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The Last Man to Die in the American Civil War

Ron is a student of the American Civil War and writes about it frequently. His focus is not so much on the battles as on the people.

Who Is John Jefferson Williams?

Although you may never have heard it before, the name John Jefferson Williams has a unique significance in American history.

It’s not because he was a great military leader—Williams served as a private in the Union Army and only fought in one battle during the Civil War. Tragically, that first battle was also his last. When he was killed in that engagement, he became the last soldier to die in action in the American Civil War.

What made Williams’ first and only battle doubly tragic is that it occurred weeks after the outcome of the war had been decided and under circumstances that made his death a senseless and useless testament to the vanity (or bad judgment) of one man, his commanding officer. It was a sacrifice that need not and should not have happened.

The Life of John Jefferson Williams

According to the Geni genealogy website, John Jefferson Williams was born on June 9, 1841, in Redkey, Jay County, Indiana.

He was born into a large family with eight brothers and sisters. A blacksmith by trade, he was described as six feet tall and very handsome. He married his sweetheart, Sarah Jane, and had a son, Arthur, who was born on September 30, 1863. After Williams’ death, Sarah Jane would remarry and have four more children.

Williams was 22 when he volunteered for the Union army. He reported for duty in March of 1864 and was assigned to Company B, 34th Indiana Regiment. At that time, the regiment’s mission was to do garrison and guard duty in Union-occupied New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta. During this period, Pvt. Williams and his comrades saw no action and never fired a shot in anger.

In December of 1864, the 34th was sent west, where they joined with the 62nd U.S. Colored Troops in occupying the South Texas coast. It should have been an easy assignment since both the Confederate and Union commanders in that region knew the war was nearing its end. There was no need for any more fighting and dying.

The War Was Essentially Over

If the Confederate States of America (CSA) had a tombstone marking its demise, the date of death on that stone would be April 9, 1865. That’s the day when the Confederate General in Chief, Robert E. Lee, sat down with the Union commanding general, Ulysses S. Grant, in the parlor of Wilmer McLean’s house in Appomattox, Virginia, and put his signature to the document of surrender that effectively ended the American Civil War.

The states that formed the Southern Confederacy had attempted to secede from the Union in order to preserve their “peculiar institution” of slavery. In doing so they had initiated a civil war that became the bloodiest conflict in American history. That conflict had raged for four years of the most intense fighting ever seen on the North American continent.

But now there was no more fight left in the Confederacy. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was the premier fighting force of the Confederacy, and with its surrender the ability of the CSA to mount any effective resistance to the overwhelming might of the Union disappeared forever.

Union and Confederate Commanders Informally Agree to Stop Fighting

The last engagement between Union and Confederate forces in the Civil War, the Battle of Palmito Ranch, was fought more than a month after the surrender at Appomattox. It might be thought that the fighting continued so long after the Confederacy had breathed its last because slow communication between the eastern and western theatres of war caused the news to arrive late. But that wasn’t the case.

A month before Appomattox, in March of 1865, commanders of both the Confederate and Union forces west of the Mississippi River acknowledged that there was no hope for a Confederate revival, and the war would soon be over. They reached, and abided by, a “gentlemen’s agreement” to stop fighting, even though their respective command structures had given no such orders.

By May 1, 1865, news of Lee’s surrender had crossed the river and arrived at the Confederate outpost at Brownsville, Texas. One rebel officer noted that:

“The news was soon known to all the troops, and caused them to desert, by the score, and to return home; so that on the morning of the 12th of May 1865, there was not more than three hundred men at and below Brownsville.”

With the gentlemen’s agreement to stop fighting, and the news of Lee’s surrender causing many Confederate soldiers to walk away from their units and go home, there should have been no threat of any more battles being fought in a war that most combatants realized was over.

But that was not the case. In spite of the agreement to stop fighting and the surrender of the Confederacy’s general in chief, one last battle was fought in Texas. It was in that battle that John Jefferson Williams died his senseless and useless death. And, many historians believe, it was all due to the vanity of one man.

