civil war's last widow shares her memories
by david lamb
los angeles times
enterprise, ala. -- a friend of alberta martin's came calling the other day to give the 96-year-old widow news of a death. she awaited him at the nursing home in her wheelchair, wearing red beads and her best dress, a confederate flag spread over her lap. she nibbled on a bag of cheese puffs.
"miz alberta," said the friend, ken chancey. "you remember the yankee widow you met some years back? gertrude janeway? well, she died last week. you're all america's got left now. you're the last surviving widow of a civil war soldier. do you understand what i'm saying?"
the woman nodded but said nothing. gertrude janeway, 93, whose husband fought for the union, had died in the tennessee log cabin where she had lived most of her life. now, 138 years after the war ended and 45 years after the death of its last veteran, there is only alberta martin, frail and forgetful, the last widow of the 3.2 million men who fought america's bloodiest war.
his third wife: miz alberta, as everyone calls her, was in good spirits the day chancey visited. he was dressed for the occasion, like the four men with him, in a confederate uniform. she clutched their hands and hugged them and memories long locked away were set free: memories about growing up poor in the cotton and peanut fields of alabama ("lord, how my hands blistered running spools of thread through them in that mill"); about her struggles to secure a pension ("i felt like the country turned its back on me"); about her late husband, a veteran of alabama's 4th infantry regiment, now dead for seven decades.
"mr. martin -- that's what i always called him, mr. martin -- never did talk much about the war," she recalled. "except he'd tell me how cold and wet it was up in richmond, how he'd wrap blankets around himself in the trenches and how when he crossed a field he'd dig up potatoes and eat them raw because he was so hungry."
miz alberta, abandoned by the taxi driver she had married as a teenager, was 21 when, in 1927, she became the third wife of william jasper martin, an 81-year-old former private in the confederate army. their courtship was brief, spanning just a few words spoken over a picket fence in opp, when he had stopped to chat on his daily amble into town to play dominoes with his war buddies. he was a handsome man with a bushy mustache, a quick temper and a $50-a-month military pension -- a princely sum in those days for a woman stalked her whole life by poverty. he was lonely, she was needy. the couple were serenaded with cowbells and horns on their wedding night.
'old man's darling': "love him? i don't know," she told national public radio in 1998. "it ain't the same love that you got for a young man, if that's what you're asking. he slept on one bed and me on the other one. people when they get old like that, they don't require kissing and hugging and necking and one thing or another. the old saying is, 'better to be an old man's darling than a young man's slave.' "
nonetheless, she bore him a son, willie, which pleased martin so much he would strut through town with the boy on his shoulders. "my life with mr. martin was hard but it was a good life too. we were happy," she said. he died after less than five years of marriage. eight weeks later, alberta martin married his grandson by a previous marriage, a union that set so many tongues wagging in town the local baptist preacher had to study the scriptures before deciding she hadn't committed a sin.
for most of her 50 years with charlie martin, miz alberta -- who had a seventh-grade education and was the daughter of sharecroppers -- lived in obscurity and poverty. when chancey, a dentist and a member of the sons of confederate veterans, found her in 1996, widowed again, she was living in a small house without air conditioning where she kept a portrait of robert e. lee, commander of the army of northern virginia in which william jasper martin had served.
"she asked for two things," said chancey, the widow's guardian. "one, could the scv get her recognition as the last confederate widow? she said she'd never done anything all that important in life, but she had married into history and that history was part of the nation's. and two, could we help her get a confederate pension. i said i'd try."
in 1895, alabama passed a 1 mil (one-tenth of a cent) tax to provide pensions for civil war veterans and their widows who had a net worth of less than $400. by the 1940s, the fund had grown into millions of dollars and was administered by 17 people, although only a handful of eligible recipients were still alive. alabama still collects the tax and, with no civil war widows left except martin, taps into the $30 million nest egg to support the state's human resources department, the veterans' administration and a confederate cemetery in marbury.
the legislative battle -- eventually successful -- to switch martin from a federally run world war ii pension (earned by her third husband) to a more substantial state-financed confederate pension (earned by her second) made the white-haired, kindly widow a celebrity of sorts in the south.
the man who made her part of history is buried under a spreading cedar tree in opp, his grave identified by a simple va marker. she will be buried in another cemetery, next to his grandson, with whom she spent half a century. in planning her funeral, she has asked that the confederate flag covering her lap the other day be draped over her mule-drawn casket.
very interesting....talk about your age difference!! wow!! that blew my socks off!!!
not trying to get into a debate over the civil war or anything. just posting this as a purely informative piece of info.....:d
Feb 10, '03
I actually took care of Alberta Martin about 4 years ago. I live 20 minutes south of Enterprise AL. We get all the transers from their little hospital. Anyway, I talked with her some and she was really sweet (ornery at times though :chuckle ) My ex-husband wanted her autograph and her hospital armband
They are still floating around here somewhere.
Thanks for the story!
Feb 10, '03
I could tell from the article she could hold her own in the ornery department.....
I find some elderly people are really fascinating to talk with. They can tell you some really interesting stories. A couple of years ago my MIL transcribed her father's diaries from when he was a kid...around 1905....very interesting reading....
Feb 10, '03
I love talking to elderly people. A few months ago I took care of a 90'ish woman whos mother was a nurse. This pt's mother went to England and was instructed in the art of nursing by Florence Nightingale.
We talked for a couple of hours, off and on. It was a slow night and we kept her in the ER a while.
She wanted to be a nurse also, but her father forbid it. Back then what the man of the house said was pretty much law, from the way she talked.
Feb 10, '03
How interesting! Thanks! Did anyone ever read the fictional book "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All"?
Feb 10, '03
When I just started my training (in 1988) I looked after a very elderly lady who had been a ladies-maid,on the last great tiger hunt in India.Days of the empire and all that.
Feb 10, '03
That's an interesting story, thanks deespoohbear.
Feb 11, '03
I'm failing to see what makes her a vital part of history. She was his third wife and well after the war, so it's not like she's a "true" civil war widow. She just happened to marry someone who fought. He never talked about it as it was part of his past. He was WAY older....kind of sounds like a money thing (with his "princely" sum). Then she marries his grandson? How wacked is that?
Maybe I'm not seeing what you are. I'm sure she was interesting to talk to....