January 25, 2014 2:00:08 PM
Time inevitably rolls on, and in a decade or two we will be hearing about the last remaining GI who fought in World War II. Most of his fellows are already gone, with reunions of the victors gradually drawing fewer and fewer attendees. We will watch the end of that generation with bittersweet resignation, but that war was won by the good guys, and when it was over, it was really over. The American Civil War was something else, leaving lasting effects on the nation. When it was time, for instance, to say farewell to the last of the Boys in Blue and the Boys in Gray, it was the 1950s, and the nation was still trying to sort out the basics of racial civil rights. It honored the old veterans that were hanging on from both sides, and then they were all gone. Sometimes the honor was misdirected. In Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory, and the Mystery that Outlived the Civil War (Smithsonian Books), Richard A. Serrano has told of how we felt about those old veterans and how some of them put one over on us. It's an entertaining story about the lingering effects of our most devastating war, and it reminds us that falsely claiming military service did not begin with our own generation's con-men, politicians, or board members.
Many of the veterans of the war remembered it as the defining point in their lives, and did what they could to relive their service time or at least bring back memories of it. Serrano tells many funny stories of the organized reunions at Gettysburg and other battlefields; on the cover of the book is a picture from the fiftieth reunion at Gettysburg in 1913, showing nine former Confederate soldiers, in suits and ties, with hats doffed (and one old fellow brandishes an umbrella) reenacting Pickett's Charge. "It's jest about as hot as the last time we all charged," complained one. Indeed, the heat took its toll on the old-timers, and nine of them died during the week-long celebration. Fifty thousand veterans gathered that year, in tents erected by Army engineers. For some, the conflict was not over. A Union veteran heard some unkind words about Lincoln in the dining room of the Gettysburg Hotel, and a knife fight started among the elders, with seven men stabbed. Overall, though, there was camaraderie between the former foes. In 1938, there was a 75th reunion, which was necessarily to be the last. Even then there was some lingering hostility; the former Confederates wanted to be sure they could show their flag, for instance, and the former Union soldiers didn't want it anywhere near them. One veteran from Texas said, "My wife don't want me to go because she thinks I'll get in another fight with them damned Yankees. And maybe I would." Allowing flags to be flown over their separate encampments saved the day. The names and addresses of 10,500 men were found to whom were sent invitations for the 1938 event; a fifth came back marked "Deceased." 1,845 eventually came for the reunion, at which five of the veterans died, but there is no mention of knife fights. A 92-year-old Confederate veteran reflected, "Since the Lord has put up with the Yankees all this time, I guess I can also for a few days."
Eventually there were no more reunions because of the dwindling numbers and health of the remaining veterans. Some counted 65 left at the start of the 1950s, and half a dozen by 1955. Serrano writes, "They had gone to war with rifles and sabers and in horse-mounted patrols. They had lived off hardtack and beans. Now they seemed lost in a new American century that had endured two devastating world wars fought with armored tank divisions, deadly mustard gas, and atomic bombs that fell from the sky." Many of them were archetypes of the old coot. William J. Bush got an honorary title of "General" from the remaining Confederate veterans' organization, and declared at a Rebel bash in 1951, "I can hear good, I can see good, I can taste good, and I can kiss any damn woman who wants to be kissed." This earned him a shushing from his wife: "Now Daddy. Stop that cussing." He was undeterred: "I'd fight again if it could be about a good-looking woman."
Bush, wearing a ceremonial Confederate uniform with tassels and a broad-brimmed hat donated to him by Twentieth Century-Fox, looked the part, and acted it, speaking reverently of General Robert E. Lee, of whom he was the bodyguard. There was a bit of a problem, though. The best available records showed that Bush could, at best, have served only three months, and had not fought four years of war "to the end," had not seen Lee surrender at Appomattox, had not been at Gettysburg. He didn't even have enough time in to claim a military pension, but the state of Georgia charitably gave it to him. He was less of a fraud than some others. Serrano's main two characters are Walter Washington Williams and Albert Woolston, the respective last remaining soldiers of the Confederacy and the Union. That Woolston served is not in doubt. He was from Duluth, a drummer boy in the First Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment. He died in 1959 at the age of 109, and had been fitly toasted, feted, and memorialized in bronze at Gettysburg, though his greatest accomplishment simply seems to have been outliving all his fellow soldiers. When he died, the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans organization for those who served in the Civil War, simply ceased to exist.
Williams served less honorably, or rather, he did not serve at all. He told stories of how he had fought in John Bell Hood's brigade. He was a forage master, or in his own words, "I stole food," scouring towns and farms for something to feed his comrades. He bragged about being under fire, and about the training that made his horse Willie the best mount in the whole outfit. Sometimes he said he only used his rifle when he was out hunting for stray cattle. He returned to Texas and herded cattle. Like many Civil War veterans, he applied for his pension in the lean years of the Great Depression, and a couple of witnesses said he was a credible person, and Texas approved the pension he would collect for the rest of his life. Like Woolston, he got his years of fame, especially when he was the one Rebel left, with newspaper stories and visits from dignitaries. Before he died, and beyond his time of understanding such things, one Washington reporter researched his story and found there wasn't one. Williams had been but a tyke when the war was raging, and the census records proved it. One local newspaper editor said, "I don't see how he could have fooled the state and federal governments this long. It isn't easy to get money out of them." Texas officials refused to accept evidence against Williams's proud Rebel service, and bristled that some outside reporter would come try to stir up resentment so, and Williams's pension continued until he died in 1959. He was buried in the uniform of a Confederate general, and had a Confederate flag over his coffin.
Even President Eisenhower honored what he said was "the passing of the last surviving veteran of the War Between the States." But other words in his statement were exactly right: "With Mr. Williams' passing, the hosts of Blue and Gray who were the chief actors in that great and tragic drama a century ago have all passed from the world stage. No longer are they the Blue and the Gray. All rest together as Americans in honored glory. An era has ended." Serrano's story is full of amusing anecdotes, often combined with valetudinary sadness. One veteran is quoted here before his death at age 104: "Physically I'm a wreck. I'm older now than I ever wished to be."