Last Of The Blue And Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory, And The Mystery That Outlived The Civil War, by Richard A. Serrano
I have to admit that I was surprised by how interesting this particular book was. The author, who appears to focus on somewhat dark historical mysteries, writes about the attempts of various people–most of them Southerners–who attempted to steal glory and fraudulently receive pensions by claiming to be aged Civil War veterans. In discussing the story and its repercussions, the author reminds us that the Civil War has not ended and that our efforts to remember the Civil War often lead to hostility that reminds us that the war is not yet over . Yet the author himself, while he is good at telling the narrative of the (mostly fake) soldiers and their efforts at deceiving themselves and others, does not necessarily draw all of the connections between these tales and the larger social context of the civil war as well as the treatment of the elderly in the time of the Great Depression and afterward. The author leaves the reader to connect some of the dots that make this story compelling and relevant, but it is certainly an intriguing tale on its own.
As a whole, this book has a somewhat scattered narrative that jumps around a good deal from person to person, giving a biographical history of those who claimed to be the last surviving soldiers of the blue and the gray and finding the vast majority of them to be fakers. The last surviving Union solder of the GAR, who lived in Duluth, was the only one to have actually served among the last handful of claimants, most of whom were too young to participate in the Civil War and just missed their chance for glory, some of whom even passed themselves off as others in order to claim some valor decades after the fact and ended up the subject of extensive journalistic efforts at exposing the truth. Why the South should be the subject of so many more frauds than the North is something the writer does not speculate on but leaves it to the reader to ponder over for oneself, even as the author notes that the increased availability of documentation has made it possible for pension applications and family clams of military service to be looked at with much greater scrutiny.
Overall, this book presents a picture of old people claiming Civil War service late in life, around the time of the Great Depression in many cases, as a way of obtaining a pension in old age. The author does not say whether there was a social obligation of one kind or another to support the elderly poor, for example, although readers can make their own conclusions. Of interest as well is the way that the author connects claims about Civil War service to simmering racial tensions and the meaning of the Confederate battle flag, which remains contentious. The author also points out the way that the centennial of the Civil War also served to increase tensions about segregation and served to embarrass South Carolina during early commemorative events. Although there are no more Civil War veterans alive among us, the Civil War brings up unfinished business about the relationship between federal, state, and local authority, the lack of uniformity of culture across all areas of the United States, and questions of racial and economic justice. In light of this unfinished business, the story reminds us of he way that the Civil War gets connected with so many other social problems and difficulties within our country that the truth is not always easy to untangle from the layers of misdirection and deception.
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