Rare Book Monthly

Articles - July - 2004 Issue

A Last Connection to<br>The Civil War Dies

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There is a sadness that arises whenever the last of any group of people passes on. A part of our past is lost forever. A part of our youth dies. In reality, the last connection with the Civil War died a long time ago. The last veteran to die is believed to be Walter Williams, a Confederate soldier who died at 117 in 1959. The last Union soldier was Albert Woolson, who died in 1956 at age 109. Their deaths truly closed this chapter in our history. I don’t know when the last person with any memory of, or who even lived for a day during the Civil War died, but it must have been a long time ago. The oldest recognized living person in the world today was born in 1890, 25 years after that war ended. In other words, no one even remembers any presidents before Cleveland, and that would only be a dim child’s memory from the second of his two nonconsecutive terms. Only a handful of people would have any memory of the 19th century, and those would come from the very end of it. I think back to my grandparents, who don’t seem that far away, and realize that were they alive today, they would be the oldest living people in the world. Still, I can remember them and a whole slew of great aunts and uncles who grew up in a world no one today remembers. For those of us who cherish history, the challenge becomes how do we keep people, places and events alive in our collective memory after they are no longer alive in anyone’s personal memory.

So now we must return to Maudie Acklin (now Maudie Hopkins), the surviving Civil War widow. In 1934, at the age of 19, she married 87-year-old Confederate veteran William Cantrell. Those were hard times, the height of the Depression, and the couple helped each other in the ways they could, he financially, she caring for the home. Cantrell died three years later, just short of his 90th birthday. Mrs. Hopkins said he talked little of the war and she never asked, but she recalls Mr. Cantrell as a decent man. And that was probably true of most of the men who gave their lives in this terrible war, and it makes it all the more tragic still today, even though all of those who died in battle would be long gone now anyway.

The discovery of Maudie Acklin Cantrell Hopkins opens the door to the possibility that more Civil War widows may still be alive. After all, she is only 89, hardly an extraordinarily old age. Maybe we will be able to keep this one last thread to another era alive for many years to come. That would, in some small way, be comforting. And perhaps if we can find a few more widows on both sides, Fox can put together a “reality” show wherein the widows can re–fight the Civil War for large prizes. The Civil War meets the 21st century. Wouldn’t that be exciting? No, it wouldn’t.

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