Richard A. Serrano chronicles the final years of America’s last surviving Civil War veterans who, much to the public’s dismay, died on the eve of the war’s centennial. Serrano recounts the extensive fanfare surrounding these veterans, a number of whom were ultimately exposed as frauds. These imposters, he argues, falsely claimed veteran status on account of their desire for fame, their need for military pensions during the lean years of the Depression, and in some cases, their senility.
Most of Serrano’s story is told through biographical vignettes of the last surviving Union and Confederate veterans. Albert Woolson of Duluth, Minnesota, served as a drummer boy in the 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery in the war’s final year. Like numerous other Union veterans, he eventually joined the Grand Army of the Republic, which showered him with honors [End Page 99] in the final years of his life. Woolson loved telling stories about his time in the Union army, the details of which sometimes varied considerably. In his later years, he received thousands of cards and letters from well-wishers, including President Eisenhower. He was one of only six Union veterans who attended the final gathering of the GAR in 1949, and when he died in 1956 at age 109, only three alleged Confederate veterans remained.
The last of those three Confederates, Walter Williams of Itawamba County, Mississippi, and later Franklin, Texas, purportedly served as a forager in John Bell Hood’s famed Texas Brigade. Near the end of his life, Williams also claimed to have ridden with William Quantrill’s Raiders. In September 1959, only two months before Williams’s 117th birthday, Scripps-Howard correspondent Lowell K. Bridwell cast doubt upon the Texan’s standing as a Confederate veteran. Bridwell found no records of his alleged Confederate service, and the census reports he studied indicated Williams was actually fourteen years younger than he claimed and thus had been only five years old when the Civil War began. Bridwell also discovered that Williams had not applied for a Confederate pension until 1932, when state officials had only required him to provide “witnesses” to his military service. Consequently, Bridwell concluded that Williams, acknowledged by most to be the last living veteran of the Civil War, was “a Confederate veteran only in his memory-clouded mind” (155). A Time report agreed with Bridwell’s conclusions, but a number of Americans reacted with scorn. Many doubted the expediency of questioning such a celebrity in the twilight of his life. Others branded Bridwell’s exposé as part of a Yankee conspiracy to undermine the South’s honorable legacy. When Williams died in December 1959, arrangements to commemorate the death of the “last” Civil War veteran mostly went forward as planned. In spite of the controversy, Eisenhower issued a statement honoring “the passing of the last surviving veteran of the War Between the States” and declared a national day of mourning (172). Five thousand people paid their respects to Williams, whose body lay in state in the Civil Courts Building in Houston, Texas, for two days. A year later, the Texas Senate unanimously approved a resolution defending Williams’s heroic reputation and distributed it to the governors of the former Confederate states. Many Americans agreed with the Texas Senate’s conclusion that the living should “speak no evil” of the dead (178). In Serrano’s view, many had already decided Williams’s death would serve as “a prelude to the upcoming centennial to [End Page 100] commemorate a stronger, united country,” and few wished to interfere with that (173). Serrano, however, agrees with Bridwell’s conclusions and notes that today most believe that Woolson, not Williams, was the last surviving veteran of the Civil War.
A prominent theme of Serrano’s book is the extent to which the American public in the 1940s and ‘50s was eager to locate and celebrate its Civil War veterans—so much so that most failed...