Newfound Civil War widow causes stir
Lexa, Ark. ? Until this month, Maudie Celia Hopkins was best known for her fried peach pies and applesauce cakes.
Then relatives disclosed that the 89-year-old woman had been married 70 years ago to a veteran of the Civil War, making her a living link to history and triggering a stream of calls from journalists, historians and old friends wanting to know more about her three-year, Depression-era marriage to William M. Cantrell.
“Americans are thirsty for information about the Civil War. They cannot get enough of it,” said Terry Winschel, a historian at the Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi. “For each day since Grant and Lee met at Appomattox, there has been a new book published on the Civil War.”
Links to the past
Southerners see Hopkins and others like her as living relics who memorialize the conflict. Her story came out after the death of another woman, believed to have been the last surviving Civil War widow, who had been taken to rallies and conventions by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“It easy to understand the interest. It’s more than just the fascination with the Civil War. It gives a personal connection 140 years later,” Winschel said.
Hopkins, now a great-grandmother, met Cantrell at the height of the Great Depression. Cantrell, widowed five years earlier, had hired her to clean his house.
Hopkins told The Associated Press she married to escape poverty. He was 86; she was 19.
“My mother and daddy had a bunch of kids, and it was hard times back then. My daddy couldn’t make a living for us, and I didn’t have no shoes,” she said.
She said Cantrell supported her with his Confederate pension of “$25 every two or three months” and left her his house when he died in 1937.
Hopkins, who outlived three other husbands and had three children with her second husband, is now three years older than Cantrell was when she married him.
“I didn’t want to talk about it for a while because I didn’t want people to gossip about it,” she said.
Hopkins’ story came out after last month’s death in Alabama of Alberta Martin, who had been believed to be the last surviving widow of a Civil War soldier. Relatives took Hopkins’ story to the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., which confirmed the link through Confederate military records, Census Bureau data and Arkansas marriage and pension records.
Records show Cantrell enlisted in the Confederate Army at age 16 in Pikeville, Ky., and was captured the same year. He was later exchanged for a northern prisoner.
“He was a good, clean, respectable man,” said Hopkins, who refers to her first husband as “Mr. Cantrell.”
The only war stories she recalls him sharing were about the lice that infested his uniform.
Hopkins’ neighbors in this town of 300 — amid soybean and cotton fields about 50 miles south of Memphis, Tenn. — said they had no idea about her history.
“She shocked me,” said Robert Drennan, who runs a corner grocery and went to school with one of Hopkins’ daughters. “A lot of people are interested in this.”
The Civil War remains a source of fascination for Southerners in part because of the Confederacy’s defeat, said University of Arkansas historian Patrick Williams.
“Southerners have the unique experience of losing a war, which makes the memories of that war a lot more emotionally fraught. Its legacy is much more immediately obvious than, say, World War I,” he said.
Glenn Railsback of Pine Bluff, president of the Arkansas Society of the Military Order of the Stars and Bars, researched Hopkins’ claim for the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
“The war took place mostly in the South. The war was here. The devastation was here. The Reconstruction was here, and all they had was the memory of the valiant Confederate soldier,” Railsback said.
Hopkins, who has an American flag outside her home, said she never thought much about the Civil War. “I always loved to hear about it, but I never heard that much about it,” she said.