- The Washington Times - Friday, June 11, 2004

With the announcement last week of the death of Alberta Martin of Alabama, the nation marked the loss of “the last Confederate widow,” as she was inevitably identified. Mrs. Martin’s first husband, William Jasper Martin, had been a Confederate soldier in his youth, and she cared for the aging veteran until his death.

But caution is advised before referring to someone as the “last” of anything.

The best proof of that is the recent discovery of 89-year-old Maudie Cecelia Hopkins of Lexa, Ark. Her first husband was William M. Cantrell of the Virginia Infantry, and Mrs. Hopkins is very much alive, although in poor health.

A quiet lady, less than 5 feet tall, she remains quite unimpressed by her historical status, which to her is simply a long-ago part of her life. She was merely William Cantrell’s wife.

A soldier at 16

William Cantrell was born on March 15, 1847, and enlisted in the Confederate Army at age 16 in Pikeville, Ky., not far from Wise, Va., where his family lived.

Only 5 feet 4 inches tall, he is shown as having black hair and dark eyes, and of fair complexion. He enlisted in French’s Battalion, Company A, of the Virginia Infantry, a group raised by Col. James M. French. A number of Cantrells appear on the roster of French’s Battalion, and one of them was Hiram Cantrell, William’s father, who was wounded by Union forces.

The records show that William was captured at Piketon, in Pike County, Ky., on April 15, 1863, and “sent under guard to Camp Chase, Ohio” four days later. The notation in the record states that “nearly all of those prisoners belonged to a regt. just being organized by Maj. J. M. French & having no definite designation, hence the column ‘Regiment’ is often left blank.”

He is listed as a prisoner of war for the next six weeks, before being “paroled” on May 13, 1863, by order of a Lt. Col. Eastman. Afterward, he was sent to City Point, Va., for exchange. The record is silent as to any further activity, other than a receipt roll for clothing, as a prisoner.

His father was captured at Gladeville, Va., on July 7, 1863, and also sent to Camp Chase a few weeks later.

The genesis of French’s Battalion appears to be the dissolution of the Virginia State Line Company a month earlier. Maj. French received permission to raise troops, and it was while on this recruiting foray into eastern Kentucky that William Cantrell was enlisted and subsequently captured. If Cantrell was part of the 5th VSL Company before going into Company A of French’s Battalion, it was probably as a cavalryman. French wanted to enlist an entire complement of 1,000 men, and saw Pike County, Ky., as the best source. It turned out to be a bad choice, as within two weeks his command had been dispersed by Union troops under Capt. John Dils.

A crippling defeat

A letter from Union Col. George W. Gallup to Gen. Ambrose Burnside on April 19, 1863, said that “at the request of Col. John Dils, 39th Kentucky [Union] Regiment, I sent him, with a detachment of 200 … selected, good, mounted riflemen, with orders to rout. … Brisk skirmishing ensued for about an hour when the enemy was compelled to surrender the town. We captured Major French, 1 surgeon, 1 mustering officer, 5 captains, 9 lieutenants, 70 men, 30 horses and saddles, about 40 guns and all their stores, and … destroyed their camp.”

In some records, French’s Battalion is referred to as the 65th Virginia Infantry, the designation French hoped to obtain, and others call it the 7th Virginia Mounted Infantry. Cantrell’s gravestone shows only “7th Va. Infantry.”

In August, the unit would come under the command of Col. Henry L. Giltner of the 4th Kentucky Cavalry, a part of Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s brigade.

After the war ended and his family had relocated to Arkansas, Cantrell, a widower, married his second wife, Matilda McFall. After her death in 1929, the veteran, in his 80s, met Maudie Cecelia Acklin.

Advance, Ark., was a small town in the Ozarks with only one store and a post office. Everyone knew everyone, and the couple became acquainted when Can-trell asked her to clean house for him. Cantrell had begun to require some assistance due to his advancing age, and he also sought companionship from the pretty lady who had become his friend.

Solution to a problem

The fact that he was a widower, however, made finding live-in help difficult. According to Emmit Dolan Acklin, a second cousin to Mrs. Hopkins, “the mores of the time would not have this 19-year-old girl living there with Mr. Cantrell, so they decided to marry. That made it all right.”

The marriage certificate, signed on Feb. 2, 1934, by A.E. Wickersham, justice of the peace in Baxter County, Ark., indicates that the groom was 86. Both were living at Lone Rock, Ark.

