Friday, July 23, 2004

Confederate widow false alarm

So it turns out that Alberta Martin, who passed away at the end of May, was not the last surviving widow of a Confederate soldier.

Right around that time, I was getting a lot of hits for "last confederate widow," so I figured I'd do a google search now to see where I came up. Still fairly high.

But the interesting thing was this Washington Times article documenting another living Confederate widow. Maudie Cecilia Hopkins of Lexa, Arkansas, married William M. Cantrell of the Virginia Infantry in 1934. At the time, Cantrell was 86, Maudie Cecilia Acklin, 19.

Accordiing to the article, Hopkins "remains quite unimpressed by her historical status, which to her is simply a long-ago part of her life." This is, as far as I'm concerned, as it should be. There's far more to her life than a short (3-year) marriage to a man almost seventy years older than her. While her connection to the Civil War is interesting, it's really no more than an historical quirk, in this case brought to light because of the publicity surrounding Alberta Martin.

What is noteworthy about the "discovery" of Maudie Cecilia Hopkins is how it demonstrates the haphazard nature of our knowledge of the past. For all we know, there might be a dozen surviving Confederate widows, perhaps some who had detailed conversations with their husbands about the Civil War. But we really have no way of knowing, short of exhaustive research into the post-Civil War lives of every Confederate soldier.

To be sure, "little" facts like this are far more likely to slip through the cracks of history than "big" facts like the results of presidential elections. But there's a sense in which all historical knowledge is dependent on luck. People die, records are lost. The materials historians have to work with are nowhere near complete. There are some interesting implications to this, implications I plan on teasing out in that post I've been promising to write for months now. At least I've started writing it now...

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