MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Alberta Martin, the last widow of a Civil War veteran, died yesterday, 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.
Mrs. Martin died at a nursing home in Enterprise of complications from a heart attack she suffered May 7, nearly 140 years after the Civil War ended.
Her marriage in the 1920s to Civil War veteran William Jasper Martin and her longevity made her a celebrated final link to the old Confederacy.
Mrs. Martin, who lived in obscurity and poverty for most of her life, spent her final years as an icon of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who would take her to conventions and rallies, her clothes the colors of the rebel banner and her hand waving the Confederate flag. "I don't see nothing wrong with the flag flying," she said frequently.
Her caretaker, Kenneth 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 yesterday. "People would get emotional, holding her hand, crying and thinking about their family that suffered greatly in the past."
Wayne Flynt, a Southern history specialist at Auburn University, said the historical distinctiveness of the South, which is so tied to the Civil War, has been disappearing, but Mrs. 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.
Alberta Stewart Martin was not from the "Gone With the Wind" South of white-columned mansions and hoop skirts. She was born to sharecroppers 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 cabdriver named Howard Farrow, and they had a son before Farrow died in a car accident in 1926.
The young widow then moved to Opp, with her father and her son. 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," Mrs. 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, Mrs. 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, Mrs. Martin married her late husband's grandson, Charlie Martin. He died in 1983.