The real Rebel yell, and the fake Confederates


They were the last of the 19th century’s Greatest Generation.

“We can’t give ya much, but we’ll give ya what we got left,” a veteran of the Civil War — or the War of Northern Aggression, as he might have put it — says in what appears to be a news reel from the 1930s. Then a handful of old soldiers in uniform, all of whom must be in their 80s, somewhat self-consciously summon forth the shrill Rebel yell.

handshake“They were grave, dignified, and thoughtful,” historian Bruce Catton (1899-1978) recalled of Union veterans he knew as a boy in Michigan. When one returned by train from the 50th anniversary commemoration at Gettysburg to find no buggy waiting for him, the 70-year-old walked home. Five miles.

Catton realized that with the death of each Civil War soldier, the past was becoming a foreign country — “they do things differently there.”

By the 1930s, Union and Confederate veterans “began passing away in rapid numbers, nearly three a day,” writes Richard A. Serrano in Smithsonian Magazine.

By the start of the 1950s, it was thought about 65 were left; by 1955, a handful.

Serrano, a Washington reporter for the Los Angeles Times, focuses in his new book on the very Last of the Blue and GreyAlbert Woolson, a Union drummer boy from Minnesota, and Walter Washington Williams of Houston, who claimed to be a Confederate forage master for Hood’s Brigade. The country, in the midst of  making preparations for the Civil War centennial, celebrated the men. But “one of them had been living a great big lie,” Serrano notes.

[[Spoiler alert!]]


It was historian William Marvel in 1991 who dug up the truth in Census records: Every one of the last dozen Confederate veterans was a fake, he found. Williams was 10 when the war ended, and did not claim to be a Civil War veteran until 1932, when he sought a Confederate pension during the Great Depression.

So who was the last to give the Rebel yell? A 16-year-old who joined Company A of the 10th Alabama in 1864 and died in 1951, Marvel surmised. A cheerful farmer, he was true to his name. Pleasant Crump witnessed Lee’s surrender at Appomattox — then he walked home to Alabama.

You can watch the video of the Rebel yell here.

Read Anne Morse’s column on famous and infamous sham soldiers here.

Photograph:  A Union veteran and a Confederate veteran meet at the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. To see more photos of the 1913 reunion, go here.