Col. Barrett Decides to Attack

Colonel Theodore Barrett, a 30-year-old Minnesotan, was the White commander of the 62nd U.S. Colored Regiment (all Civil War commanding officers, even in all-Black units, were White). Barret had just received a brevet (honorary) appointment to the rank of brigadier general, but had never actually led troops in battle. Knowing that the war would soon be officially declared at an end, and with a future political career in view, he apparently wanted his military record to show that he fought in at least one engagement during the conflict.

So, he decided to attack and occupy Brownsville, Texas. That decision brought on the Battle of Palmito Ranch, fought May 12-13, 1865. Barrett sent 300 men, under the immediate command of Lieutenant Colonel David Branson, to attack the Confederate positions. Although he was not initially on the front lines in person, Barrett exercised overall command of the operation, and personally directed the Union troop dispositions during the second day of the battle.

The Battle of Palmito Ranch—a Final Confederate Victory

The attack was a disaster for the Union.

At first the Union forces achieved some success against the outnumbered Confederates. But when the rebels received reinforcements and counterattacked, Barrett was forced to order an ignominious retreat. Although casualties were never accurately counted, in his official report of the battle, filed August 10, 1865, Barrett claimed that the Union loss in the two-day battle was 105 men captured, nine wounded, and one killed.

That unfortunate “one” was Private John Jefferson Williams.

Why Did Barrett Attack?

Col. Barrett, who died July 20, 1900, left no record of why he made his decision to launch an attack against quiescent Confederate forces that would probably have soon dispersed anyway. Some historians, however, believe they know why he did it. Jamie Malanowski, writing in the Smithsonian Magazine, puts the case this way:

The last soldier to die in action during the Civil War was killed by vanity… Barrett, a white officer newly breveted to brigadier general, evidently decided that the greatest clash of arms in North American history could not draw to a close without his personal participation in battle.

An alternative possibility is that Barrett may have wanted to procure provisions and horses for his men. Years after the war, Lt. Col. Branson, who was tasked with leading the attack against Brownsville, stated that Barrett initiated the battle because of a desire to “stop the clamoring of the troops generally, for fresh beef to eat and lumber to build barracks and for horses to ride while scouting for future supplies.”

It seems highly unlikely that, with the war practically over, any responsible commander would have decided to break a truce both sides had honored, and start a battle to “stop the clamoring” of his troops, many of whom could look forward to being discharged and going home within a matter of weeks. In fact, it was just a few days after the battle that the Confederate commander at Brownsville ordered the Union prisoners taken during the engagement released, and sent his own men home.

As historian Stephen A. Townsend notes, if Barrett was seeking horses and beef for his men, it would have made more sense to approach the Confederates under a flag of truce rather than attacking them.

Barrett’s performance as a commander after the battle wasn’t much better than during it. According to Townsend,

“Barrett, in an effort to deflect responsibility from himself, brought charges against Lieutenant Colonel Morrison of the Thirty-fourth Indiana for his alleged poor performance during the battle.”

A court martial found Col. Morrison innocent of all charges.

The Tragedy of Private Williams

John Jefferson Williams was 23 years of age when he died in the Battle of Palmito Ranch on May 13, 1865. It was the afternoon of the last day of the last battle of the Civil War.

According to one report, Pvt. Williams had fired his rifle during the battle, and was reloading when a bullet struck him just above his right eye. He died on the spot, and his body was left on the battlefield by his retreating comrades.

The victorious Confederates, themselves desperate for clothing, stripped his body of shoes, socks, pants and hat. The $45 he had in his pocket was eventually recovered by Union soldiers and sent home to his widow, Sarah Jane.

With their own forces now disbanding, the Confederates turned Pvt. Williams’ body over to Union troops. Ironically, he was initially buried in Brownsville, the very town he died trying to get into.

By all rights, this young man, who had never been in combat until that final fatal day, should have survived the war without a scratch and returned home to live happily ever after with his wife, son, and perhaps more children. But Col. Barrett’s ill-advised attack changed that destiny forever.

© 2021 Ronald E Franklin