Mrs. Hopkins, in her own words, explained how she met Mr. Cantrell:

“I was living where I could, my parents could not afford to support all of us kids, I cleaned houses and did wash. We lived across the White River down in the forest. One day while I was cleaning this lady’s house, this man came by and asked if I would clean his house. I told him that the lady paid me $10 and he said that he would pay me $12. I started cleaning his house…. [this was] ‘Mr. Cantrell,’ and one day he asked me if I would marry him and move in the house with him. I told him that I would have to think about that as he was so old.

“I finally decided that it was a place to live, and he said that he would see that I got the house and 200 acres when he died. Of course, in those days you could only get $1.25 an acre for woods land. I scratched out a garden, and when I sold enough eggs I would buy some sugar and then I could make jelly. Before Mr. Cantrell died, he deeded me the house and land. I continued to live there after I married Winfred White.”

Parts of her family were not in favor of the May-December marriage. Some could understand it and approve; others could not. The couple chose to rise above the criticism and make a life for themselves.

In talking to Mrs. Hopkins, she quickly says that Cantrell “was a good man, a nice man, a respectable person. He was good to me, and I was good to him. I treated him like a baby.”

Money was extremely tight, she said. “We had a good life, but it was hard. He got a veteran’s pension. Sometimes it was twenty-five dollars a month; sometimes it just came every two months or every three months. That made life hard. But we were happy.”

It would be a short marriage. Despite Mrs. Hopkins’ best efforts and loving care, Cantrell died on Feb. 26, 1937.

There is no indication that Mrs. Hopkins ever drew a widow’s pension. According to Mr. Acklin, “she said one time that people had told her she ought to apply for one, but she just never did.”

Apparently William Cantrell did receive a minimal pension, provided by the Arkansas State Legislative Act 187 of 1917. Arkansas later legislated that no youthful widows of Confederate soldiers could receive pensions, to discourage the practice of young women marrying elderly soldiers simply for a lifetime benefit. Such widows were required to wait until they were 60 before applying for pension relief.

Mrs. Hopkins would marry three more times. Her last husband, Milton Hopkins, died in 1997.

She continues to live alone, resisting any attempt to be relocated to a nursing home. At least one daughter lives nearby and checks on her daily, and other family members visit her often, since she suffers from diabetes and other ailments common to those of her age. A nearby neighbor has brought her Sunday dinner for the last few years, and Mrs. Hopkins is grateful for the attention that her friends and neighbors give her, which enables her to retain her independence.

“I’m not going to a nursing homeþ” she adamantly told one of her daughters, Ida Mae Chamness, recently. And that was that.

In 1999, Emmett Acklin was able to get an official grave marker from the Veterans Administration for Cantrell, indicating his service in the Confederate Army. He is buried in the Burnt Schoolhouse Cemetery in Mountain Home, Baxter County, Ark.

Time to tell the story

One of Mrs. Hopkins’ sons-in-law, Fred Chamness, learned recently of a ceremony being sponsored by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy at the city cemetery in Manassas to honor Virginia Confederates, and decided that it was the time and place to make others aware of his mother-in-law’s unique status.

He quietly announced to several in attendance that “my mother-in-law is also a Confederate widow,” and produced a photograph of Cantrell’s grave with its official CSA grave marker. This was a week before Alberta Martin died.

He and his wife visited Mrs. Hopkins on Mother’s Day, and she seemingly was unaware of her Confederate sister, Mrs. Martin. She rarely watches television or reads newspapers, but enjoys seeing her friends and relatives and living quietly in the rural area. Asked for Mrs. Hopkins’ reaction to her newly discovered status as a Confederate widow, Mr. Chamness said she was “surprised in a way, but I guess it’s natural.” Mrs. Hopkins said she had always known that she was a Confederate widow, but apparently saw no reason to advertise the fact. Now others will do it for her.

Since that time, and with Mrs. Martin’s death, Mrs. Hopkins quietly sits on her front porch on nice evenings, unaware of the stir her presence has caused in Confederate heritage circles. She has no stories to tell them and few recollections, at 89, of any told by her soldier husband. He only said he remembered lice crawling up his legs and eating through the leather garters to get to his skin. At one time there was a box of papers and photographs sitting on the porch, but when it was damaged by rain, someone threw it away.

At least people now know that another Civil War widow lives.

A concerted effort needs to be made to locate and identify any others who may be scattered across the country so that they can be recognized for the special place they hold in the hearts of those for whom the war period is a matter of interest and preservation.

Members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy are gathering information to assist Mrs. Hopkins in completing membership application papers, with the hope that she, too, will want to perpetuate her link to the Confederacy in a tangible way.

Martha M. Boltz is a writer in Northern Virginia and a frequent contributor to the Civil War page.

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