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Last Link to Dixie


RICHMOND -- It is only her first day at the Sons of Confederate Veterans Centennial and the Last Confederate Widow is tired.

Or, as Alberta Martin tells a photographer in her Alabama accent, "Ah'm tarred." Not complaining, not peevish, just stating a fact. She doesn't know yet that this is only the first of many photographs, the first of many flashbulbs that will pop in her eyes during the convention this week, as people press forward to get her autograph, to touch her, to gaze at her as if she were one of the statues along this city's famed Monument Avenue.

But she is not a statue, she is flesh and blood, 89 years worth, and right now she's tired. Tarred. Anyone would be. It is 6 p.m. and she has been up since 3: 45 a.m., in order to make the long drive from her home in Elba, Ala., to the Atlanta airport for the 90-minute Delta flight to Richmond.

When the pilot (named Captain Faulkner, no less) heard who was on board -- the Last Confederate Widow! -- he arranged for Mrs. Martin, her son William and her traveling companion, Ken Chancey, to move up to first class. The passengers and flight crew gave her an ovation, even as Mrs. Martin stared at the countryside below, mesmerized as a child.

Not that she hasn't traveled. She's been all over the South and to New York City. She'd just never been on a plane before.

Technically, the Last Confederate Widow is the Last Known Confederate Widow, says Chancey, the dentist from Enterprise, Ala., who has become Mrs. Martin's friend and champion over the past few months. It is polite, as well as politic, to hedge her status, he says, although there's no doubt in his mind she's the genuine article.

"Put it this way," he says. "The UDC" -- that's the United Daughters of the Confederacy, to which Mrs. Martin now belongs -- "has thousands of genealogical sleuths, and they don't know of another one."

They are headed to meet some of those sleuths right now, at a reception for Mrs. Martin at the Daughters' headquarters next to the old Confederate widows home, a scale model of the White House that has stood empty for more than a decade.

"My choir sang at a nursing home and there were some ladies there who were supposed to be the last Confederate widows," says the Daughter who has been assigned to shepherd Mrs. Martin around today. "Who knows if there could be someone still out there?"

Do the math: The Civil War ended in April 1865. Its youngest soldiers would have been born in the 1840s, maybe 1850. Even if these soldiers married when they were in their 80s or 90s, as many did, their brides would have had to have been to survive into the 1990s.

In October 1990, the New York Times ran an obituary for Daisy Wilson Cave of Sumter, S.C., identifying her as the last Confederate widow and estimating her age at 97 to 105.

"I'm still here," Mrs. Martin, then 83, told a local reporter. Over the next six years, reporters and Civil War buffs would make their way to her modest home in southeastern Alabama to ask her about the war. Turns out William Jasper Martin never spoke of it.

She knew him, she says, as an old man she used to see walking along the road. "We just met over the fence." An undated photograph of Martin with his second wife shows a solemn, sad-eyed man with a full head of hair and a bushy white mustache.

At 82, he had been married twice and had "a houseful of young'uns." She was 21, a young widow with a son. When he asked her if she wanted to marry, she didn't hesitate.

A magazine reporter presses her, asks if she has any specific memories of him. "Was he kind to children?" he asks.

"He wasn't all that kind," Mrs. Martin replies, puzzled by the question. But then there's the sound bite she offers up to every reporter: "I always heard it was better to be an old man's darling than a young man's slave." She's not sure where she heard it, though.

They married in 1927 and had a son, William, in October 1928. Martin died in 1932, and his widow ended up marrying his grandson from a previous marriage, Charlie Martin.

Did people talk? "You know, they usually do, don't they?" Mrs. Martin says dryly. "But I never heard any of it."

"Actually, they didn't," says William. "Because his name was the same, everyone assumed he was my father when I went off to school. And no one cared about her being a Civil War widow, because she wasn't the only one back then."

