Last Man Standing

An 1864 photograph of Orlando LeValley

On April 22, 1948, Orlando LeValley died at his farm outside Caro, Mich. The longtime farmer, who had enlisted in the 23rd Michigan Infantry Regiment as a 16-year-old in 1864, was the last of the 90,000 Michigan veterans of the Civil War to die. The press reported that LeValley had outlived his wife, Hannah, by 30 years, and one of their six children. He left 15 grandchildren (three of whom had served in World War II) and 29 great-grandchildren. LeValley, who had enjoyed telling people that he heard President Lincoln’s second inaugural address while on furlough in 1865, was just five months shy of 100 when he died.

In September 1948, just about the time LeValley would have celebrated his milestone birthday, 104-year-old Joseph Clovese moved without fanfare from his native Louisiana to Pontiac to live with friends. Born a slave in 1844, Clovese had run away from his owner to join the Union army. He served as a drummer boy during the siege of Vicksburg before enlisting in the 63rd Colored Infantry. The Grand Army of the Republic, unlike most fraternal groups of the era, officially had no color bar, so Clovese was a longtime member of one of the New Orleans posts.

A few weeks after moving to Michigan, Clovese called the local newspaper to inquire about the nearest GAR post. The following day, readers were surprised to learn that Michigan had a new “last man standing” in Civil War circles. “Uncle Joe” Clovese became a minor celebrity, enjoying press coverage and birthday parties. When the GAR’s 83rd — and final — National Encampment was held in Indianapolis in 1949, its roster had dwindled to a dozen members. Six, including Clovese, were healthy enough to attend the reunion.

Clovese spent less than three years in Michigan. He was 107 and the last surviving black veteran of the Civil War when he died at the veterans hospital in Dearborn on July 13, 1951. Clovese’s passing left five former Union soldiers still alive. The last of them, former drummer boy Albert Woolson of Minnesota, died on Aug. 2, 1956. He was 109. With his death, the Grand Army of the Republic passed out of existence, its legacy officially transferred to its Sons of Union Veterans auxiliary.

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