Two Civil War books showcase its veterans and its artifacts
“Smithsonian Civil War” collects photos and stories of the Smithsonian’s most intriguing Civil War artifacts. “Last of the Blue and Gray” tells the true story both of the longest surviving Civil War veterans, and of frauds who claimed membership in this group.
Special to The Seattle Times
‘Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection’
edited by Neil Kagan and Stephen G. Hyslop
Smithsonian Books, 388 pp., $40
‘Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory, and the Mystery that Outlived the Civil War’
by Richard A. Serrano
Smithsonian Books, 232 pp., $27.95
Not to be outdone by the New-York Historical Society, whose “The Civil War in 50 Objects” debuted last spring, the Smithsonian Institution has dusted off hundreds of Civil War artifacts from its collections and featured them in this handsome new coffee-table book, “an exhibit between covers.”
The artifacts are presented separately in 150 segments (one for each year since the Civil War) accompanied by 550 color illustrations and explanatory texts by a host of Smithsonian experts — altogether plenty of meat for both the eye and mind. Some items are familiar, having appeared in other publications, but others — such as the innards of Abraham Lincoln’s gold watch bearing inscriptions by repairmen who worked on it, including one who signed his name “Jeff Davis,” — are highly unusual.
Among them are Ulysses S. Grant’s famous handwritten note demanding the unconditional surrender of Confederate Fort Donelson, two pages of photos of gadgets on display at the U.S. Patent Office during the war, and a soldier’s portrait framed in a hardtack cracker, a standard of Civil War rations.
There also are five pages of photos of Civil War soldiers’ headgear, a violin carried into battle by an Indiana soldier who never learned to play it but inscribed on its back the names of more than 50 places where his regiment campaigned, the famous bullet-riddled stump of an oak tree brought down by rifle fire at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, and several designs for helicopters and airships, including one that actually got off the ground during the Civil War.
Other items include Lincoln’s top hat and the coffee cup from which he drank before leaving for Ford’s Theater, where he was assassinated, plus a collection of Southern sheet music, including the “Ku Klux Klan Bloody Moon Walk.” And much more.
Richard A. Serrano’s “Last of the Blue and Gray,” also from the Smithsonian, is a much different type of book. Serrano, a Los Angeles Times reporter, tried to learn who was actually the last genuine surviving veteran of the Civil War.
The answer wasn’t as clear-cut as you might think. “Many who claimed to be ... survivors of that great war were really impostors, some flat-out frauds,” Serrano writes. “Yet as they grew old, they fabricated stories about past heroic adventures and brazenly applied for Civil War pensions during the long, lean years of the Great Depression.”
After reciting the stories of several contenders for the title of last living Union veteran, Serrano concludes the honor probably belonged to Albert Woolson, who enlisted as a drummer boy in 1864 at age 17 and died Aug. 2, 1956.
That still left four other old-timers who all claimed to be Confederate veterans. Serrano unearthed evidence that all were impostors. Why? Some “loved the pageantry, the adulation, and the gallant uniforms that sparkled at formal dinners and fraternal reunions,” he says. “Some were desperate for (pension) money to pay the rent on the farm, to purchase new clothes, or, in one case, to buy a new cow.
“Some perpetuated their myths for so long that, in the twilight of their lives, they could not possibly own up to the lies and admit they had disgraced their family, their country, and themselves.”
Whidbey Island author Steve Raymond’s latest book is “In the Very Thickest of the Fight: The Civil War Service of the 78th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment” (Globe Pequot Press).