Our Annual Story: The Oldest Surviving Confederate Soldier

By William B. Mead

Many news operations have an annual story, sometimes the anniversary of the birth or death of a prominent citizen. At UPI in Richmond, where I worked from 1958 to 1961, the date was May 15, and the prominent citizen was John B. Salling, hailed as the oldest surviving soldier of the Confederate Army.

“Uncle John,” as he was known, or so we were told, lived in Slant, Virginia, an outpost in the Appalachians of southwest Virginia. We didn’t have to arrange coverage because we knew we’d get a collect call from Bill Perry, a local school teacher. He claimed to be John Salling’s best friend. His annual phone call went something like this:

UPI staffer: “Hi, Bill. Yes, we know it’s Uncle John’s birthday. Any party? Any visitors? How is the old man?”

Perry: “Yes, Uncle John insisted I be there. We brought him a cake. He said, ‘I sure am glad to celebrate my birthday with my old friend Bill Perry.”

UPI staffer:  “How did he look?”

Perry: “He brightened up as soon as I walked in the door.”

And so on.

Salling wasn’t a hero at Antietam or Gettysburg. In fact, he never wore Confederate gray, although he was a private in the rebel army. He was posted at home, digging saltpeter out of a nearby mine. Saltpeter was an ingredient of gunpowder.

And Bill Perry was an ingredient of the annual oldest Confederate veteran story. He was the John Salling stringer for the UPI, the AP, the Richmond, Norfolk, Roanoke, and Washington newspapers, Time, Newsweek, and all the broadcast networks.

Salling died on March 16, 1959, and his tombstone calls him “General John Salling,” born 1846.  The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs cited him as the last surviving Confederate veteran, after the longtime leader, Walter Williams of Houston, was exposed as not-so-old-after-all.  The Guinness Book of World Records listed Salling as the “oldest soldier” of all time, at 113 years and 1 day old. Then his age was backed off to 112. Subsequent research nailed him as being born in 1856, not 1846, and only 103 at death, so the crown for oldest Confederate veteran passed to Pleasant Crump, who died in 1951 at 104.

I hope Private Crump had a Bill Perry.

William B. Mead is a veteran Washington journalist and author. His latest work is the e-book Come Back Moo, a biography of his remarkable grandfather. After working in UPI’s Richmond bureau, he also covered civil rights in Detroit, where he was one of the first reporters on the street when the riot of 1967 broke out, and in Washington, where he helped cover the 1968 riots that erupted after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Comments

  1. Beckie Mostello says

    great info. I am in the process of researching my husband’s side of the family. John B. Salling is my husband’s distant grandfather. I have been collecting as much info I can about John. We even visited Scott County. I have also been trying to find info about Isobelle Mead, first wife of Joseph Salling. Any connection to you? Thanks for the info, it’s great!

    • Garry Victor Hill says

      Would you know the date of John B. Salling’s marriage to Mary? It is around 1869.

    • Garry Victor Hill says

      In his recent book Last of the Blue and the Gray Richard A. Serrano states that John Sallings was married for 70 years and married “soon after the Civil War.”. As his wife died in 1939 that knocks the 1850s birthdates askew unless he married as young as eight or at most thirteen. 1848 seems more liklely. I’ll have more on this on my website when it is running, soon. Do you know his marriage date? Check out Richard A. Serrano’s Last of the Blue and the Gray

    • Look up Linda jean from Spring Hill Florida she can give you a lot of info on John sallings it was her great grand father

  2. gary edens says

    As a youngin of about 4 to 7 (1953 to 1956), I can remember walking with my mama to visit uncle john and several of her other aunts and uncles when we went to visit granny and pa ( my mama’s parents in slant). I think he was about 105 or 109 at the time. the thing I remember most about uncle john was his bed of sticks as I thought at the time. his bed was a cot made of tree limbs or saplings and the house was basically a one or 2 room slab sided shack. His hair was still black and mama said he told her that was because he never washed it. I was about 9 or 10 when uncle john died. I went to his funeral. It was the year (1959) after my papa died in 1958 ( my daddy’s pop). If I remember correctly uncle john was about 14 when he joined the confederate army about 1864 or 1865 as a peter monkey. he just loaded the peter hoppers with dirt or bat poop from the caves to get the salt peter for black powder. he said he never toted a gun and never fired a shot, but he got shot at for stealing chickens, eggs, and stuff from gardens. I think he may have been the illegal son of a slave woman.

  3. Linda Hawkins Louallen says

    He was born May 15,1846 & died March 1959. He was my gr grandpa & I lived with him & my grandmaw until his death.

  4. Gary edens says

    Linda you may remember my grand parents Nan and Clarence Kinkead. My mother was Georgia. You are probably the lady that was with him when my mama would stop to visit. I don’t think he was actually a great great uncle to mother, but I think they were some distant kin. I seem to remember a story about uncle john eating a dozen ears of corn and praying if the good lord would get rid of 6 of them he would do his best to get rid of the other 6.

  5. Gary edens says

    Linda, you may also remember my uncle Bill Kinkead. He died Monday and was the last of ma and paw kinkead’s children.

  6. Sally Davis says

    We lived in a trailer very close to John cabin.. I was three years old when we lived in Virginia…. I can remember going into the old cabin he lived in that… the walls were lined with newspaper… my moms family still live in the holler where John lived… my grandparents were Bartley and rosa salling, my mother was Pearl salling I also have an old leather wallet that my grandfather had that was John Salling it has lots of old receipts and such…. My cousin JD Roton is actually buried in the same cemetery as general john salling, he drowned in the cinch river

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