Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Honor ("Last of the Blue and Gray" by Richard A. Serrano)

On its surface, Richard Serrano's Last of the Blue and Gray is the story of two men, both veterans of the Civil War, and the paths they took once the battles ended. The first, Albert Woolson, fought for the Union and would remain and active part of veterans groups until the end of his life. The second, Walter Williams, was a Confederate soldier who kept his distance from those groups after the war's end, choosing instead to live a solitary life in rural Texas. Both men's stories are far from unusual, especially since both lived typical and un-dramatic lives, save for one important aspect:  when Woolson died, he was 107 years old and the last of the Union soldiers, just as Williams was the last of the Confederate soldiers--in fact, the last Civil War soldier from either side--when he passed away at age 117. Their deaths marked the end of an era that, even today, seems almost unimaginable:  young men, even boys, taking up arms against their fellow countrymen; fields were soaked in blood, hills and forests were littered with bodies, and limbs were amputated with medical indiscretion, often worsening the soldier's already excruciating condition. Even more, their lifetimes allowed them--or, if you prefer, forced them--to see the progression and advancements of man's hatred towards man. Their war, fought with cannons and rifles, paled in comparison to the Second World War, in which tanks, B-52s, and atomic bombs became the weapons of choice. Suddenly, in only 80 years, combat became industrialized:  now, instead of facing down foes with bayonets on the battlefield, hundreds of soldiers could be wiped out with one strategic strike. It's a lesson in how our world can change for the worse, if we just give it enough time and ignore the wisdom of those who've come before us.

Beneath this story, however, is a much broader lesson in what happens when history itself is not only ignored but unpreserved. More than a few chapters of Serrano's book focus on the controversy over Williams' age--he may have been more than a decade younger than he claimed--and his service in the war, which was difficult to verify. Throughout the controversy, which took place while Williams was confined to his bed and unable to defend himself, records were sought out and double-checked, which would have solved the issue had it not been for poor Confederate records-keeping. Where Woolson's service was irrefutable, Williams died with his achievement still in question. Even today, his life and service both come with an asterisk, and many now agree that he was not the last Civil War soldier, and even more look at his purported age with heavy skepticism.

Serrano himself seems all but certain that Williams' claim was fraudulent, though he admits it may have been unintentional:  after years of embracing the lie, Williams's advanced age may have transformed the lie into truth without his consent, making him both culpable and innocent. This theory, not to mention a rumination on the nature of truth when its keepers are all gone, would have made for an interesting tangent had Serrano followed it. Instead, he spends more than enough of the book's 200 pages on the history of Civil War reunions--which are interesting in themselves but hardly important here--and the procedures of veteran's-group meetings, differing opinions on the Confederate flag, and the final years of both Woolson and Williams, which are heavy with descriptions of their bodies abandoning them to dementia and immobility. Important topics and difficult questions are ignored for day-by-day descriptions of two incredibly old men--two figures of immense historical importance--slipping towards death.

Regardless of how we see the Civil War today, or how we handle the moral quandaries that come with commemorating men while at the same time being appalled by the cause for which they fought, these were two men who lived long, humble, and productive lives. Accepting that Williams was a veteran in the same vein as Woolson, they deserved to have their achievements celebrated, if not for the sake of preserving their glory as soldiers, then at least to promote their civility and humility as men--as citizens, neighbors, and fathers. And taking as fact what the evidence seems to suggest, that Williams' claim was false, doesn't necessarily mean he deserves to be maligned in print as a sort of contrast against Woolson--the pretend veteran against the real one, the dishonorable man against the honorable one. After all, it's Serrano himself who suggests that Williams may have been little more than an old man grabbing onto a fantasy he thought was true. It seems almost perverse to maintain both storylines in the same book, framing a man as both a willing fraud and a misguided centenarian, and had Serrano explored those ideas instead of rushing past them in search of the next long diversion, he may have found something worth filling his pages.