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.