The End of the Long Gray Line
William Joshua Bush was the last of his kind, or perhaps one of the last of his kind. As a teenager, he fought for his country, the Confederate States of America. As a centenarian, Bush was celebrated as one of the last Confederate veterans of the Civil War, or the War Between the States, which ended in 1865. When he died, Bush was the last Georgian to have worn the gray, or butternut, uniform of the Confederacy.
William Joshua Bush was born in Wilkinson County, Georgia on July 10, 1845 or by some accounts in1846. That is his recorded date of birth, but the 1850 Census indicated that he was one year old and therefore was born in 1848 and not in 1845. His father Francis Marion Bush and his mother Elizabeth Pattisaul Bush lived in the western regions of the county, possibly near Gordon.
In July of 1861, just before the war began in reality, William enlisted in the Ramah Guards, designated as Company B of the 14th Georgia infantry. He lied about his age. He wasn't about to turn sixteen the next day. He was about to celebrate his first full day in the Confederate Army as a thirteen-year-old. The 14th Georgia saw action that month in the Battle of First Manassas, or Bull Run. When the fighting ceased for the fall and winter months, William was discharged and sent home to Wilkinson County.
A few months after his real 16th birthday, William enlisted in the Georgia Militia in October 1864. Only a few enrolling officers asked questions about age in those days. The Confederacy, and Georgia in particular, needed bodies who could fire a gun. General Sherman was in Atlanta, ready and poised to begin his climatic "March to the Sea."
Right in the line of his march was Wilkinson County. William's company first saw action in the area of East Macon near Cross Key's. He may have participated in the attack on the rear of the Union line near Griswoldville, Georgia, an attack which resulted in a devastating defeat for the militia, composed primarily of older men, wounded regulars and boys. According to Bush, he fought in the Battle of Atlanta. After viewing Gone With The Wind, he pronounced the depiction of Atlanta to be accurate. When he visited the Cyclorama in Atlanta, the circular painting brought back old memories of the climactic battle. It is said that he even pointed out the tree he hid behind, though the painting is merely an artist's conception. There is even a story that when he saw Union General William T. Sherman depicted on horseback, Bush, vowing "let me at him," had to be restrained by his wife.
Bush remained with his company until it surrendered at Stephen's Station on the Central of Georgia Railroad in 1865. Like many veterans, Bush loved to tell stories about his experiences in the war. He related the often told tale about the ransacking of the family home and how it was stopped when a Union officer discovered that the owner was a Mason. Masons, their homes and personal possessions, were considered off limits to looters and souvenir hunters. He told one interviewer, "when I got into the war we wore overalls, and when we surrendered in 1865, I didn't even have a pair of shoes."
After the war, Joshua, as he was most well known, married Mary Adeline Steeley. They had six children and were married until her death in 1915. In 1922, at the age of 54 or so, Bush married Effie T. Sharpe, a widowed mother of two small children.
For seventy-five years, Bush lived the normal life of an aging Confederate veteran. Bush ran a store on the Levi Harrell place and moved from Rhine in Dodge County to Fitzgerald the early 1870s. He received a pension check to help pay his bills. He was a regular church goer, serving as a senior deacon in the Baptist Church. He followed in his father's footsteps and became a member of a Masonic Lodge. He worked as long he could, taking jobs with the railroad, turpentine companies and even a short stint as a butcher in a grocery store.
It was in 1938 when Bush and the few surviving veterans of the war began to acquire celebrity status. That year marked the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Those veterans who could, gathered in the Pennsylvania town for one final reunion to commemorate the "High Water Mark of the Confederacy." As a souvenir of the event, Bush brought home a large rebel flag.
Joshua Bush spent his last years in Fitzgerald, which had been founded as a colony by former Union soldiers. For many years, Bush and Henry Brunner, the last surviving Union veteran in town, would meet at the city cemetery and place flowers on the graves of their deceased comrades. When Brunner died, Bush sent a flower from "the last of the gray to the last of the blue." As his status grew, the Judge of the Ordinary Court would personally deliver his pension check and bring the requisite amount of cash to cash the check and eliminate the need for Bush to go to the bank. He was often given an escort home by police officers when he stayed out late. He liked to stay out late.
Bush became somewhat of a celebrity. Admirers addressed the one-blue eyed centenarian (he lost an eye in a sawmill accident) as "General Bush." The owners of 20th Century Fox presented the general with a new uniform befitting his newfound stature. The aged rebel commented, "when I got into it we were in overalls. In 1865, when the army surrendered, I didn't even have a pair of shoes." In gratitude Bush vowed to be buried in the only uniform he ever owned. The uniform was donated to the Cyclorama Museum in Atlanta and later transferred to the Atlanta Historical Society. The producers of I'll Climb the Highest Mountain invited him to attend the movie's premiere in Atlanta.
As the decade of the 1950s came, the number of living veterans of the war began to dwindle rapidly. For the first time in his life, Joshua Bush boarded an airplane for Norfolk, Virginia. Bush joined John Sailing of Virginia and William Townsend of Louisiana for the 1951 Confederate Veteran's Reunion. (See below) It would turn out to be the last reunion of the Long Gray Line. By the spring of 1952, the remaining Confederate veterans outnumbered their Union counterparts - a stark contrast to the superior Northern armies during the war. In 1952, the Sons of the Confederate Veterans held their annual meeting in Jackson, Mississippi, with only Joshua Bush and William Townsend of Louisiana in attendance. The delegates sadly voted to end the reunions.
On November 11, 1952, Joshua Bush, Georgia's last Confederate veteran died. His body was laid to rest in Evergreen Cemetery in Fitzgerald with Masonic and military honors. For the last time in history, Confederate flags were flown all over the state at half mast in his honor. It was a time that brought a great sorrow to those who still remembered the tales of their fathers and grandfathers of days of long ago.