The Last Civil War Widow

The news media is reporting that the last documented American Civil War widow has died. The woman, Helen Viola Jackson, passed away on December 16, 2020 at age 101 in a nursing home in Marshfield, Missouri.

You’re no doubt thinking that the Civil War ended in 1865, more than 155 years ago So how could a 101-year-old woman, born in 1919, be a Civil War widow? The answer will remind all of the lawyers out there about “the rule against perpetuities,” “fertile octogenarians,” and other bizarre common law principles about property rights and inheritance that allowed law school professors to tie students in knots while posing uncomfortable, head-scratching hypotheticals about improbable family arrangements.

Ms. Jackson married James Bolin, who served in the 14th Missouri Cavalry in the Civil War, in September 1936 — when she was 17 years old, and he was 93. The two met when Ms. Jackson’s parents volunteered her to help Mr. Bolin with his chores on her way to school. Mr. Bolin did not want to accept charity, so he proposed that the two marry, which would allow Ms. Jackson to be the beneficiary of his Union Army pension payments after his death. She accepted, and they were married. Mr. Bolin then died in 1939, and Ms. Jackson never remarried.

But here’s the kicker: Ms. Jackson did not publicly disclose their marriage, or ever make a claim to receive a pension payment — despite Mr. Bolin’s wishes. She kept their marriage a secret because she did not want Mr. Bolin hurt by “wagging tongues” in the community, and she wanted to preserve her reputation, too — especially since one of Mr. Bolin’s daughters wasn’t happy about the relationship. Ms. Jackson didn’t raise the issue of the marriage until 2017, which caused the Daughters of the Union Veterans organization to examine historical records and verify the marriage and her Civil War widow status.

So, the last living link to the Civil War is gone, generations after the last shots were fired. Ms. Jackson’s story, and her proud decision not to claim those pension payments even during the days of the Great Depression, also reminds us of just how much America has changed.