In March 1864, a 21-year-old man from Jay County, Ind. – the small town of Portland, to be specific – enlisted in the United States Army and was assigned to the 34th Indiana Regiment, also known as the Morton Rifles, Company B. That’s how young John Jefferson Williams, a blacksmith by trade, began his service in the Civil War.
Now, nearly a century and a half later, that Indiana boy rests under the ground in Pineville, one of thousands of Union troops buried at Alexandria National Cemetery. Williams holds the distinction of being the last soldier killed in the War Between the States.
So how did a youthful Hoosier end up interred in the Pelican State, roughly 850 miles from his home in Indiana? Why is Williams’ final resting place located in an 8.2-acre national cemetery in Pineville, in section B, grave 797, under a simple white headstone nestled in a grassy field with hundreds of other similar cemetery plots?
After transferring through several sections of the Union Army, the 34th Indiana served with distinction under Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in the crucial Vicksburg campaign. The Morton Rifles were then ordered to help in the defense of New Orleans.
From there, the 34th was assigned to the Department of Texas and shipped to Brownsville, Texas, in May 1865.
There, they joined a small Union force that also consisted of two regiments of famed Buffalo Soldiers, black troops who volunteered to defend the Union.
It was then, on May 13, that the 34th Indiana took part in the Battle of Palmito Ranch (alternately called Palmetto Ranch), the final skirmish of the Civil War. The clash near Brownsville came more than a month after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. The Palmito Ranch skirmish occurred despite an earlier agreement between both sides to cease hostilities in south Texas.
The clash ended with a Confederate victory, and according to Jeffrey W. Hunt’s The Last Battle of the Civil War: Palmetto Ranch, the 34th Indiana suffered most of the Union casualties. Out of the 114 Union soldiers lost during the battle, 76 of them came from the Hoosier regiment.
That unfortunately included John J. Williams, who was mortally wounded by a Confederate bullet during the skirmish. According to Hunt, Williams’ body was left on the battlefield, where Confederate soldiers, in dire need of essentials, took his shoes, socks, pants and hat. The $45 in Williams’ pocket was recovered by Union troops and made its way back to his widow in Indiana.
The last soldier of either side to die in the Civil War was then buried with thousands of his comrades in a national cemetery in Brownsville, Texas, near Fort Brown.
However, the Army eventually abandoned the fort in 1909, forcing the disinterment and relocation of about 3,800 Union officers and soldiers – including John J. Williams from Portland, Ind. – from the Mexican War, the Civil War and a yellow fever epidemic in the mid-1880s.
The July 19, 1911, edition of The Beaumont Journal announced on its front page that the Union bodies began their journey the day before. The disinterment and removal contract was given to N.E. Rendall, who submitted a successful bid to the Federal government. The remains were shipped to Pineville. The moved bodies were reinterred over a period of several months. That included Williams, whose eternal claim to fame as the final man killed in the bloody War Between the States remains intact.
Williams and thousands of peers now rest in Pineville. In 1867, the town became the home of Alexandria National Cemetery.
The cemetery currently holds the bodies of more than 10,000 veterans. In addition to Williams and other casualties of the Union’s invasion of Texas, Alexandria contains the final resting places of numerous Buffalo soldiers, as well as casualties of the Civil War’s Red River campaign.
While Williams is perhaps the most prominent transfer from the closed Brownsville cemetery, there are also many soldiers who, in death, have no names – one grave at Pineville includes the remains of more than 1,500 unknown soldiers transferred from Texas.
Many elements of Alexandria National Cemetery’s infrastructure – such as the utility building, main gate, rostrum and the one-story Colonial Revival superintendent’s lodge – date back to 1930s. The cemetery’s brick perimeter wall was erected in 1878.
Within that wall rests the remains of John Jefferson Williams, a man barely into his 20s, the last soldier killed in the Civil War, a casualty of the Battle of Palmito Ranch.
Alexandria National Cemetery is located a 209 East Shamrock St. in Pineville. For more information, call (318) 449-1793 or visit www.nps.gov.