If one ever needed proof that we live in a warrior culture, look no further than those who have falsely claimed military experience, from two-bit conmen to politicians and corporate leaders adding undeserved gravitas to their resumes. It is an attempt to steal glory, a recognition that much of the American public holds a special regard for those who have served.
As Richard A. Serrano explores in his short, entertaining “Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory, and the Mystery that Outlived the Civil War,” this kind of military fraud is nothing new. In the economic dark days of the Great Depression, “veterans” discovered that a few well-placed lies about serving in the Civil War, backed by a supporting letter from a bamboozled politician, could land a veteran’s pension from the government.
But most seemed to just want the attention.
“Some of the deceivers loved the pageantry, the adulation, and the gallant uniforms that sparkled at formal dinners and fraternal reunions,” Serrano writes. “Some were desperate for money to pay the rent on the farm, to purchase new clothes, or, in one case, to buy a new cow. Some perpetuated their myths for so long that, in the twilight of their lives, they could not possibly own up to the lies and admit they had disgraced their family, their country, and themselves. Most of them lied because they could.”
Serrano, a staff writer in the Los Angeles Times’ Washington, D.C., bureau, starts with two main characters: former Union soldier Albert Woolson and onetime rebel soldier Walter Washington Williams. Each man forms a compelling story of becoming caught up in the nation’s bloodiest war and its aftermath. By the late 1950s, as the United States neared the centennial of the start of the war, each was feted as the oldest living veteran of his respective army.
But one was a fraud, a scam that would have gone undetected had he not outlived all of his fellow Confederate veterans.
There’s not a lot of suspense here. It becomes clear pretty quickly which was the real deal and which a fraud. But suspense isn’t the point. Serrano uses the men as a window into the long-playing reverberations of the Civil War, from the reunions to the reenactments to the wounds covered with, in retrospect, tissue paper.
Serrano touches briefly on the infighting and political squabbles surrounding the national and individual state plans to mark the centennial. There were disputes over flags and over the refusal of a Charleston, S.C., hotel to house a black member of the New Jersey centennial committee during a conference. They even squabbled about the very term for what they were undertaking: Not a celebration, they ultimately decided, but a commemoration.
“The underlying truth was that the National Civil War Centennial Commission and its planned commemorations had come square up against the Civil Rights movement and the Freedom Riders in the South,” Serrano writes. This is a significant context for the lingering interest in survivors of those bloody years, and it deserves a fuller exploration.
The book suffers a bit too from a feeling of redundancy. We read a series of stories of wannabe veterans, which after a while begins to feel like we’ve hit a rewind switch. The individual tales are soundly reported and individually interesting as anecdotes, but they blur together without a stronger overarching narrative. At times, the book reads like a list of miscreants, as though Serrano became bogged down in the minutia of the reporting.
But it’s mostly a lively read, and Serrano lays out both the scams and the cultural backdrop against which they occurred. That includes a South clinging to a romanticized view of life before the Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression, as they called it), as well as character failures of political figures unwilling to call out the pretenders’ lies despite overwhelming evidence of fabricated accounts.
Ultimately, “Last of the Blue and Gray” is a solid work on an intriguing subset of American history: scam artists and those whose insecurities drove them to conjure up military pasts they never had. And what’s more American than the desire for a little re-invention?
Martelle is the author, most recently, of “Detroit: A Biography.”
Last of the Blue and Gray
Old Men, Stolen Glory, and the Mystery that Outlived the Civil War
Richard A. Serrano
Smithsonian: 232 pp., $27.95