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'Coughs Up Bullet': The unlikely sequel to a Civil War mystery

Willis Meadows grasped his throat and began to choke.

Whatever was stuck in there wouldn't come out, and with coughing spasms growing violent, the 78-year old couldn't breathe. Just when he thought it was his time to die, something flew from his mouth, bounced on the wooden kitchen table and tumbled to a stop.

Trapped in Meadows' head for nearly 58 years, here was the Civil War bullet, a one-ounce slug that had taken out the Confederate veteran's right eye when he was just a boy.

"Coughs Up Bullet" was a national newspaper story in 1921. Eleven years later, in a "Ripley's Believe It or Not" cartoon, it was published around the world in 42 countries and 17 different languages.

Ripley missed the most unbelievable part of the story. After 58 years, Meadows would meet the Union soldier who shot him.

It's a story that might have disappeared had Central Point resident, Henry Kilburn, not talked to a local newspaper editor in 1950.

With some inaccuracies in his story, Kilburn showed the editor a diary and an enlarged photograph of a bullet, with images of two men on either side. He said the one-eyed man was Meadows and the other was Peter Knapp, of Kelso, Wash., author of the diary and the man who had fired the bullet into Meadow's eye.

Turns out that after Knapp saw the story, he realized he was the one who fired the bullet that lodged near Meadows' brain. Within a few months, he contacted Meadows and when they compared notes, they realized it was true.

As young mortal enemies they had tried to kill each other, but now, as aging veterans, they would spend their last few years as friends, exchanging photographs and wishing each other good health.

Meadows was 19 in the spring of 1862 when he joined his brothers and cousins in Company G of the 37th Alabama Volunteer Infantry.

He was assigned to the western front along the Mississippi River, where his company suffered heavy casualties in one battle after another, and by the summer of 1863, they were defending the city of Vicksburg from the Union army assault.

On July 1, the final push was on. Just outside of town, through a peephole in an iron boiler plate, sharpshooter Willis Meadows was firing his rifle at the Yanks.

Peter Knapp, 21, and three other Union soldiers from Company H of the Fifth Iowa Volunteer Infantry were approaching from the east. They had orders to kill Confederate snipers.

Knapp spotted Meadows, aimed his rifle at the boiler plate peephole and fired. Meadows fell to the side, blood running from his right eye. He was apparently dead and the men moved on.

Meadows was found and brought to Union surgeons who probed for the bullet, but were never able to find it, and didn't feel it was safe to perform an operation.

He was put on board a POW ship and transported to a Union hospital. Later, he was paroled to a Confederate hospital, where he spent the rest of the war as a patient and sometime nurse's aide.

After the war, he returned to his farm in Lanett, Ala., just east of the Georgia state line. He married, but had no children and probably would have died in obscurity had he not coughed up the bullet.

Knapp was captured a few months after Vicksburg and was held in a number of Confederate prisons, including Andersonville. After the war, he farmed in Michigan, married, and in 1887, moved to Kelso.

Henry Kilburn's relationship to Peter Knapp grew out of his family's hardship, which also provided the Southern Oregon connection to this story.

Peter Knapp and his wife, with no children of their own, adopted Henry Kilburn's younger sister, Minnie Mae, whose family was living in Jackson County in the early 1900s. Their mother had been divorced and abandoned by her husband. Alone, with three children to raise, she must have decided that adoption by Knapp was the best she could do for her daughter.

It was Mae Kilburn Knapp who gave Henry Kilburn the story, the diary and the photograph.

The Central Point newspaper editor who heard the tale from Kilburn probably had it right when he said:

"Can you beat that for a story? How small this little old world is — after all."

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@yahoo.com.

For 58 years, the Civil War-era bullet that took the right eye of Confederate soldier Willis Meadows, left, was lodged near his brain. Fired in 1863 at the siege of Vicksburg by Union soldier Peter Knapp, right, the bullet reappeared in 1921 when Meadows was stricken with a violent coughing spell. The one-time mortal enemies were reunited as friends. - Photo courtesy of the Kilburn family