• Guest Contributor

Parting Shot: Two Pennsylvania Cavalrymen End the Civil War

On April 9, 1865 Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, an event commonly viewed as the end of the Civil War. For George Burkel and George Farber, however, the war ended not with the stroke of Lee’s pen at Appomattox, but in North Carolina four days later, with the boom of their cannon.

George Burkel (Courtesy Chip Barkel)


Years after the conflict, Farber and Burkel were known in their hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, as the men who fired the last shot of the Civil War. An examination of their claim sheds light not only on the story of their service, but also on the reality of the war’s end and the ongoing debate over its memory and commemoration.

George Farber (Courtesy Sean Paul Murphy)


Farber and Burkel shared more in common than their first name. Both were European immigrants from what is today Germany, and arrived in the United States as children. George Farber was born in Allebach, Prussia, in 1840, the oldest of seven children. His family immigrated in 1843, living first in New York City before going to Scranton in 1845. [1] Burkel, born in 1838 in the village of Willstätt, immigrated with his older brother at the age of 11, also settling in New York before going to Scranton.[2]


The experience of both men growing up in Scranton reflected that of a majority of European immigrants who settled in northeastern Pennsylvania in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Once a small town in the Lackawanna Valley, the city of Scranton began to boom with the discovery of anthracite coal in the region. Burkel spent his early years working as a laborer in the growing city, while Farber found employment with the Pennsylvania Coal Company as a driver, leading the mules which pulled the carloads of coal through the mines.[3]


The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 found both young men eager and willing to serve their adopted country. They enlisted at the same time, possibly together, although no extant documents support that they knew each other before the war. October 1861 saw both mustered into Company B of the 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry. Burkel had a leg up on Farber, having already served a three-month enlistment with the 15th Pennsylvania Infantry, and one can imagine him initiating his greenhorn comrade into military life at Camp Cameron, near Harrisburg, where the regiment mustered for training.[4]

The 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry was a unique unit, an eastern regiment that fought exclusively in the Western Theater for the entire duration of the war. After its initial training, the regiment was sent first to Kentucky and then Tennessee, where it saw action against John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate raiders throughout 1862. Attached to the Army of the Cumberland, the 9th fought at Chickamauga in September 1863, where it protected the army’s right flank. When the Union left collapsed, the regiment linked up with the men rallied by General George Thomas, continuing to fight and buy time for the rest of the army to retreat.[5] Years after the war, Farber and Burkel would travel together to the battlefield to attend the dedication of a monument to their regiment.[6]

9th PA Cavalry Monument, Chickamauga Battlefield. (Author's collection)

Newspaper sketch showing Farber and Burkel at the 9th PA Cavalry Monument during their 1897 visit to Chickamauga. (Scranton Tribune)


With the reorganization of Union forces that came after the Chickamauga and Chattanooga campaigns, the men of the 9th found themselves fighting through Georgia with Sherman on his legendary March to the Sea. After helping Sherman fulfill his promise to “make Georgia howl,” the 9th headed north with him, participating in his lesser known, but equally destructive march through the Carolinas. It was this final, crucial campaign that helped bring the war to its end, and set the stage for Farber’s and Burkel’s parting shot.[7]


The war’s end becomes clearest when the 1865 campaigns in Virginia and North Carolina are viewed in conjunction. Lee’s objective in his retreat from Petersburg southwest across Virginia was to link up with General Joseph Johnston’s army in North Carolina, which, together with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, would constitute the largest Confederate fighting force in the east. Grant’s goal was to stop Lee before that happened. Sherman, advancing up through the Carolinas, sought to do the same to Johnston. When viewed in this light, the surrender at Appomattox can be seen for what it was: one half of a two-part strategy in which Sherman’s campaign in North Carolina was equally decisive and crucial to bringing about the war’s end.


