The last known widow of a Civil War soldier has died at the age of 101, ending a remarkable life story that she had kept to herself for over 80 years.
When Maudie Hopkins of Arkansas died in 2008, it was believed that there were no known Civil War widows left in the nation.
Then, in December 2017, Helen Viola Jackson of Marshfield, Missouri, decided to tell her own astonishing tale.
‘I never wanted to share my story with the public,’ she said in 2018. ‘I didn’t feel that it was that important and I didn’t want a bunch of gossip about it.’
Jackson, one of ten children, agreed – but on the condition she could keep her unmarried name, and continue living with her family on the farm. Bolin agreed, and they remained married until his death on June 18, 1939.
Jackson never remarried, and had no children. She also never claimed his pension, after Bolin’s step-daughter threatened to smear her reputation if she did so. ‘All a woman had in 1939 was her reputation,’ she said. ‘I didn’t want them all to think that I was a young woman who had married an old man to take advantage of him.’
Jackson’s death, and her story, was confirmed by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
The story began with Bolin’s signing up for his military service at the age of 18, according to military records, as the war was breaking out. He fought with both the 13th and 14th Cavalry, ending the war with F Company.
Missouri had both Confederate and Union forces, but Jackson spoke of his Union pension, suggesting he fought with the Missouri State Militia 14th Cavalry.
Members of the Missouri State Militia were recruited from the state of Missouri, but armed by the federal government. They had to provide their own horses in the cavalry regiments, and were given sporadic bonuses for doing so.
They fought almost exclusively in the state of Missouri, most notably in the Battle of Westport – one of the largest battles west of the Mississippi, sometimes referred to as the Gettysburg of the West.
The battle was fought on October 23, 1864, in modern Kansas City, Missouri, and saw a decisive defeat of Confederate forces.
The Missouri State Militia also fought in the Battle of Mine Creek, the largest cavalry battle west of the Mississippi river, involving approximately 10,000 troops. Bolin married Elizabeth Davenport Bolin – the date of their wedding is unknown – and the couple settled in Niangua and had five children, born in the decade after 1869. Elizabeth died in 1922, aged 79.
The Jackson family – James Washington Jackson, his wife Thursa Arizona Shelby Jackson, and their 10 children – farmed just outside Niangua, and began to assist the elderly widower.
Helen Jackson met Bolin at church, during the height of the Great Depression, and her father volunteered her to stop by his house each day and assist him with chores as she headed home from school.
Bolin, who did not want to be seen as a charity case, came up with the idea of marrying Helen, as a way of securing her financial future. He said that he would leave me his Union pension,’ Jackson explained, in an interview with Hamilton C. Clark, a historian. ‘It was during the Depression and times were hard. He said that it might be my only way of leaving the farm.’
The couple married in front of a few witnesses at his Niangua home on September 4, 1936. ‘Mr Bolin really cared for me,’ she said in an interview for Our America Magazine. ‘He wanted me to have a future and he was so kind.’
Bolin recorded the wedding in his personal Bible, which is now part of a rotating exhibit on Jackson that has traveled to several museum locations, including the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri.
The Daughters of the Union Veterans confirmed Jackson’s marriage using historical documents, including a signed affidavit from the last living witness to the nuptials.
After the wedding Jackson remained on the family farm, and few knew of the arrangement.
Speaking at the 2018 Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival – which she helped found – she gave her reasons for keeping the marriage a secret. ‘How do you explain that you have married someone with such a difference in age,’ she said. ‘I had great respect for Mr Bolin and I did not want him to be hurt by the scorn of wagging tongues.’
In a remarkable twist, after his death she never did claim his pension: one of Bolin’s daughters threatened to make the arrangement public, and ruin her reputation.
Jackson received numerous accolades, including serving as grand marshal in her hometown’s annual Independence Day Parade. She was active in her Methodist church, where the ladies’ ministry was named in her honor, and in her local gardening club. She also received an honorary high school diploma from Niangua High School, courtesy of the class of 1937.
A play about Jackson’s life, The Secret Veil, was written in 2019 and performed at the Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival as a fundraiser for the Randy Travis Foundation, set up by the country music star for stroke victims. Jackson died on December 16 at Webco Manor Nursing Home in Marshfield, Missouri, where she had been a resident for many years.
She was working on her funeral arrangements in 2017, when she finally decided to open up about her life.