Search
Walter Williams, who claimed to be 116 years old and the last living Civil War veteran, at home in Houston, Texas, in 1959. No one ever produced any records that backed up his claim, and census data suggested that he was, in fact, only 5 years old when the Civil War began.
VIEW GALLERY | 6 PHOTOS
Walter Williams, who claimed to be 116 years old and the last living Civil War veteran, in Houston, Texas, in 1959. No one ever produced records that backed up his claim, and census data uncovered in later years suggested that he was, in fact, only 5 or 6 when the Civil War began.Thomas D. McAvoy—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Walter Williams, who claimed to be 116 years old and the last living Civil War veteran, at home in Houston, Texas, in 1959. No one ever produced any records that backed up his claim, and census data suggested that he was, in fact, only 5 years old when the Civil War began.
John Salling, who claimed to be 106 years old -- and one of the oldest living Civil War veterans -- when this picture was made in Virginia in 1953. Census records from Scott County, Virginia, meanwhile, indicated that he was, in fact, very likely born in 1856.
Self-proclaimed Civil War vet John Salling shares a laugh with friends on his front porch in Scott County, Va., in 1953.
Alabaman William Lundy on his porch in 1956. Lundy claimed to have been born in 1848, which would have made him 108 in this picture; census records indicate that he was likely born in 1860. He died in 1957.
Alabaman William Lundy in 1956. Lundy claimed to have been born in 1848, which would have made him 108 in this picture; census records indicate that he was likely born in 1860. He died in 1957.
Walter Williams, who claimed to be the oldest surviving Civil War veteran, at rest in an open casket in Houston, Texas, in December 1959. Records indicate that he was likely just 5 years old when the Civil War began.
Walter Williams, who claimed to be 116 years old and the last living Civil War veteran, in Houston, Texas, in 1959. No o
... VIEW MORE

Thomas D. McAvoy—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
1 of 6

The Last Surviving Civil War Veterans? Yeah, Not So Much

Jun 20, 2013

Living history. It's such an evocative phrase, whether it refers to a person who has survived long enough to act as a kind of flesh-and-blood conduit to the past, or an environment -- Normandy, for example, or Gettysburg or Agincourt -- so steeped in lore that decades and even centuries later one can still see, hear and feel what took place there.

The notion of "living history" comforts us, somehow, helping us believe that, just maybe, we're not such little fish in a huge sea of time, after all.

But what happens when those celebrated surviving emblems our collective past prove to be ... well, perhaps not so authentic? What happens when they're just plain hoaxers?

In the middle part of the last century, LIFE magazine (and numerous other publications) featured photos and stories from a number of men who not only claimed to be extraordinarily old, but also claimed that they were the last surviving veterans of the American Civil War. Subsequent investigations by reporters like Lowell Bridwell, Bill Marvel and others, however, largely debunked the claims made by these and more than a few other self-proclaimed Civil War vets. And yet, to the end of their days, most of these men continued to play the roles they'd created for themselves -- i.e., living, breathing links not merely to the country's past, but to the most critical, convulsive period of America's life as a nation.

Every war has its share of fake heroes, of course, and people play their parts for reasons as thorny and as varied as the reasons legitimate warriors enter battle. Some hoaxers seek fame; some seek military pensions; some seek nothing more and nothing less than a lifetime of free drinks at their local bar, earned by telling stories of firefights and campaigns they never witnessed.

Here, on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, LIFE.com offers up a few of those old portraits of self-proclaimed Civil War vets -- pictures that not only serve as reminders of the healthy skepticism with which astonishing assertions should always be greeted, but as tributes to the men, young and old alike, who actually did serve in the one war that most indelibly shaped the modern United States.

[Buy the TIME book, Gettysburg.]

[See the TIME.com gallery, "Gettysburg: In the Footsteps of Mathew Brady."]

All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.