Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory, and the Mystery That Outlived the Civil War

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory, and the Mystery That Outlived the Civil War

Article excerpt

Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory, and the Mystery That Outlived the Civil War. By Richard A. Serrano. (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2013. Pp. [viii], 222. $27.95, ISBN 978-1-58834-395-6.)

For at least two decades, commentators both popular and scholarly have demonstrated that the line between the numinous and the absurd is indeed thin when it comes to the Civil War. The conflict commands such magnitude in American memory that communities and individuals alike grow obdurate in defense of the trivial even as the truly important themes descend into mere sanctimony through cliched repetition. Though his approach is narrative rather than critical, Richard A. Serrano adds an intriguing new chapter to the complex story of the war's place in American society with Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory, and the Mystery That Outlived the Civil War.

Serrano organizes his project as a collection of anecdotes about Civil War veterans--both genuine and fraudulent--in their final years, with material spanning from fiftieth anniversary commemorations of major battles to the centennial anniversary of the conflict. As the title suggests, the overarching theme concerns the contest for authenticity. Last of the Blue and Gray devotes most of its contents to the general and rather timeless tension between the elderly survivors of a vanished era and the amnesiac modernity that threatened to overtake them. As a host of centenarians claimed the title of oldest living Civil War veteran, their notoriety, as well as the desire to stand as living representatives of a supposedly more colorful, grittier time, led them to embellish their personal histories and in some cases to fabricate wartime identities from whole cloth. Walter Urwiler, for example, traveled the country and gained infamy for donning several different Civil War aliases, each with its own backstory chock-full of entertaining details. …

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