Sunday, May 16, 2004

Civil War widow suffers heart attack

Yes, you read that right. The widow of a Confederate veteran recently suffered a heart attack. Never mind that the Civil War ended 139 years ago last month.

How is this possible, you ask? Alberta Martin, 97, married William Jasper Martin in 1927. Alberta was 21 at the time. William Martin was 82 at the time and had served in the Confederate Army.

This is one of those weird quirks of fate where personal connections somehow manage to extend over what seem to be absurdly long periods of time. Another one that comes to mind is how Wagner's grandson is still alive and only recently relinquished the directorship of the Bayreuth festival.

Tony Horwitz devotes a chapter of Confederates in the Attic (see previous thoughts here) to Alberta Martin. Horwitz comes across as rather disappointed upon meeting Martin. She doesn't have much to say about her husband's service in the Civil War; it seems he never talked of it much.

This brings up an important point. The fact that there are moments and events that we currently consider historically significant (for whatever reason) does not guarantee that those moments and events have always been seen as important. Nowadays, the prospect of talking to someone who was married to someone who fought in the Civil War is exhilirating, providing as close a link to a crucial moment in American history as currently seems possible. But Alberta didn't marry William because he had served in the Civil War and she valued that potential connection to the past. There were, no doubt, a bunch of Civil War veterans still floating around southern Alabama in the 1920s. The significance of her marriage has only emerged in recent years as other Civil War widows have passed away and Alberta has emerged as the personal link to the Civil War.

The lesson here is that historical significance comes not from the past but from the present. We determine what events in the past matter to us now and invest them with meaning. To be sure, this is far from a conscious or deliberate activity, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen. Nor is the fact that historical significance is as much a function of the present as the past diminish the very real consequences of past events. Rather, we should be wary of those who suggest that anything is ever timeless. Alberta Martin provides a unique connection to the American Civil War. But that connection hasn't always been unique, and that connection is as haphazard as it is significant.


At May 31, 2004 4:22:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

alberta martin died today may 31 2004


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