The Revolution's Last Men
The Soldiers Behind the Photographs
Don N. Hagist
Westholme Publishing, Yardly, Pennsylvania, 2015, 256 pages
Book Review published on: January 13, 2017
Wrinkles on their faces run like ancient rivers across rugged terrain. Eyes of aged men born in the eighteenth century glare at you from 1864 daguerreotype photographs, conveying a seriousness about their past, present, and future. The Revolution’s Last Men: The Soldiers Behind the Photographs, by Don Hagist, impels the reader to look at the pictures before reading the biographies of these centenarians who were alive during the American Civil War. After soaking in the historic photographs, the reader must understand that this is a book about a book. Specifically, Hagist’s book is a genealogical investigation of the facts, or lack thereof, of the Rev. Elias Brewster Hillard’s original work, Last Men of the Revolution.
In early 1864, the outcome of the American Civil War remained undecided. The earth continued to consume the dead on battlefields, as described in detail by pro-Union newspapers and echoed by the cries of grieving parents and widows. An infant nation was crawling into a fourth year of the cauldron of war, resulting in a wave of apathy among many northerners. Hillard, a prominent minister from Connecticut, saw an opportunity to rally war-weary Unionists when Nelson and Roswell Moore published photographs of the living veterans of the American Revolution. In an attempt to rally the Union, Hillard embarked on a quest to interview these aged veterans and publish their stories along with the Moores’s photographs. Last Men of the Revolution was completed and published in the same year, receiving accolades and recognition for his patriotic endeavor.
However, Hillard did not have access to pension records, nor did he attempt to validate the veterans’ stories. He excluded revolutionary veterans living in southern states as that would be contrary to his motivation to rally northerners. There was also the fact that these veterans were late in years, some literally on their deathbeds when interviewed. In The Revolution’s Last Men, Hagist conducts an exhaustive examination of the original interviews and subjects them to contemporary genealogical investigative techniques in order to correct, update, or corroborate the veterans’ stories. As a result, Hagist brings a historical moment alive by artfully depicting the timeframes, events, and hardships these veterans faced during the American Revolution.
The book contains a foreword by renowned genealogist Maureen Taylor, who explains the efficacy of Hagist’s book in correcting and updating portions of Hillard’s interviews. Introductions by Hagist and a reprint of Hillard’s original preface provide readers a roadmap to the importance and relevance of the surviving veterans’ biographies. The chapters are dedicated to each of the six surviving veterans and arranged in the following order: Hagist’s research and findings, photograph of the veteran, a thought-provoking sketch by Eric H. Schnitzer rendering what the veteran might have looked like as a young soldier, a drawing of the veteran’s house at the time of interview, and Hillard’s original interview transcript.
Hagist does an excellent job using pension and census records, as well as witness testimonies not available to Hillard, to align the veterans’ testimonies with events, actions, locations, and battles they might have experienced. The photographs by themselves are worth the proverbial thousand words. His research adequately eliminates elements of exaggeration or failing memories that likely occurred during Hillard’s interviews. The reader might find a degree of dynamic equivalency on Hagist’s part (i.e., applying the author’s sense of what the veteran might have sensed in the American Revolution versus trusting the words or phrases expressed by the veteran) when explaining how revolutionary era soldiers behaved in certain situations. However, Hagist’s research does not distract from Hillard’s interviews. On the contrary, his research and findings enhance our knowledge of the service these veterans provided during our nation’s birth. This book is recommended for anyone that enjoys combining history with genealogical research to validate or enhance research conducted in previous eras.
Book Review written by: Brook Allen, Fort Gordon, Georgia