Three times a widow

Mrs. Martin's third marriage was a long one. Her golden anniversary was just six months past when Charlie Martin died in 1983. No one realized at time that Mrs. Martin, under Alabama state law, was entitled once again to collect her second husband's Civil War pension, which had ended when she remarried. Until Chancey came along, no one thought to enter a new claim on her behalf.

"She needs the money," says Chancey, who enlisted the help of another Son, a lawyer, to pursue Mrs. Martin's claim. Her only income is a World War II pension check from husband No. 3, so if she prevails, she will be drawing checks from wars 80 years apart.

Alabama State Sen. Dwight Adams, a Republican, has been lobbying his state to pay Mrs. Martin $150 a month -- three times as much as her husband drew. He also says he may try to get her a retroactive payment back to 1983.

But the pension will require legislation, as the fund was long ago diverted to other programs. The last Alabama Confederate widow to receive payment, estimates a spokesman for the state Department of Human Resources, was at least 10 years ago.

Chancey and the Martins are confident she will get her pension -- confident enough to plan the first purchase. She wants a refrigerator, to replace the one she has been using since the 1940s. She's tired of defrosting that old freezer.

Sons with a mission

The Sons of Confederate Veterans was founded in 1896 in Richmond, two years after the Daughters came into existence. From the beginning, its mission included caring for the veterans' widows and orphans.

In March, Chancey, 48, joined the local "camp" of the Sons for the same reason that seems to drive most of its 25,000 members: a desire to know more about his ancestors. He loves poring over old records and census, finding new details in the family history. He is particularly proud of finding the long-lost grave of his great-grandfather's brother.

"I feel like Peter Falk, putting on his 'Columbo' raincoat," says Chancey, an affable man who is sweetly solicitous of Mrs. Martin.

Actually, he is wearing a long gray Confederate coat over a collarless gray shirt just now. Many of the men in the opulent Jefferson Hotel are dressed in similar fashion today for the Sons' opening ceremony. And they are as hot as they would have been at Gettysburg. A power failure -- "The second siege of Richmond," one Son says slyly -- has temporarily knocked out the hotel's air-conditioning and most of the lights.

Luckily, the power kicks back in before the meeting starts. Those who are unnerved by the Sons may be relieved to know they begin by saluting the American flag, saying the Pledge of Allegiance and singing the "Star-Spangled Banner."

The night before, a local television reporter had waved a Confederate bikini and pronounced: "This is not a group that worries about being politically correct." In fact, the Sons are deeply concerned about the impression they make. They circulate press releases, pointing out that a 1994 Harris poll showed most Americans, black and white, didn't mind the Confederate flag. They talk a lot about states' rights, comparing 1861 to 1996. "History is written by the victors," is a mantra here.

More than a few rebel yells

Still, they do tend to refer to the Civil War as the War Between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression. And rebel yells keep breaking out in the crowd this morning, especially when the Bonnie Blue flag is shown.

"Are you glad you're a Confederate?" demands the Sons' commander-in-chief, Norman R. Dasinger Sr., as he opens the convention. The Sons make clear they are. Dasinger, who hails from Jacksonville, Ala., then introduces Mrs. Martin to the crowd as the first order of business. He makes a pretty speech about his visits to her home, the Confederate flag hanging in her living room, the other Sons who have sought her out over the last few years.

Then he barks: "On your feet, men, this is what it's all about. Can you say 'Dixie'?"

The Sons and their wives jump up, giving Mrs. Martin a standing ovation. They are all ages, all classes. Three are from Europe. A few are black. Two are actual sons of Confederate veterans -- William Martin, of course, and Woodrow Plaugher of California -- and as such wear buttons identifying them as REAL sons.

But there is only one Last Confederate Widow. Mrs. Martin, who has been using a wheelchair to conserve her energy, rises to her feet, throws both arms over her head and blows kisses. The crowd eats it up sideways with a spoon.

"Thank y'all, I'm glad to be here," she says in a microphone. "I'm proud to be here to meet all y'all and hope to meet you again some time."