As Grant and Lee met to discuss terms in Wilmer McLean’s parlor in Appomattox, Farber, Burkel, and the rest of the 9th were riding with Union Cavalry General Judson Kilpatrick toward Raleigh, skirmishing with Rebel cavalry and clearing the way for Sherman’s occupation of the state capital. After taking the city on April 13th, the Yankee horsemen continued to push straggling Confederates toward Durham. It was in the course of this running fight, as Union and Confederate troopers clashed near the town of Morrisville, that Farber and Burkel fired their famous last round. [8]


During the engagement, Burkel and Farber were serving on detached duty with an artillery unit fighting alongside Kilpatrick’s cavalry. Burkel recalled the incident years later for a Scranton newspaper. He remembered:


It was on Thursday, April 13, 1865, between 2 and 3 o’clock in the afternoon that the firing took place. Abraham Van Norman, now residing at Ithaca, NY, who enlisted under the name of Albert Shaw, was the gunner in charge. The gun had been fired several times and the gunner was in the act of discharging it when a flag of truce was hoisted and Gen. Kilpatrick ordered the firing to cease, but Shaw shouted ‘Let her go any how!’ and pulled the lanyard. After the shot a messenger came from Gen. Johnston announcing that Lee had surrendered.[9]


William Thomas, another private in Company B, did not know exactly who fired the cannon at Morrisville, but knew his regiment was involved, noting in his diary that “the enemy was routed in the wildest confusion, broken by the terrific fire of the battery of the Ninth Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Cavalry.”[10]

9th Cavalry banner listing battles fought.  Note Morrisville, NC at the bottom. (PA Capitol Preservation Committee) 


George Farber’s 1900 obituary in The Scranton Tribune gave only a vague description of the incident, stating that “They were operating a large gun in a wooded place some distance from the main body and in this way continued firing after hostilities had been called off, they not knowing of the surrender.”[11]


That Farber and Burkel were serving with an artillery unit at Morrisville, and that that artillery unit fired the last shots of the engagement, which turned out to be the last shots of the campaign, is about the only hard fact which can be agreed upon. Even the identity of the artillery unit is disputed. Burkel recalled it as the 23rd New York, while John Rowell, in his edited compilation of William Thomas’ diary, identifies the 10th Wisconsin as the unit from which the last shot came, although he does note that “some of the men of the Ninth were serving the guns at the time so a certain amount of credit rightly belongs to them.”[12] Both units were attached to Kilpatrick’s command during the march on Raleigh, but Burkel’s recollection of a gunner from Ithaca would seem to lend weight to New York’s case.[13]

A historic marker in downtown Morrisville, NC, the only monument to the battle there. (Raleigh News & Observer)

So, did Farber and Burkel actually fire the last shot of the Civil War? The answer is both yes and no. By Burkel’s own admission, it was Van Norman, alias Shaw, who served as gunner and actually fired the shot, with the two cavalrymen merely assistants. But loading and firing a cannon is a team effort, and so as Rowell said, a certain amount of credit rightly belongs to the two Pennsylvanians. Regardless of who actually touched off the cannon, it was the final shot fired in the action at Morrisville.


It also turned out to be the final shot fired in Sherman’s Carolina campaign, as well, as the next day a message arrived from Johnston asking for terms of surrender.[14] It is likely this is the flag of truce recollected by Burkel, who may have misremembered it as occurring directly after the action at Morrisville, rather than a day later.[15]


As to the last shot of the whole Civil War, that claim is certainly contested. A few hours from Morrisville, a monument at Waynesville, North Carolina, erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1923, marks “the last shot of the War Between the States,” fired by a Rebel on May 6, 1865.[16] The Battle of Palmito Ranch, however, which occurred near Brownsville, Texas on May 12-13, 1865, is often cited by historians as the last battle of the war, and by extension the last shot belongs to some unknown Union or Confederate soldier there.[17] But Eufaula, Alabama, also lays claim to the last shot fired by either side in a skirmish on May 19, 1865 at Hobdy’s Bridge, and research by author Lynn Schooler makes a compelling argument that the real “last shot” was fired by the Confederate warship Shenandoah off the coast of Alaska in June 1865.[18]


This plethora of “last shots” reveals that the final end of the war is largely a matter of perspective. Soldiers experienced the end of the war at different times and in different circumstances depending on where they were stationed, how they were engaged, and what side they were fighting on.


