Last Link to Dixie

August 03, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

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.

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