A voice cries out from the back: "Gentlemen, three cheers." And they give it to her, as if her sweet comments were a stirring piece of oratory in the tradition of the Gettysburg Address -- well, scratch that, but you get the idea.

Anyway, they cheer her and then, as soon as the convention recesses, the Sons form a long line by her wheelchair, thrusting forward programs for her to sign. Scarlett O'Hara didn't have this many suitors at the Twelve Oaks barbecue. She certainly didn't have as much patience.

"Are you related to the Tennessee Martins?" someone asks. How about the Martins of Newnan, Ga.? Not to her knowledge, Mrs. Martin says, signing her name in her spidery writing. Parents urge their children to shake her hand and they do, looking a little mystified. The Civil War? Wasn't that a million years ago?

Afterward, Mrs. Martin is exhausted and wants to go back to her room until it is time for the memorial service at St. Paul's Episcopal Church. A local magazine reporter asks for any stories her husband might have told, but she can't think of any just now.

"Sometimes she remembers something out of the blue, and then it goes back into the blue," says Chancey. "A few weeks ago, we were coming back from Montgomery and she said: 'You know, the Union soldiers were down in Alabama and they tried to get William Jasper Martin to join the Union Army.'"

Just then, William, only 4 when his father died, has a sudden memory of his own. "I see myself sitting on his knee, and he's feeding me sweet potatoes," he says. "I sure did love those sweet potatoes."

Bits of the past

To the extent that Mrs. Martin and William know anything about William Jasper Martin, it is because of Chancey. Before he came along, even Martin's birth date was a mystery. "The family Bible burned up," Mrs. Martin explains.

Today, they know William Jasper Martin was born Dec. 28, 1845, in Macon County, Ga. Records show he joined the Confederate Army on May 26, 1864, and trained for three weeks before he went into battle. He was in the 4th Alabama Infantry, Company K, and eventually became part of the Northern Army of Virginia.

Hospitalized for measles in a Richmond hospital, he was thought to be a deserter until he rejoined his unit. He was at Petersburg in Southern Virginia, and Mrs. Martin is to tour that field before heading home to Alabama.

"He told me about building the bridges," she offers, when once again pressed for her husband's memories.

She has no oral tradition to pass on, no real memories, no burning interest in the Civil War. So what does the Last Confederate Widow really stand for? J.E.B. Stuart IV, great-grandson of the famed general and a prominent Son, seems an appropriate person to ask.

"She's a link, a wonderful link to our past," he says. It is what everyone says, in almost the same words. "First and foremost, she is a national treasure, not just a Southern one," says Dasinger, the commander-in-chief. "I'm surprised the country has not embraced her."

A place of honor

As the Last Confederate Widow, Mrs. Martin is escorted to a place of honor in St. Paul's, where the Sons are holding their memorial service for members who have died over the past year. She's in Jefferson Davis' pew, No. 63, 11 rows from the front. It is marked with a brass plate, as is Robert E. Lee's pew over on the left side.

"I am in St. Paul's church in Richmond, Va.," a man whispers into his video camera as he pans the church. "And this is the Last Confederate Widow."

On April 2, 1865, Davis was sitting in this pew when he received a missive from Lee in Petersburg, the place where William Jasper Martin fought. "My lines are broken in three places," the note read. "Richmond must be evacuated this evening."

As soon as the service is over, Mrs. Martin is mobbed again. "May I take your photograph?" "May I sit by you?" "May I hug you?"

This convention has barely begun and already people want to know if Mrs. Martin will be at the Sons' 101st meeting in Tennessee.

"I'll be 91!" she points out, laughing over the question.

Only 90, Mrs. Martin. Only 90.

"That's right, 90. But I'm still not sure."

Why not take it one day at a time, Mrs. Martin?

"I think I will," says the Last Confederate Widow. The Last Known Confederate Widow, if you must, but definitely one of a kind.

Pub Date: 8/03/96

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