Williamsport’s Last Civil War Soldier
Williamsport’s last surviving Civil War veteran, James Henry Willis, was a slave before serving in the Civil War in 1861. His path to freedom is a remarkable journey that should not be forgotten by locals and all Americans.
There is much about Willis’s early life, however, that cannot be known for certain. For Willis, as for nearly all former slaves after the Civil War, freedom began without any formal documentation verifying his identity, age or birth date. Suddenly free of the shackles of slavery, many freed men threw off their slave names and chose new ones. In the case of Willis, even the origin of his surname Willis is uncertain.
According to his obituary published in 1942 in New Jersey’s Montclair Times, Willis had recorded that he was born into slavery in the year 1840 near Richmond, Virginia. He was one of at least seven children to his mother, Mary.
As a slave, he was the property of Eliza Simms on a plantation near Richmond. A search of Federal Census Slave Schedules for 1850 & 1860 reveal a slaveholder named Eliza A. Sims of Louisa County, Virginia, who owned numerous slaves whose ages correspond with Willis and his family at the time. As was the practice, slave names were omitted from these records.
As the Civil War raged across Virginia, Willis made a wrenching decision. Leaving behind his mother, his grandmother and his siblings, he fled his plantation in the hopes of finding the Federal army. Reaching the banks of the Rappahannock River in Northern Virginia during the summer of 1862, he stumbled upon a detachment of the 1st New Jersey Calvary. For much of the next year, Willis traveled with the Union forces, working as a laborer as the army marched across Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
On August 25th, 1864, following President Lincoln’s General Order No. 143 that authorized the formation of U.S. Colored Regiments, war department records confirm that Willis enlisted into Co. C of the 127th Infantry, U.S. Colored, at Camp William Penn just north of Philadelphia.
Wounded in his left foot during the campaign surrounding the siege of Petersburg in 1864, Pvt. Willis stayed with his regiment through the last year of the war. Then on April 9th, 1865, the soldier witnessed a pivotal American history event. General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House in Virginia and Willis was there. Five months later, on September 6th, the newly-promoted Sergeant Willis was discharged from military service.
Willis later recorded that he returned to Pennsylvania after the war, where he married Mary Prettyman of Philadelphia. He took a job as a Pullman Porter on the railroad, which may have first brought him to Williamsport. After working as a plasterer and hotel porter, Willis found work as a messenger for the Williamsport National Bank in 1879, a job he had for nearly forty years.
In 1917, his wife, Mary, of nearly fifty years passed away at the age of 76. Willis then left Williamsport and moved to Montclair, New Jersey to live with his great-niece, Eva Virginia Clay, an Army nurse during WWI.
He lived another twenty-five years in Montclair and in 1940, on his 100th Birthday, President Franklin Roosevelt sent Willis a bouquet along with a message of congratulations writing. “It is a privilege not vouchsafed to many to round out a full century of life.”
Within the next year, however, Willis’ health began to rapidly deteriorate. Nearly six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor at the start of WWII, the veteran died at the age of 102. He was buried with full military honors at the Glendale Cemetery in Bloomfield, New Jersey on May 22nd, 1942.
A long-time Williamsport resident, this former slave was an unlikely soldier who embodied a spirit of resilience and patriotism shared by United States’ veterans everywhere. For Willis, and all who have served a grateful nation, their service should never be forgotten.