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last of the blue and gray

24 december 2013

Like many people, I followed – I hope, with a sense of historical wonder rather than ghoulishness – the last days of the last veterans of the First World War. Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, reports came that the last veteran from a given nation, or service, or combat role, had died. American Frank Buckles almost outlived all other veterans; when he died in 2011, though, a few British veterans were left; and the last of them, Florence Green of the RAF, died in February 2012.

Americans in the 1950s had a similar experience, though unassisted by the Internet, of hearing or reading about the deaths of the last veterans of the Civil War. In Last of the Blue and Gray, Richard Serrano recreates that experience. The nature of the conflict meant that longevity involved a certain amount of sectional competition. When the last Union veteran, Albert Woolson, died in 1956, for instance, it seemed fitting to many Southerners that three tough Rebels survived him. The last would die late in 1959. Texan Walter Williams and I were contemporaries for eight months, though we were both eating baby food and spending a lot of time napping.

Except one knows from Serrano's subtitle ("Old men, stolen glory, and the mystery that outlived the Civil War") that something isn't right with a Civil War veteran being my contemporary. Williams claimed to be 117 years old. Only four women have been documented as living to that age; no man ever has. Williams couldn't pinpoint his service, and there were no records of it; the State of Texas had grudgingly given him a pension that he never even applied for till decades after genuine veterans became eligible.

That spoils a good story. Serrano prints examples of how descendants of Confederates resented the debunking of Williams's claims. But it remains hard to prove a negative. So Williams's memory was bad: yours will be too, at age 117. So his units' records didn't list him: Confederate records were neither punctilious nor perfectly preserved. And besides, anyone who'd doubt the word of one of John Bell Hood's comrades must be a damn Yankee.

Who was the last living Confederate veteran? It was likely an Alabaman named Pleasant Riggs Crump, whose documentation is in order. Crump, fittingly enough, was present when Lee surrendered at Appomattox; he died on the last day of the year 1951. As the last known Alabama veteran, Crump won some fame in his final years, but his death got no headlines, because quite a few purported Confederates were still running around attending reunions for years to come. Serrano prints one photo of "a trio of dubious Confederate veterans" (141) standing shoulder to shoulder at a Virginia event not long before Crump took to his deathbed. Probably none of them were even centenarians, much less veterans.

It's hard to feel angry at these impostors. (Though one might grieve for Pleasant Crump's "stolen glory.") None claimed to have been a hero; they told stories of forage duty, home-guard service, digging saltpeter. The irony is that these old men were among the last Americans to remember the war, having probably been children old enough to understand Appomattox in 1865. But whether fabulations of time, or calculations after pensions, or Eddie Scissons Syndrome led to their impostures, they traded real links with the past for false ones, smudging and cheapening the receding edge of human memory.

Albert Woolson was the real deal, though, and Serrano tells his story in as much detail as can be recovered. Woolson too never claimed heroics. He was a drummer boy, just seventeen when he enlisted and marched south from Minnesota. He served in a garrison unit in volatile East Tennessee during the final year of the war. As Serrano tells Woolson's life story, it's hard to think of a more dignified representative to serve as the nation's last link to the Civil War: a large family, a career in various trades, a modest Midwesterner who kept in cordial touch with the other members of his dwindling tontine – even the spurious ones.

Maybe I am ghoulish; I now read the obituaries quite regularly to note the passing of veterans of the Second World War. I don't entirely expect to outlive that generation, though I was born 14 years after the war ended. My father, born 12 years after what was then called the "Armistice," outlived Florence Green – by two days. No, I read for a sense of historical depth: how long ago is 70, 90, 100 years? What's within the range of memory, what is now just tradition and fodder for scholarship? How has the world changed?

One theme in Serrano's stories of the last days of the Civil War armies is how local these veterans' lives were. Aside from their one fateful march into Pennsylvania or through Georgia, these fellows tended to stay at home and farm their few acres, or grow old with their small frontier cities. Not so for Second World War veterans. Many of their obituaries appear in the Ft. Worth paper because they came from all over the U.S. to train at Texas bases, or more vitally, to work in defense industries during the postwar years. Others followed relocated children here after they retired. The regionalism that still rent this country even during the Civil War centennial (achingly documented by Serrano) has faded not so much because people have changed but because people have moved.

Serrano, Richard A. Last of the Blue and Gray: Old men, stolen glory, and the mystery that outlived the Civil War. Washington: Smithsonian, 2013.