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Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Last Casualty of the Civil War

An estimated 700,000 men died in the Civil War. Historians have often asked the question: who was the last?

Generally the answer has been this unfortunate fellow, Private John J. Williams of the 34th Indiana Infantry, who was killed at the Battle of Palmito Ranch in Texas on May 13, 1865.

It was Williams' first battle and a completely unnecessary one. Both sides had heard the news of Lee's surrender and Johnston discussing terms with Sherman. Already there were mass desertions in the Texas units.

Maj.-General Kirby Smith, commander of all Confederate forces in the Trans-Mississippi theater, wanted to fight on. Rebel troops were still active in southeastern Texas, where they headed across the Mexican border to trade for much-needed supplies. There was a Union garrison just off the coast on Brazos Island and the commander sent some troops to take Brownsville, the border town through which the rebel supplies came.

The resulting battle saw the Union pushing back the rebels in the morning until rebel reinforcements arrived. Then the tables were turned and it was the bluecoats' turn to retreat. Casualties were low and only one man was reported killed, Private Williams on the Union side. So Williams got the unfortunate distinction of being the last man killed in the Civil War.

Other historians disagree, and point to the Skirmish at Hobdy's Bridge six days later.  On May 19, a group of men from the First Florida Cavalry (Union) rendezvoused at the bridge just over the border in Alabama to rejoin their unit after being on furlough. Unknown to them, their comrades had already set out after some Confederate bushwhackers.

The bushwhackers, however, were actually hiding near the bridge and opened fire on the latecomers. Three men from the First Florida were wounded and a fourth, Corporal John W. Skinner, was killed. After the war, the three men applied for an extra pension for being wounded in action, but army red tape told them since they were on furlough, they weren't qualified. It took three decades of wrangling before the army ruled they had returned to active duty when they arrived at the bridge as ordered, and therefore got an extra pension. Since the court ruled they were on active duty, Corporal Skinner was the last man to be killed in the Civil War.

Or maybe not. Further research of skirmishes in the waning days of the Civil War would probably uncover more such "last casualties." Dying in war is always tragic, but to die when the war was pretty much over must have been a doubly hard blow for these men's families.

Photo of Private Williams courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


  1. War causes a lot of senseless deaths. Some enjoy it so much they don't want to stop the fighting. At least now, communications are better. Civil wars are never nice.

  2. Sounds like it would be as interesting to study the waning days as the war itself.

    1. On my long list of projects is an idea to write After Appomattox, a history of the Civil War after Lee's surrender.

  3. War causes a lot of deaths that are unnecessary. This is a really great post!


  4. Awesome post. Private Williams was a good lookin' young man. What a senseless death.
    A to Z-ing
    Peanut Butter and Whine


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