March 24, 1921 The Civil War, Laid to Rest

As young men, these two had been mortal enemies, each bent on killing the other.  Now as aging veterans, the pair spent their last years exchanging family photographs and wishing the other, continued good health.

The past met the present that April Friday, seven short years ago.  Re-enactors dressed and equipped for another age, leading the hearse carrying twin gold boxes down roads lined with Patriot Guard riders.  There the blue sack coats and slouch hats of another era met the black berets and service caps, the crisp, midnight blue of the ASU, the modern “dress blues” of the United States Army.   There were uniforms new and old, veterans and historians and children and throngs of the curious, with cell phone cameras.

The last veteran of the Civil War was being laid to rest.  That doesn’t even begin to tell the story.

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Willis Meadows was nineteen in the spring of 1862, joining his brothers and cousins in Company G of the 37th Alabama Volunteer Infantry, assigned to the western front along the Mississippi and defending what he would have described as the “War of Northern Aggression”.

On July 1, 1863, the Union armies of General US Grant made the final drive on the “Gibraltar of the Mississippi”, the fortified strong point of Vicksburg.

Meadows watched the oncoming blue uniforms, the sharpshooter sheltered behind the iron boiler plate, picking off his enemy through a hole in the iron.

Peter Knapp was 21 that day, approaching from the east with three other Union soldiers from Company H of the 5th Iowa Volunteer Infantry.  Their job was to take out Confederate snipers. Knapp spotted Meadows firing from his shelter and took aim, firing at that peephole. Willis Meadows fell over with blood running down his face, the bullet entering through his eye and coming to a rest, near his brain.

The battle moved on leaving Meadows where he lay. There was no question the man was dead, except, he wasn’t. Federal troops picking up the dead afterward discovered this one, still breathing. Union surgeons probed for the bullet with no success before deciding to quit. Such a procedure was far too dangerous. Meadows was placed on a POW ship and later paroled to a Confederate hospital where he spent the rest of the war, first as a patient and later as nurse’s aid.

Knapp was captured a few months after Vicksburg and held in a number of Confederate POW camps, including the dread hell on earth known as Andersonville.

After the war, Meadows returned to the farm in Lanett Alabama, just over the Georgia state line. He later married though the marriage bore no children and may have died in obscurity, except it wasn’t meant to be.

Knapp farmed for a time in Michigan and married in 1887 before moving to Kelso, Washington.

The decades came and went. The assassinations of three Presidents. The panic of 1893. The War to end all wars. Willis Meadows was seventy-eight this day in 1921, when he began to choke. He grasped his throat with both hands as violent spasms wracked his old body.  The fear that this was the end turned to certainty as the lights began to dim, and then the object flew from his mouth and clattered across the floor.  It was that bullet, lodged in his head nigh on sixty years.

The “Coughs Up Bullet” story was national news in 1921.  Eleven years later, the “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” cartoon was published in 42 countries and 17 languages.


Mr. Ripley missed the most surprising part.

The story came and went with the next twenty nine years, until one Henry Kilburn brought a diary to the attention of a Washington state newspaper editor, in 1950.  Seems Kilburn’s family fell on hard times and the Knapp family, childless, adopted Kilburn’s sister, Minnie Mae.

It was Mae Knapp who gave that diary to her brother.  It was Peter Knapp’s diary.

Peter Knapp had seen that story back in 1921 and realized, he had to have been the man who fired that bullet. The pair met months later and compared stories. It was true.  As young men, these two had been mortal enemies, each bent on killing the other.  Now as aging veterans, the pair spent their last years exchanging family photographs and wishing the other, continued good health.

Alice Knapp of Nehalem Oregon was the child of another era, a woman born into the age of DNA who loved to study genealogy.  Alice was investigating her husband’s roots in 2009 when she came upon Peter’s story, now dead some eighty-five years. Inquiring as to where the man had been buried, Alice was stunned to learn that he wasn’t. Even more astonishingly, neither was his wife, Georgianna.  Childless, the cremated ashes of the couple were sitting on a storage shelf, unclaimed and forgotten all those years.

Alice explained, “I felt the ashes had to be buried or at least scattered somewhere.  Not sitting in some storage locker.”


In April 2012, reported:

“The Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War performed a ritual for the dead based on a Grand Army of the Republic ceremony from 1873. The funeral also included a bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace,” a bugler…performing “Taps,” and the laying of wreaths. Following a musket salute, a folded U.S. flag was presented to Alice Knapp”.

So it is the last known veteran of the Civil War was laid to rest, only seven short years ago. 151 years to the day, following the Confederate victory at Fort Sumter.


A Trivial Matter
In October 1861, William Tecumseh Sherman told US Secretary of war Simon Cameron he needed 60,000 men to defend the Kentucky territory, and 200,000 to go on the offensive. Cameron considered the request “insane” and cashiered the commander, very nearly leading to Sherman’s death by his own hand. General Ulysses S Grant, long rumored to have a problem with alcohol, did not see craziness in the disgraced commander, but a unique sort of quiet competence. Later in the war, a civilian ran his mouth at General Grant’s expense. Sherman came to the defense of his friend and commander, saying “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other“.

