Skip to comments.At 97, last known Civil War widow is living link to history
Posted on 02/03/2004 7:46:40 PM PST by Jaysun
ENTERPRISE, Ala. - America's last known Civil War widow never had a hoop skirt or a mansion like Tara.
Alberta Martin was a sharecropper's daughter with a young baby and no job when, in 1927, she married a man 60 years her senior. Yes, former Confederate soldier William Jasper Martin was old, but his $50-a.m.onth pension as a Civil War veteran ensured there would be food on the table and - many years later - fame.
"Miz Alberta," as everyone calls her, is 97 now and in a wheelchair. But Civil War re-enactors and history buffs take her to Sons of Confederate Veterans events from Gettysburg to St. Louis. They see that she has regular visitors at a nursing home in Enterprise and make sure that, after a lifetime in poverty, she can be comfortable in her final days as a living link to history.
Her role became even more significant when Gertrude Janeway, the last widow of a Union veteran, died in January in Tennessee at age 93.
Martin's eldest son appreciates the late-in-life recognition and comfort that has come to his mother.
"She lived a rough, rough life back in the '20s and '30s. They sharecropped and had a miserable life," said Harold Farrow, 78, of North Little Rock, Ark.
His mother was a seventh-grade dropout working in an Alabama textile mill when she met a cab driver named Howard Farrow. They stood before a preacher to get married, but never got a marriage license to make it official.
It didn't matter. Howard Farrow liked his whiskey, she recalled, and he died in a traffic accident six months after Harold was born.
Alone and living with her father, she began to notice "the old man" who walked by her house on his way to play dominoes with friends. William Jasper Martin was nearly 82 and she was barely 21. Their courting consisted of a few conversations.
"He asked my daddy if he could let him have me. My daddy told him that he didn't care if I didn't," she recalled.
On Dec. 10, 1927, Alberta and W.J. Martin were married in a ceremony at the courthouse in Andalusia in south Alabama. She wore "just a plain blue cotton dress."
Theirs was never a typical or an easy marriage.
Their wedding night was spent in her half-brother's crowded house with lots of other family. "When we went to bed, we had the baby in between us and he went to crying," she said.
Two days later, they rented their first house, starting with a stove and a table as the only furnishings.
Even in those days, people wanted to know why a young woman would marry such an old man?
Martin, who had a sense of humor when she had nothing else, usually gave a comical answer: "It's better to be an old man's darling than a young man's slave."
But for a woman as poor as Martin, the real answer was simpler: "He had $50 a month."
"Sometimes I would look out over the fields and wonder what it was like to be married to a younger man," she recalled.
For her husband, the marriage brought late-in-life joy. On Oct. 10, 1928, their son, Willie, was born, and the old man loved to go to town and carry the boy on his shoulders, proudly displaying his offspring.
They had been married nearly five years when the Civil War veteran died in 1932.
Two months later, his widow married his grandson by a previous marriage.
The marriage of Alberta and Charlie Martin caused the gossip to fly. They got kicked out of their church. People gave them funny looks.
Alberta Martin made no excuses.
"I was lonesome," she said.
They were eventually welcomed back by the church, and their marriage worked, with the couple marking their 50th anniversary before Charlie died in 1983.
Afterward, Martin lived with her son Willie, making do off her third husband's pension as a World War II veteran.
She told people she was a Civil War widow and she ought to be getting the Civil War widow's pension that Alabama still had on its law books from 1895. Her daughter-in-law even wrote then-Gov. George Wallace to explain her situation.
But when you're a poor widow with little education, it's hard to get anybody's attention in the state capital.
In 1996, Enterprise dentist Ken Chancey and other members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans took up her cause. They got state officials to approve her for a pension.
They even bought the first air conditioner for a woman who had lived her entire life in the sweltering summers of south Alabama.
These days, they bring her sacks of her favorite snack - Cheetos - and relish her recounting of the stories that W.J. Martin told her about the Civil War, about how food was in such short supply near the end of the war that he would grab whatever he could find in roadside gardens while on the march.
"He'd get a handful of peas or a watermelon or whatever he could and eat it," she said.
At 96, Martin's hearing is going and some days so is her memory.
But when her memory won't work like she wants, she can still find her sense of humor and a smile: "I'm old enough to forget, ain't I?"
One thing that's not left to Martin's fading memory is her funeral. It's already planned in great detail.
It will be a Confederate heritage ceremony, complete with Civil War re-enactors and a Confederate brass ensemble. A mule-drawn wagon will carry her casket to a cemetery near Elba where her last husband is buried, and a Confederate battle flag will cover her casket.
While others debate the appropriateness of the Confederate battle flag, Martin talks proudly of her burial plans.
"It's my flag," she says.
You've got to admire her, that woman is the original surviving widow. From the Civil War to WWII....
My uncle is 96, he eats lots of sweets, and has dessert every day after his noon meal. More amazingly, he still has all of his own teeth. This will make you shudder, he was driving until last year, and so was my aunt, his 95 year old wife.
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