In strange-but-true news, the last known surviving spouse of a Civil War veteran just died last month.
How is that even possible? The U.S. Civil War took place from 1861 to 1865, and no one who survived the war is still alive. However, there are two things that make it possible: 1) As much as we might like to imagine that Americans fighting over the right to own Black people was super ancient history, the Civil War was just 160 years ago. That's two 80-year-olds living back to back. 2) Some people live long lives and have unlikely marriages, which makes for fascinating historical stories like this one.
Helen Viola Jackson died December 16 at age 101. She was 17 when she married 93-year-old James Bolin, a widower who had served as a private in the 14th Missouri Cavalry of the Union army, in 1936.
A 17-year-old marrying a 93-year-old definitely raises some eyebrows, but the story is actually kind of sweet.
A statement shared by the Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival offers context to the union:
"She remained largely silent, even among her close family and friends about her link to the 19th century War Between the States, until three years ago, when she decided to share her complete life story as she was working on the details of her funeral with her minister.
Jackson grew up in a family with 10 children and met her husband at church near her home during the height of the Great Depression.
The Daughters of the Union Veterans confirmed Jackson's marriage using historical documents, including a signed affidavit from the last living witness to the nuptials.
'I never wanted to share my story with the public,' Jackson said in an oral history recording in 2018. 'I didn't feel that it was that important and I didn't want a bunch of gossip about it.'
James Bolin was a 93-year-old widower when Jackson's father volunteered her to stop by his house each day and assist him with chores as she headed home from school.
Bolin who was a private in the 14th Missouri Cavalry and served until the end of the war in Co. F, did not believe in accepting charity and after a lengthy period of time-asked Jackson for her hand in marriage as a way to provide for her future.
'He said that he would leave me his Union pension,' Jackson explained in an interview with Historian Hamilton C. Clark. 'It was during the depression and times were hard. He said that it might be my only way of leaving the farm.'
Jackson, who was 17 years old, married Bolin in front of a few witnesses at his Niangua, Missouri home on September 4, 1936. 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.
Although the two were married, Jackson explained that the nuptials were on her terms. She still wanted to live on her family farm with her immediate family and she wanted to keep her last name, sharing the information with few individuals outside of those who had served as witnesses.
'How do you explain that you have married someone with such a difference in age,' she said at the 2018 Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival. 'I had great respect for Mr. Bolin and I did not want him to be hurt by the scorn of wagging tongues.'
Jackson was wed to Bolin from 1936 until his passing on June 18, 1939. However, she never officially applied for his pension as one of her step-daughters threatened to ruin her reputation.
'All a woman had in 1939 was her reputation,' she continued in her oral history interview. '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 did not share her story from 1939 until the winter of 2017. She never remarried and no children were born to the union.
'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.'"
It's a bit sad that Jackson never applied for the pension that was the reason for the marriage in the first place, but life is complicated.
More than anything, this story is a reminder that it just wasn't that long ago that the U.S. nearly split in two over the southern states' desire to maintain the evil institution of slavery. Someone who was married to a soldier in that war was alive a month ago.
Today, we watched a violent storming of the U.S. Capitol by people carrying the Confederate flag, in a surreal throwback to the people who marched on the wrong side of history 160 years ago.
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