A Last Connection to
The Civil War Dies
Civil War veterans at National Memorial and Peace Jubilee held in Vicksburg, MS, in October, 1917.
By Michael Stillman
One of the last, tenuous threads to Americas great Civil War was broken, or at least appeared to be broken, this past Memorial Day with the passing of Alberta Martin. At the time, she was believed to be the last surviving Civil War widow, an honor she had held since January 2003. That was when 93-year-old Gertrude Janeway, the last living Union widow, passed away. Mrs. Martin, naturally, was a Confederate widow, and had become a symbol or link to the past for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and even, to a lesser extent, to the Sons of Union Veterans.
Now it appears she wasnt quite the last. At least one more Civil War widow, Maudie Acklin, previously unknown, has been found. We will return to her in the conclusion to this article, but for now this is Alberta Martins moment, and the sense of finality with regard to the Civil War we felt when she passed away.
Now if you have any images of Alberta Martin anxiously awaiting the return of her soldier husband from war, you can quickly forget them. As I said, Mrs. Martin was already a very tenuous thread. A little math will tell you that even had she been a child bride awaiting her husbands return during the war, she would have been at least 150 when she died. No, Mrs. Martin was born in 1906, 41 years after the last shot was fired. Her memories of the Civil War were no greater than yours or mine. The war had been over for 62 years when 21-year-old Alberta and 82-year-old Private William Jasper Martin were wed in 1927.
At the time, William Martin was a lonely Confederate veteran with a pension, Alberta a widow with a young child and father to take care of. Her first husband had tragically died in an auto accident the year before. Martin has to be the only Civil War veteran to marry a woman whose first husband died in an automobile accident. This may not have been the greatest love story ever, but it was a convenient relationship for both. And that old rascal William became a father again at the age of 83. They lived together for three-and-a-half years before William died, and two months later, Alberta married Williams grandson Charles Martin, to whom she would remain married until he died over 50 years later. It brings back memories of the forgettable Lonzo and Oscar song, Im My Own Grandpa. Alberta became sort of her own grandmother. Meanwhile, Charlie raised his uncle. Im tempted to say something about the one-time rural South, but its time to let old stereotypes go. Goodbye, Lil Abner.
Returning to the story at hand, the Civil War was not a focus of Albertas life. Apparently, William did not talk much of it. He did mention how hard conditions had been in Virginia, waterfilled trenches and desperately hungry soldiers digging up potatoes to survive. These were not the type of memories most people want to relive. The Civil War would only become a significant part of Alberta Martins life in her later years, being taken to Civil War re-enactments and often given a Confederate flag to hold. Some may have wished her to be a symbol of some current issues as well as those from long ago.
A Last Connection to
The Civil War Dies
There is a sadness that arises whenever the last of any group of people passes on. A part of our past is lost forever. A part of our youth dies. In reality, the last connection with the Civil War died a long time ago. The last veteran to die is believed to be Walter Williams, a Confederate soldier who died at 117 in 1959. The last Union soldier was Albert Woolson, who died in 1956 at age 109. Their deaths truly closed this chapter in our history. I dont know when the last person with any memory of, or who even lived for a day during the Civil War died, but it must have been a long time ago. The oldest recognized living person in the world today was born in 1890, 25 years after that war ended. In other words, no one even remembers any presidents before Cleveland, and that would only be a dim childs memory from the second of his two nonconsecutive terms. Only a handful of people would have any memory of the 19th century, and those would come from the very end of it. I think back to my grandparents, who dont seem that far away, and realize that were they alive today, they would be the oldest living people in the world. Still, I can remember them and a whole slew of great aunts and uncles who grew up in a world no one today remembers. For those of us who cherish history, the challenge becomes how do we keep people, places and events alive in our collective memory after they are no longer alive in anyones personal memory.
So now we must return to Maudie Acklin (now Maudie Hopkins), the surviving Civil War widow. In 1934, at the age of 19, she married 87-year-old Confederate veteran William Cantrell. Those were hard times, the height of the Depression, and the couple helped each other in the ways they could, he financially, she caring for the home. Cantrell died three years later, just short of his 90th birthday. Mrs. Hopkins said he talked little of the war and she never asked, but she recalls Mr. Cantrell as a decent man. And that was probably true of most of the men who gave their lives in this terrible war, and it makes it all the more tragic still today, even though all of those who died in battle would be long gone now anyway.
The discovery of Maudie Acklin Cantrell Hopkins opens the door to the possibility that more Civil War widows may still be alive. After all, she is only 89, hardly an extraordinarily old age. Maybe we will be able to keep this one last thread to another era alive for many years to come. That would, in some small way, be comforting. And perhaps if we can find a few more widows on both sides, Fox can put together a reality show wherein the widows can refight the Civil War for large prizes. The Civil War meets the 21st century. Wouldnt that be exciting? No, it wouldnt.