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.
“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 Grey: Albert 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.
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.