The last publicly documented widow of a Civil War veteran died last month at the age of 101.
“It is my sad duty to report the death of Helen Viola Jackson, the last documented widow of a Civil War soldier, on 16 December 2020, at the age of 101 years,” read a Friday statement from Brian C. Pierson, who leads the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. “She had been a resident of Webco Manor Nursing Home in Marshfield, Missouri for many years.”
Pierson went on to explain how and why Jackson married Pvt. James Bolin, who fought for the Union in the 14th Missouri Cavalry, when he was 93 and she was 17.
“Her father had volunteered her to stop by his house each day and assist him with chores as she headed home from school. Bolin did not believe in accepting charity and, after a period of time, asked Helen for her hand in marriage in order to provide for her future by leaving her his Union pension. She accepted and Bolin recorded the wedding in her personal Bible. Bolin died in June 1939 and Helen never remarried; she never applied for the pension.”
— SUVCW National HQ (@SUVCW) January 3, 2021
Born July 3, 1919, in Webster County, Missouri, Jackson grew up in a family of 10 children and met Bolin at church. They married in 1936, which the Daughters of the Union Veterans confirmed using historical documents and a signed affidavit from the last living witness to the wedding.
Jackson kept her marriage to Bolin a secret until 2017. “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.”
“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.”
Jackson reportedly never applied for Bolin’s pension because her stepdaughter threatened to ruin her reputation. “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 remained fond of Bolin even long after his death. “Mr. Bolin really cared for me,” she remembered. “He wanted me to have a future and he was so kind.”
A special exhibit about Jackson and her late husband featured recently at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri. Jackson had met Wilder, who became famous for her children’s novels based on her life growing up in a pioneer family.
Before Jackson came forward, Arkansas woman Maudie Hopkins was believed to have been the last documented Civil War widow when she died in 2008 at 93. Born 1914, Hopkins married Confederate veteran William M. Cantrell when he was 86. Like Jackson, Hopkins generally kept her marriage a secret throughout her life, fearful of what others would think.