PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, Starred Review
As late as the 1950s, two veterans of the bloodiest conflict on American soil were still living. Or rather, one vet and one fraud, both very, very old. In this quintessentially American tale, Serrano (One of Ours), a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist for the Los Angeles Times, marshals a formidable amount of research and a winning prose style to solve the mystery of which man—Union loyalist and drummer boy Albert Woolson, or rebel soldier and forage master Walter Williams—was the real deal. Both were well into their 100s as the Civil War centennial drew near, and neither was lucid enough to be counted on to provide dependable testimonies of their time at war. Adding to the uncertainty was the fact that many soldiers lied about personal details in order to serve. Serrano’s grand narrative brings a wealth of American history into its scope and features plenty of larger-than-life characters, cussin’, hollerin’, smoking cigars, and chewing tobacco, and proudly donning their wartime uniforms. Serrano masterfully maintains the tension throughout, until he finally reveals the truth (which some still find controversial). Told with clarity and skillfully paced, Serrano’s story of two old men and the mythology that grew up around them is intimate, expansive, and thoroughly entertaining. Photos. (Oct.)
In the late 1950s, as the centennial of the start of the Civil War loomed, historians and pundits actively sought out the few surviving veterans of the conflict. Unfortunately, any true survivors would be well past 100 years old; their memories, to be charitable, would be foggy, and the value of their recollections questionable. Eventually, attention was riveted upon two men, Union veteran Albert Woolson and Confederate veteran Walter Williams. When each man passed, national reaction was a combination of mourning, celebration of their service, and acknowledgment of the closing of a historical chapter. It was a nice, neat story, but it wasn’t true. One man had indeed served honorably, but the other man had not served at all. Serrano only reveals the poseur at the end; along the way, he examines the claims of other supposed survivors, and he also reveals much about the lives of ordinary soldiers as well as the attitude of their countrymen a century after they fought. This is a fine addition to Civil War collections. — Jay Freeman
Richard Serrano tells the fascinating stories of several men who claimed to be the last survivor of Civil War armies. All but one were fakes. As the nation approached the Civil War centennial in the 1950s, the controversies over the last veteran of the war highlighted the continuing debates about a war that never really ended.
—James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
As one of America’s greatest journalists, Richard Serrano has a well-established reputation as a master story teller. In the Last of the Blue and Gray, he has found a hidden gem worthy of his narrative skill. At the height of the Cold War, two old men lay dying. They are the nation’s last connections to the Civil War, and Serrano elegantly interweaves their final days with the war’s approaching centennial. He skillfully shows just how badly an anxiety-ridden modern America wanted to believe in a simpler time, even when the truth got in the way.
—James Risen, author of State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration
Richard Serrano’s book is a beautifully- written account that brings to light a fascinating bit of American history. He tells us about the last “battle” of the Civil War, nearly a century after Fort Sumter: the struggle over who would be the last living veteran of the Civil War (and over whether the claims of the last survivors were real or fraudulent). This is a great story, easy to read and full of wonderful detail, one that sheds light not only on the past but on our shifting memories of it.
—James Mann, author of The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War