96-year-old is last widow of a Civil War soldier


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.

'Miz Alberta'

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.

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 teen-ager, was 21 when, in 1927, she became the third wife of William Jasper Martin, an 81-year-old former private in the Confederate army.

A mustache, a pension

Their courtship was brief, spanning just a few words spoken over a picket fence in Opp, when he'd 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.

"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'd 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 that 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 at the end of a dirt road in Elba, 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."

Millions diverted

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.

She participated in parades, cut the ribbon at the inauguration of the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library in Biloxi, Miss., met at Civil War re-enactments with the two other surviving widows: Janeway, who died this year, and Daisy Anderson, who died in Denver in 1998 at 97.

Worries about son

A diabetic coma and other infirmities have slowed Miz Alberta's pace since she moved last year into the Enterprise Nursing Home.

Her $5,000 monthly bill at the facility is covered by a $3,500 pension, supplemented by private contributions.

Her time is spent sharing memories with visitors and worrying about the failing health of her 75-year-old son, Willie, among the last surviving offspring of a Civil War soldier.

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 a half-century.

In planning her funeral, she has asked that the song "Beyond the Sunset" be sung and that the hand-stitched Confederate flag covering her lap the other day be draped over her mule-drawn casket.

David Lamb is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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