with his fellows while they traveled a total of almost 10,000 miles in the remaining three years of the war and then, forsook the field of carnage for the fields of grain and became as energetic in the peace-time activities as he had been in the war-time ones.
…At the time of his passing, Brother Coleman had the distinction of being the last Civil War veteran in Chickasaw County and his death breaks the last tangible bond binding the old to the new. The army of the Blue is going down the valley one by one and our reverence mounts as they pass because we realize more fully what it must mean to us in our day of union and national solidarity that they did live and did sacrifice to sustain the ideals of democracy.
The Leon Journal-Reporter on Jonas Hoffhines:
… “For Jonas the way of life led up one hill and down another, o’er rough or smooth, his journey was a joy; still seeking what he sought but when a boy, new friendships, high adventure, and a crown. His heart kept to the courage of the quest and hoped the road’s last turn would be the best.”
The Tabor Beacon on Phineas H. Drake:
… His death marks the passing of the bronze button. No one else will be privileged to wear the uniform of blue so characteristic of the Civil War. He was the last of the local organization of that grand old organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, so influential in its day. No longer will our annual memorial services be honored by the presence of one of the veterans of the war that occasioned that national observance.
Rachel Revelle in the Guthrie County Centennial on John Palmer:
… The physical life of the Guthrie County Grand Army of the Republic has passed, is today a closed chapter in our national life. Its moral and spiritual life will always be a glorious guide and inspiration to coming generations of Guthrie Countians. Every descendant of these loyal soldiers will put up as grand a fight for freedom. A precious heritage is liberty and freedom and no nation knows this better than America.
Arthur Wellemeyer in The Klemme Times on Lewellyn Lewis:
The Last of The G. A. R. - Farewell
A hundred dashing soldier boys, Of Lincoln’s Army true, Came home again in sixty-five Their peacetime jobs to do.
They came to Hancock County when Our prairie lands were new. As pioneers they broke the sod, Built homes for me and you.
But now their working days are o’er, These men who wore the blue; The last to go to the Great Beyond Was Klemme’s comrade “Lew.”
Lew Lewis reached age ninety-five, And then he passed away, His spirit joined the camp above, We honor now his clay.
The Stars and Stripes he loved so well, Are draped upon his bier, The Legion Boys, with rifles poised, Salute their comrade dear.
Farewell, beloved soldier boy, Farewell, our good friend “Lew,” We bow our heads as the ‘bugler boy,’ Blows ‘final taps’ for you.
This project has been for the love of history and those who gave their all to keep us as one nation.
Yours in Fraternity, Charity, & Loyalty,
Ronald F. Rittel, PDC SUVCW, Dept. of Iowa
Click the link below to view the Iowa Last Soldier Project: