In 1941, a Philadelphia newspaper visited the 75th anniversary of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans' organization for Union veterans of the Civil War. One of the men interviewed that night looked to be around 100 years old – because he was. Civil War veteran William Henry Jackaway turned 100 years old in December 1940.
Jackaway, even in his advanced age (the average life expectancy for an American man in 1941 was 63 years old), stood tall on his own two legs and declared that he was “ready for anything” and “ready to fight any time, any style, anywhere.” A newspaper clipping from the event has since made its rounds on the internet.
“Hitler is a bag of wind,” the old timer said presciently, “I’ve got no use for him.” He was attending the GAR anniversary as one of the Philadelphia chapter’s founding members. Jackaway joined the 72nd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, also known as “The Philadelphia Brigade” or “Webb’s Brigade,” which fought at Ball’s Bluff, Antietam, and the Overland Campaign, among other battles.
The 72nd Pennsylvania is best known for its defense of “The Angle” for two days during the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg. Wearing their distinctive Zouave uniforms, they held the stone wall against a Confederate onslaught. During Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863, the 71st began to fall back after losing its color bearers, but the 72nd remained in place, becoming a rally point for Union soldiers to plug the gap in the line.
Members of the regiment were also present during the first shots of the Siege of Petersburg in 1864, the pivotal battle that would lead to the fall of the Confederate capital of Richmond on April 3, 1865.
The Philadelphia reunion of the Grand Army of the Republic wasn’t the only time William Henry Jackaway raised eyebrows for reporters.
Jackaway attended the 75th Reunion of Civil War veterans who fought at Gettysburg in 1938. At age 97, he complained the battlefield didn’t look the way he recalled it 75 years earlier. “Even forgetting that it was filled with dead men, it doesn’t look the same.” He pointed to Little Round Top and told a reporter that there was no brush on it, instead, it was “as bare as a turkey gobbler’s snout.”
On the second day of the Gettysburg reunion, Jackaway visited the monument to the 72nd Pennsylvania on Cemetery Ridge. A reporter watched him, the last survivor of the unit, as he traced the monument’s lettering with his shaking hand and said, “They were a fine bunch, and don’t you forget it. They stopped that Pickett fellow.”
Jackaway was later photographed shaking hands with Confederate veteran William O. Gillette across the wall he once defended. The photograph is in the Library of Congress, and Jackaway is the third man from the camera on the Union side.
“I’m ready to pick up a gun tomorrow to keep the American flag flying,” he said at the 1941 Philadelphia reunion. “I’d pick up a cannon. I believe in standing up for our rights.” Jackaway vowed to live to be 120, but he would die in 1944 at age 103. The Grand Army of the Republic didn’t last much longer. It dissolved in 1956 when the last Union veteran, Albert Woolson, died at age 106.