The American Civil War ended more than 155 years ago, but the country really isn’t all that far removed from that part of its past.
If you need proof of that beyond ongoing racial disparities and questions over the existence of monuments to Civil War leaders, you don’t have to look far. Irene Triplett, the last person to receive a Civil War pension from the Department of Veterans Affairs, died in June 2020. The grandson of John Tyler, the 10th president of the United States, died in October 2020. Unexploded ordnance from the Civil War was still killing people as late as 2008.
Also, people are rioting in the streets and tearing down statues of Civil War generals. (Photo by Wikipedia Editor Mk17b)
But Americans’ personal connection to the Civil War is slowly disappearing. A few of the direct descendants, sons and daughters, of Civil War veterans are still around because they were born when their fathers were in their 70s and 80s.
Two of the last remaining children of Civil War veterans sat down with National Geographic in time for Veterans Day 2014 to share stories told by their fathers. They were in their early 90s at the time of the interviews.
William H. Upham was a private in the 2nd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry when the North and South first clashed at the Battle of Bull Run. His son, Fred Upham, talked about how his father was wounded in the neck and shoulder during the battle.
“He was captured at that battle and sent to Libby Prison in Richmond,” Upham said in the interview. “The thing that saved his life, I believe, is that, at that point in the war, there was a prisoner exchange. … If he would have been kept in the service, with 50,000-60,000 casualties per battle, he would never have made it to the end.”
Fred Upham died in Colorado in December 2019 at age 97.
Lewis F. Gay, a Confederate soldier from Florida, was also the beneficiary of a prisoner exchange, according to his daughter, then-92-year-old Iris Lee Gay Jordan (who still referred to the war as “The War Between the States”). The young rebel was stationed in the Florida Keys before being captured and held in Delaware.
After his release, he was sent to some of the most critical battles of the late Civil War, fighting at Chickamauga, Atlanta and more. Most of his original company had been killed.Children of U.S. Civil War Vets Reminisce About Fathers | National Geographic
In explaining her connection to the war, Jordan discussed how her parents met. She was born when her father was 82 and her mother 41. Jordan lived in Florida until her August 2017 death.
“He said he enjoyed me more than he did his others [children], because he was so busy making a living to support them, he didn’t have the time,” she says in the video.
Upham, on the other hand, recalled the two times his father got to meet President Abraham Lincoln. The first time was through an invitation from his senator. The president and the former private talked about his time as a prisoner of the Confederacy and about his wounds.
“Lincoln had known that my father had been severely wounded, ” Upham recalled. “So he asked him to take off his tunic so he could examine the wounds in person. My father said yes … and Lincoln examined the wounds on his neck and head in detail.”
They were terrible, the 16th president told Upham’s father. Lincoln was concerned about the treatment of Union prisoners at Libby Prison, but the soldier told him they weren’t being abused or tortured.
Despite his injuries, William Upham got off relatively easy. The Civil War killed more than 650,000 troops and more than 130,000 civilians. Some estimates place the death toll at more than a million Americans. Yet Upham says his father never held any animosity toward Confederates after the war, despite his captivity and the loss of life. Lewis Gay said the same about the Union.
“If he were here, he’d say the men in North were just like he was,” Jordan said. “They were away from home and families and fighting a war, and there was no animosity on his part at all.”