MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alberta Martin, the last widow of a Civil War veteran, died on Memorial Day, ending an unlikely ascent from sharecropper’s daughter to the belle of 21st century Confederate history buffs who paraded her across the South. She was 97.
Martin died at a nursing home in Enterprise of complications from a heart attack she suffered May 7, said her caretaker, Dr. Kenneth Chancey. She died nearly 140 years after the Civil War ended.
Her May-December marriage in the 1920s to Civil War veteran William Jasper Martin and her longevity made her a celebrated final link to the old Confederacy.
After living in obscurity and poverty for most of her life, in her final years the Sons of Confederate Veterans took her to conventions and rallies, often with a small Confederate battle flag waving in her hand and her clothes the colors of the rebel banner.
Basking in attention
“I don’t see nothing wrong with the flag flying,” she said frequently.
Chancey said she loved the attention. “It’s like being matriarch of a large family,” he said.
“She was a link to the past,” Chancey said Monday. “People would get emotional, holding her hand, crying and thinking about their family that suffered greatly in the past.”
Wayne Flynt, a Southern history expert at Auburn University, said the historical distinctiveness of the South, which is so tied to the Civil War, has been disappearing, but Martin provided people with one last chance to see that history in real life.
“She became a symbol like the Confederate battle flag,” he said.
The last widow of a Union veteran from the Civil War, Gertrude Janeway, died in January 2003 at her home in Tennessee. She was 93 and had married veteran John Janeway when she was 18.
In 1997, Martin and Daisy Anderson, whose husband was a slave who ran away and joined the Union Army, were recognized at a ceremony at Gettysburg, Pa. Anderson, who lived in Denver, died in 1998 at age 97. Janeway wasn’t invited to the Gettysburg event because, at the time, no one outside her family knew her whereabouts.
Alberta Stewart Martin was not from the “Gone With the Wind” South of white-columned mansions and hoop skirts. She was born Alberta Stewart to sharecroppers on Dec. 4, 1906, in Danley’s Crossroads, a tiny settlement built around a sawmill 70 miles south of Montgomery.
Her mother died when she was 11. At 18, she met a cab driver named Howard Farrow, and they had a son before Farrow died in a car accident in 1926.
Marriage of convenience
Stewart, her father and her son moved to Opp. Just up the road lived William Jasper Martin, a widower born in Georgia in 1845 who had a $50-a-month Confederate veteran’s pension.
The 81-year-old man struck up a few conversations with the 21-year-old neighbor and a marriage of convenience was born.
“I had this little boy and I needed some help to raise him,” Alberta Martin recalled in a 1998 interview.
They were married on Dec. 10, 1927, and 10 months later had a son, William.
She said her husband never talked much about the war, except the harsh times at Petersburg, Va.
"He’d say it was rough, how the trenches were full of water. They were so hungry in Virginia that during the time they were fighting, they had to grab food as they went along. They came across a potato patch and made up some mashed potatoes,” she said.
Asked if she loved her husband, Martin said: “That’s a hard question to answer. I cared enough about him to live with him. You know the difference between a young man and an old man.”
William Jasper Martin died on July 8, 1931. Two months later, Alberta Martin married her late husband’s grandson, Charlie Martin. He died in 1983.
She became the focus of a dustup over the depiction of her and her late Confederate husband in the 1998 book “Confederates in the Attic.” Among other things, the book by Tony Horwitz described William Jasper Martin as a deserter.
A group that defends Southern heritage disagreed, contending there were at least two William Martins who served in Company K of the 4th Alabama Infantry Regiment and that Horwitz got the wrong one. Horwitz said his research was carefully checked and the book was accurate.
The state government considered Martin’s record clean enough to award him a Confederate pension in 1921 and to give Alberta Martin Confederate widow’s benefits in 1996.
Martin’s older son, Harold Farrow of North Little Rock, Ark., died last June. Her younger son, Willie Martin, lives in Elba.
Alberta Martin is to be interred at New Ebenezer Baptist Church six miles west of Elba, in an 1860s-style ceremony following her funeral June 12.
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