Behind all of this debate lurks a larger question: why does it matter? Why do we insist on identifying, marking, and commemorating the exact “last shot” of the war? Perhaps it is the finality of the idea, a bookend to the first round fired at Fort Sumter and a neat ending to America’s most epic conflict. Americans like tidy storylines and clear-cut conclusions. By putting a definitive period to the end of the war, we can skirt the reality that in many places and in many ways, the Civil War did not end in April 1865, that indeed it continues to this day as scholars, politicians, and ordinary citizens debate the war’s meaning and legacy into the 21st century.

George Farber circa 1885, a prosperous Scranton businessman.

(PA House of Representatives)

George Burkel, seated, left, and family circa 1900. (Courtesy Chip Barkel)


The soldiers didn’t view it that way, though. They didn’t look at the war in 1865 with hindsight or a historian’s lens. For them, the war did end definitively, though how and where depended on the man and the place. George Farber and George Burkel’s war ended at Morrisville, North Carolina, with a cannon blast that by all accounts may have been “the last in regular action in the east,” as the Tribune put it.[19] The two men returned to Scranton, living out their days recounting the story of how their war ended. Whatever happened at Appomattox, or in Texas, or on the high seas, whenever or wherever exactly the last shot was fired was irrelevant. The war was over for them, and they could be justly proud of the part they played in its conclusion.

Alex Barbolish is a writer and history teacher from Nicholson, PA.  He blogs about historical topics at www.backroadhistorian.com.

[1] Chapman Publishing Company, Portrait and Biographical Record of Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania. (Chapman Publishing Company, 1897), 808. [2] “Death of Man with Interesting History,” The Tribune (Scranton, PA), Feb. 28, 1904. [3] “Eventful Life of George Farber.” The Tribune (Scranton, PA), Sept. 7, 1900; “George Farber Biography.” Pennsylvania House of Representatives. https://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/legis/BiosHistory/MemBio.cfm?ID=6478&body=H (accessed April 11, 2020). [4] “Death of Man with Interesting History,” The Tribune (Scranton, PA), Feb. 28, 1904. [5] Rowell, John W. Yankee Cavalrymen: Through the Civil War with the Ninth Pennsylvania Cavalry. (University of Tennessee Press, 1971), 142 – 150. [6] M.K. Bishop, “A Visit to Chattanooga,” The Tribune (Scranton, PA), Dec. 25, 1897. [7] Rowell, Yankee Cavalrymen, 201 – 235. [8] Ibid, 246 – 248. [9] “People and Projects,” The Tribune (Scranton, PA), Sept. 8, 1900. [10] Rowell, Yankee Cavalrymen, 250. [11] “Hon. George Farber Dead,” The Scranton Tribune, Sept. 6, 1900. [12] Rowell, Yankee Cavalrymen, 250 [13] Dyer, Frederick H. A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (Des Moines, 1908), 1673. [14] “Johnston’s Surrender; The Official Record,” The New York Times, May 12, 1865. [15] Rowell, Yankee Cavalrymen, 250. [16] “Monument to the Last Shot of the Civil War.” Roadside America. https://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/33029 (accessed April 11, 2020). [17] “Palmito Ranch.” American Battlefield Trust. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/civil-war/battles/palmito-ranch (accessed April 11, 2020). [18] “Last Man Killed in the Civil War.” Explore Southern History. https://www.exploresouthernhistory.com/hobdys2.html (accessed April 11, 2020); Schooler, Lynn. The Last Shot: The Incredible Story of the CSS Shenandoah and the True Conclusion of the American Civil War (Ecco, 2005). [19] “People and Projects,” The Tribune (Scranton, PA), Sept. 8, 1900.

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