Nearly 140 years after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, the last surviving widow of a Civil War veteran has died. Alberta Stewart Martin, 97, who married an elderly Confederate veteran when she was 21, died May 31 at a nursing home in Enterprise, Ala., after a heart attack.
"She was what we call the last link to Dixie," Kenneth W. Chancey, a friend from Enterprise, said yesterday. "The war hasn't been that far removed, particularly for southerners, and she reminded us of that."
Mrs. Martin had already been widowed once when she met 81-year-old William Jasper Martin, who had served with the 4th Alabama Infantry Regiment during the siege of Petersburg, Va., in 1864 and 1865.
They were both living in the south Alabama town of Opp, where the aging veteran enjoyed meeting friends to play dominoes.
"He was crazy about me," she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year. He talked to her over the picket fence as he passed by her house. She was a young widow with a 6-month-old son, and he had a $50 monthly military pension.
"One day, he just asked me how I would like to be his wife," she said in an interview last year with the Birmingham News. "I told him I already had a little ol' boy to raise. I said, 'But if it's what you want, I guess we can marry.' He said, 'How soon?' That was the first of the week. We got married that Saturday at the courthouse in Andalusia."
They were married Dec. 10, 1927, less than a week after Mrs. Martin's 21st birthday. It was his third marriage, her second. Ten months later, she and Martin had a son, William, whom the proud new father delighted in carrying through the streets of Opp on his shoulders.
"Mr. Martin -- that's what I always called him, Mr. Martin -- never did talk much about the war," Mrs. Martin said in an interview last year with the Los Angeles Times. "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."
William Martin died July 8, 1931. Two months later, Mrs. Martin married her husband's grandson, Charlie Martin. They remained together for 50 years, until his death in 1983.
She was born near Danley's Crossroads, Ala., the daughter of a sharecropper. Her mother died when she was 11, leaving her to help provide for a family that included eight brothers and a younger sister. Mrs. Martin left school after the seventh grade to work in the cotton and peanut fields and later in a cotton mill.
"Lord, how my hands blistered running spools of thread through them in that mill," she told the Los Angeles Times.
For many years, she lived in a small house in Elba, Ala. Her family and neighbors knew she had once been married to a Civil War veteran, but her pension benefits ceased when she remarried.
In the mid-1990s, her cause was taken up by local supporters who took an interest in her story. Chancey, an Enterprise dentist, helped obtain a state pension for Mrs. Martin and led an effort to install air conditioning and other conveniences in her modest house.
In recent years, Mrs. Martin became a symbol of the movement to preserve the Confederate flag in southern states.
"I don't see nothing wrong with the flag flying," she often said.
There was also a minor controversy when author Tony Horwitz wrote in his 1998 book, "Confederates in the Attic," that William Jasper Martin had been a deserter. Chancey and other supporters vigorously dispute the claim. After searching through records, Chancey said, he discovered that there were 75 William Martins in the Alabama infantry alone, and that William Jasper Martin's name had been cleared decades earlier by the state.
Mrs. Martin had been the only surviving Civil War widow since January 2003, when Gertrude Grubb Janeway, whose husband was a Union veteran from Tennessee, died.
Mrs. Martin's son Harold Farrow, from her first marriage to Howard Farrow, died last year. William Martin, the son of the Civil War veteran, still lives in Elba.
For the past four years, Mrs. Martin had been planning her own funeral. It will be conducted with Civil War reenactors dressed in Confederate uniforms and her casket carried upon a caisson. At her request, the casket will be covered by an eight-foot-long, hand-stitched Confederate battle flag.
"The last years of her life were probably some of her best years," Chancey said yesterday. "She said, 'I've never done anything, but I did marry into history.' "