March 24, 1921 Coughing up Bullets

Twenty-one-year-old Peter Knapp spotted the Confederate sharpshooter, behind the iron plate. He raised his rifle, aimed at the peephole, and fired.

Willis Meadows grasped his throat, as he began to choke. The one-eyed 78-year old couldn’t breathe, as spasms became more violent. Whatever was in there wouldn’t come out. He thought his time had come. That’s when the bullet flew out of his mouth, clattering across the wooden table and onto the kitchen floor. It was March 24, 1921.

meadowsandknapp1Fifty-nine years earlier, nineteen-year-old Willis V. Meadows signed up with his brothers and his cousins, enlisting in Company G of the 37th Alabama Volunteer Infantry.

Meadows was assigned to the western front along the Mississippi River. By the following summer, Company G had joined in defending Vicksburg Mississippi, laid siege by the Union army of Major General Ulysses S Grant.

On July 1, Meadows was positioned just outside of town, firing at the oncoming Yankees through a peephole in an iron boiler plate. Three blue-clad soldiers approached from the east, members of Company H of the Fifth Iowa Volunteer Infantry, with orders to take out enemy snipers.

Twenty-one-year-old Peter Knapp spotted the Confederate sharpshooter, behind the iron plate. He raised his rifle, aimed at the peephole, and fired. It was a perfect shot, the one-ounce slug clearing the small hole and striking the sniper in the right eye.

vi_msWillis fell over apparently dead, blood streaming out of his eye with the bullet lodged near his brain.  The battle moved on. Vicksburg Mississippi fell to the Union army on July 4, 1863. The “Confederate Gibraltar” wouldn’t celebrate another Independence Day, for 80 years.

Meanwhile, Meadows was found and brought to Union physicians. Surgeons probed for the bullet but were unable to find it, and didn’t feel it was safe to operate. Instead, he was put on a POW ship and brought to a Federal hospital. Meadows was later paroled and brought to a Confederate hospital, there to spend the remainder of the war as a patient and sometime nurse’s aide.

Peter Knapp was captured that November at Missionary Ridge, part of the Chattanooga campaign, and spent the rest of the war in a number of Confederate prisons, including the Hell of Andersonville.

Both went back to civil life after the war. Meadows returned to his farm in Lanett, Alabama, just east of the Georgia state line. He would later marry, but the marriage produced no children. Knapp farmed for a time in Michigan before marrying, later moving to Kelso, in Washington state.

downloadWillis Meadows and Peter Knapp might have walked off the page of their time and on to obscurity, but for a circumstance even more unlikely, than a man holding a bullet in his head for fifty-eight years.

Following Meadows’ coughing episode in 1921, “Coughs Up Bullet” was a newspaper story, all over the country. “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” ran the story eleven years later, published around the world in 42 countries and 17 languages. Even Robert Ripley missed the best part.

Peter Knapp read the story, and realized that that had to have been his bullet. He contacted Meadows a few months later, and the two compared notes.  Sure enough.  The two had met again.

When politicians make war, it is the young men and sometimes the young women, who do the fighting, and the bleeding, and the dying. Now these two old men, former mortal enemies who had tried their level best to kill one another, became friends. The two old warriors spent the rest of their days, exchanging photographs and wishing each other good health.

The Central Point Oregon newspaper editor who heard the story in 1950, had the final word.  “Can you beat that for a story?” he asked.  “How small this little old world is, after all.”


article-2129086-12920C7E000005DC-788_306x483It’s remarkable enough that Peter Knapp survived the brutality of the notorious Andersonville prison camp, an institution described as the “Auschwitz of the Civil War”. The Union POW camp at Elmira New York might be described as the Andersonville of the North. My own thrice-Great Grandfather went to his final rest there, along with his brother.
A passage from Knapp’s journal written in January 1862 expresses the man’s patriotism: ‘May God give wisdom and strength to our rulers that they counsel wisely, so that this government, which has been the wonder of the world, may triumph over its many enemies, crush treason to the earth never to rise again and proving to the world that republican governments are capable of withstanding any storm which may gather on their political horizon.’
Following his death in 1924 at the age of 81, Peter Knapp’s remains were cremated and, for whatever reason, never claimed by his family. The ‘cremains’ of his wife Georgianna joined those of her husband in 1930, and there they sat, unclaimed.
download (28)In 2012, Alice Knapp was researching the genealogical records of her deceased husband Steve, when she came upon the story of his ancestor. Stunned to learn that he had never been buried, Ms. Knapp called the Portland crematorium. ‘Yeah, he’s here’. Alice Knapp got the death certificate in Washington. I “called back and said, ‘By the way, is his wife there?’ and they said, ‘Yeah.’ The shock was that he was not ever buried. That was the surprise to me.”
So it was that Peter Knapp of the 5th Iowa Infantry was laid to rest with his wife at the Willamette National Cemetery in Oregon, with full military honors provided by the Oregon National Guard.
A folded American flag was presented to representatives of the Knapp family, ‘on behalf of a grateful nation’.  One-hundred and forty-seven years, after the Civil War.
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