Missouri woman believed to be last Civil War widow dies

Helen Viola Jackson is shown this April 2017 photo. Jackson was believed to be the last surviving widow of a Civil War soldier when she died Dec. 16, 2020 in Marshfield, Mo. She was 101. In 1936, she was 17 when she married 93-year-old former Union soldier James Bolin. She had been his caregiver and he wanted to marry her so she would receive his soldier's pension. But after he died in 1939, Jackson never applied for the pension.

The last known living link to a person who served in the Union Army was severed in December when 101-year-old Helen Viola Jackson, widow of a Missouri soldier, died in a Marshfield nursing home.

For the first 98 years of her life, Jackson was known as a woman who had never married. She had no children and was active in her community through the Marshfield Cherry Blossom Festival, the Webster County Historical Society and the Webster County Democrat Central Committee.

It wasn’t until 2017 when she revealed that as a teenager, she wed James Bolin.

It was 1936, the height of the Great Depression, and she was a 17-year-old school girl living in Niangua in southwest Missouri’s Webster County. Bolin was 93.

“Her father had volunteered her to stop by his house each day and assist him with chores as she headed home from school,” Brian C. Pierson, commander in chief of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, wrote Jan. 2 in General Order No. 9, issued to honor Jackson.

Bolin could not pay for her help, but he had something that he thought she could use. He was a veteran of the Civil War, which made him and his dependents eligible for a pension.

“Mr. Bolin explained that he did not have any money to pay me for taking care of him,” Jackson said in an oral history recording in 2018. “Therefore, he asked for my hand in marriage so that he could leave his pension to me.”

They were married, and he died in 1939. Jackson never remarried, never had children and never applied for a pension.

“I never wanted to share my story with the public,” Jackson said. “I didn’t feel that it was that important, and I didn’t want a bunch of gossip about it.”

Jackson died Dec. 16 in Webco Manor Nursing Home in Marshfield. The record of her marriage is Bolin’s Civil War-era Bible, which she kept as a treasured memento.

Jackson was born in 1919 and Bolin in 1843, but marriages between Civil War veterans and young women were a fairly common occurrence in the first decades of the 20th century. The pensions made the veterans attractive mates to some. The last person receiving a Civil War pension, Irene Triplett, died May 31 in North Carolina.

Triplett, who was developmentally disabled, received $73.13 a month because her mother married a veteran more than 50 years her senior in 1924.

Jackson’s husband, Bolin, was a private in Company F of the 14th U.S. Volunteer Cavalry. He never participated in any Civil War battle — he was mustered into the service April 10, 1865, in Springfield, the day after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

Lee’s surrender did not end the war that began in April 1861 after the secession of 11 slave states. The last Confederate commands held out until June.

But with the war coming to a close, the 14th Cavalry was sent to Nebraska for duty on the frontier. It was disbanded in November 1865.

Bolin was a widower when he married Jackson. His first wife died in 1922.

Tommy MacDonnell, who will celebrate his 98th birthday Saturday, signed an affidavit at the 2018 Marshfield Cherry Blossom Festival to the wedding day timeline of events. McDonnell, who practiced medicine in Marshfield, cared for many residents of his region, and they rewarded him in 1986 by electing him to the Missouri House.

MacDonnell said he doesn’t have a clear recollection of the wedding.

Jackson, a Democrat like MacDonnell, was “just a good acquaintance,” he said in a telephone interview. “And probably a patient at some time or another.”

As part of the Jan. 2 general order, Pierson directed that the organization’s social media platforms, and the charters of all departments and camps, be draped in black for 30 days.

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