Longtime readers of The Strawfoot know that I have a special interest in aging veterans. As I have pointed out before, what is so fascinating about them is that, pretty much by definition, the last ones remaining were the ones most ordinary during the conflict. The last soldier of the Great War died a few years ago to great fanfare. Now, we are seeing the process play of again with WW2 vets, a phenomenon that will become even more pronounced in the next few years as their numbers dwindle into the single digits. Just recently we saw them being cynically used as symbols on the National Mall during the shutdown.
Last night I finished Richard A. Serrano’s just-released Last of the Blue and Gray. Serrano tells the tale of the last few dozen or so Civil War soldiers and how they became living monuments during the Cold War and Civil Rights Movement. Many of these aged men, just young boys between ’61-’65, had only the most tenuous of military careers. Typically, they had been drummer boys or, if a bit older, foragers for a few months during the Civil War. I don’t think I understood the level of fraud involved in many of these cases until reading the book. Many “soldiers” had never seen service at all but were now so old that they had come to believe the tall tales they had spun on courtyard squares and back porches for decades to eager audiences. Others intentionally faked it to receive a pension during the hardscrabble years of the Great Depression. Whatever the circumstances of each case, the American public was naturally eager for that human connection to the past. So much so, that many people chose not to believe the news when a case proved to be fraudulent.
In the 1940s and 50s each Civil War soldier’s death was bigger news than the one that came before until, finally, the last one remaining was Walter Williams of Texas. When he passed on in December 1959 the nation took note. His body lay in state in Houston for two days. The White House issued an official proclamation. The only problem was, Williams had never served in the Confederate Army as he had claimed. Serrano does a great job explaining the hows and why of this fascinating and quite human story that took place not that long ago.