I've been thinking about death a lot lately.
In the last days of 2013, I attended two funerals—one for my wife's grandfather in Tecate, Mexico, and another for my uncle in Brooklyn. Both men had traveled far, married more than once and fathered numerous children. Their lives were as full as they were long. Tobias Herrera-Soto lived to be 90. Phillip Carducci was 85 when he passed. That's 175 years.
Though these men lived very different lives—one was a migrant worker; the other worked on Wall Street—their last acts were strikingly similar: mostly bedridden, memories scattered, dependent upon the care of their children. They'd lived so long that a kind of reversal took hold, and at the end, they resembled the children they'd been so long ago.
They had a great deal in common with the men in Richard A. Serrano's Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory, and the Mystery That Outlived the Civil War, which is packed, of course, with the stories of old men.
The book focuses primarily on two old soldiers who claimed to be the last living veterans of their respective armies: Albert Woolson, a Minnesotan from Duluth, who said he'd served as a drummer boy in the Grand Army of the Republic, and Walter Williams, a Texan who claimed to be a Confederate forage master under Hood's Brigade. Neither bragged about having been involved in combat; both asserted they were too young to serve in such a capacity. Only one, however, was telling the truth.
This is the mystery at the heart of Last of the Blue and Gray: Which veteran was telling the truth and which was living a lie? Serrano examines their short careers and largely focuses on what life was like for them—as well as for their comrades in arms—after the war.
At first, the two sides were eager to meet at elaborate reunions staged on fields that once ran red with blood. In the summer of 1913, tens of thousands attended a reunion in Gettysburg, Penn. Sadly, nine veterans died in makeshift tents on the same fields were Picket had made his famous charge.
As the veterans aged, it became harder to travel and many limited their appearances to reunions hosted closer to home. At a Confederate reunion in Little Rock, Ark., in 1928, fewer than 3,000 veterans showed. "Nearly all of them are hard of hearing and feeble in body," Confederate magazine reported. "There was no Rebel yell to excite the people and quicken their interest."
One veteran was shocked to find so few of his comrades left. "Thirty-five years ago, I could call the roll of thirty in my company. But now, I am the only one living. They are all dead, and when a man dies, he drops out of thought and recollection."
When the Great Depression hit an unprepared American public, an avalanche of pension requests from aging veterans descended on the War Department. Many of these requests were difficult to confirm or deny because so many records had been lost or destroyed. This was especially true of those who'd served in Confederate armies late in the war, when record keeping was secondary to survival.
Hundreds of fakes emerged, and some were easier to expose than others. One old vagrant who could accelerate his heart rate had a habit of collapsing in front of hospitals and claiming allegiance to whatever army to which he felt the locals would be sympathetic.
Serrano's book is filled with fascinating stories of old soldiers who are now dead and gone, dropped from thought and faded from recollection. But Last of the Blue and Gray is also a glimpse into our future. At one reunion, John Mason Brown of the Saturday Review wrote, "All of us pass daily, without recognizing them, older people whose presence are forecasts of what our futures will be like if only we last to their age. We seldom see ourselves in these passers-by. We do not want to. We live nourished by the illusion that each of us is somehow different."
Before my daughter turns old enough to serve in the military and I become eligible for my AARP card, if I last that long, there will be stories about the last surviving veterans of WWII. Then they, too, will disappear. Next it will be veterans of the Korean conflict's turn, and then Vietnam, which will include my own father. Thanks to virtually every American president since I've been alive, we won't ever run out of veterans of our many wars.