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At Gettysburg, Watertown follows

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Geographically speaking, the north country is the northernmost region of the state, bordered by water and foreign lands, but for all practical purposes, it is everywhere.

Its residents and progeny insert themselves into every trip I make outside of the area and I cannot, it seems, sally forth from these parts without running into someone or something that reminds me of my adopted home.

Such was the case this weekend when the north country interrupted the pleasant, if not chilly, reverie I was enjoying atop an open-topped double-decker tour bus on the historic battlefield site of Gettysburg, Pa.

Following some disparaging remarks about reporters — the commander of Union forces at Gettysburg was apparently none too fond of my predecessors — our battlefield guide pointed out to us a sculpture of Albert Woolson, the oldest surviving Union soldier of the Civil War.

Mr. Woolson, it turns out, was from the north country.

As is the common with historical tidbits, there is some dispute over the facts of Mr. Woolson’s story.

Reports from the Times and other publications in the 1950s say Mr. Woolson was born in Watertown, while reports from the original Grand Army of the Republic, of which Mr. Woolson was senior vice commander-in-chief and last surviving member, say he was born in Antwerp.

Either way, he is undeniably from the north country. And, according to the man himself, the site of his birth is Watertown.

“I was born and raised in Watertown, N.Y. I was born Feb. 11, 1847 and I’m going on 107. I was a member of the First Minnesota Heavy Artillery, stationed principally at Chattanooga and Nashville in 1864 and ’65,” Mr. Woolson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1953.

Mr. Woolson was apparently a great admirer of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, and told the Post-Dispatch as much.

“I have met Gen. Grant personally, and I think he was the greatest general we had in the Civil War. Some people extend their remarks and still don’t say much of anything. But not Gen. Grant. He was a man of few words. You could see that in the way he wound up the activities of the Civil War,” Mr. Woolson said.

Gen. Grant took command of the entire Union Army after emerging victorious from the siege of Vicksburg, which concluded on July 4, 1863 — one day after the fighting at the three-day battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest of the war, had come to an end.

A 17-year-old volunteer when he joined the Army in 1864, Mr. Woolson did not see action in Vicksburg or Gettysburg and, given his late entrance to the war, fired only one projectile — a cannon shot — into that hateful space between weapon and target.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the discharge was only practice and Mr. Woolson said it almost scared him to death. Shortly thereafter, on April 9, 1865, Mr. Woolson’s hero, Gen. Grant, accepted the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House in Appomattox, Va.

Mr. Woolson had moved with his family to Minnesota before he volunteered to go to war. At the time, his father had just returned home from the fighting with a badly injured leg.

Two weeks after Mr. Woolson was mustered out of the Army in 1865, his father died at age 45.

Mr. Woolson lived to the age of 109 and died in Duluth, Minn., in 1956, the last member of the Army that defended the Union.

Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the local section of the paper. He can be reached at dflatley@wdt.net.

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