Confederates mourn the passing of the last of America's civil war widows

A few years ago, Alberta Martin was an unexceptional old lady living in an Alabama nursing home. But then word got out that, in her youth, she had enjoyed a brief marriage to an octogenarian veteran of the American Civil War, and she became something else entirely - a heroine for nostalgics of the old confederate South.

A few years ago, Alberta Martin was an unexceptional old lady living in an Alabama nursing home. But then word got out that, in her youth, she had enjoyed a brief marriage to an octogenarian veteran of the American Civil War, and she became something else entirely - a heroine for nostalgics of the old confederate South.

A parade of largely middle-aged white men with a penchant for period military uniforms beat a path to her door. The Alabama State Legislature voted to grant her a Civil War pension, more than 130 years after the cessation of hostilities with the Unionist north. She became a celebrity - the last Confederate widow.

Her death at the age of 97 has ended all that. Her carer and greatest champion, a Confederate-loving dentist called Ken Chancey, announced on Monday that Ms Martin had succumbed to congestive heart failure on Memorial Day - which commemorates the fallen of the nation's wars.

Her funeral, which has been in the planning for years, will be a lavish affair, complete with period mule-drawn wagon and Confederate honour guard.

But Alberta Martin is an intriguing and somewhat ambiguous figure - not least because, until 15 years ago, the title of last Confederate widow was bestowed on someone else entirely. It was only thanks to Dr Chancey, who encountered her in the mid-1990s, that her story was ever told, much less trumpeted and given its own website, lastconfederatewidow.com.

What is known about her past is that, in 1927, as a 21-year-old widow and young mother, she married 81-year-old Private William Jasper Martin, who could make up with his veteran's pension what he lacked in youthful vigour.

Four years later, after Martin's death, she scandalised Alabama society by marrying her dead husband's grandson, who was much closer to her in age and remained her companion until his death in 1981.

Asked whether she had ever loved the old man (there were even rumours she had begun seeing his grandson while he was still alive), she once told an interviewer: "I cared enough about him to live with him. You know the difference between a young man and an old man.''

Despite the mythologising, it is unclear how much of a war hero Private Martin was. According to the author, Tony Horwitz, who researched the topic for his best-selling book Confederates In The Attic , Martin deserted after seeing action briefly at the siege of Petersburg. He then delayed claiming his war pension until he was well advanced in age, by which time all records pertaining to his service were either lost or shrouded in ambiguity.

Mr Horwitz's findings enraged Dr Chancey and his group, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), and they threatened to sue. The lawyer who fired off angry letters to Mr Horwitz's publisher was a well-known white supremacist sympathiser, who had previously represented the Ku Klux Klan - an uncomfortable reminder that parts of the Confederate movement, while claiming strictly historical status, have also quietly perpetuated the old southern agenda of racial segregation and autonomy from the federal government.

SCV continued to hail Ms Martin as a living monument as recently as last year, when they celebrated the fact that she had outlived the last surviving Unionist widow, another nonagenarian.

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