The Last Leaf: Voices of History's Last-Known Survivors

The Last Leaf: Voices of History's Last-Known Survivors

by Stuart Lutz

This unique oral history book records the stories told to the author personally by people who witnessed many of history’s most famous events. Among many others, the author interviewed: the final three Civil War widows (one Union and two Confederate), the final pitcher to surrender a home run to Babe Ruth, the last suffragette, the last living person to


This unique oral history book records the stories told to the author personally by people who witnessed many of history’s most famous events. Among many others, the author interviewed: the final three Civil War widows (one Union and two Confederate), the final pitcher to surrender a home run to Babe Ruth, the last suffragette, the last living person to fly with Amelia Earhart, the final American World War I soldier, and the last surviving employees of Thomas Edison, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Harry Houdini. The wide-ranging stories involve humor (the 1920 Olympic medalist who stole the original Olympic flag), tragedy (the last survivor of the 1915 Lusitania sinking), heroism (the final Medal of Honor recipient for actions on Pearl Harbor Day), and eyewitnesses to great events (one of the last scientists at the first nuclear chain reaction, and the final Iwo Jima flag raiser).

In more than three-dozen chapters, the author blends background information in a lively narrative with the words of the interviewees, so that readers not familiar with the historical episodes described can understand what occurred and the long-term significance of the events. A book that truly makes the past come alive, The Last Leaf will fascinate not only history buffs, but anyone who likes a good story.

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Prometheus Books
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6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

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Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2010 Stuart Lutz
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-162-2

Chapter One

Civil War Widows

The death toll of the Civil War is difficult to fathom. From 1861 to 1865 there were approximately 620,000 deaths, roughly 2 percent of the entire population of the United States. By today's standards, that translates into approximately 6 million deaths, or the loss of the entire population of Indiana. The three days of the Battle of Gettysburg, the war's most famous clash, resulted in approximately 50,000 American casualties, almost the same number of American lives lost throughout the lengthy Vietnam conflict.

Despite the rampant destruction and death, millions of soldiers who fought in the butternut or blue survived the horrors, returned to their homes, and married. While the veterans have long since passed away, there remain three women who hold unique perspectives on the Civil War and its aftermath. They are the last-surviving Civil War widows, and, 140 years after the start of the war, they tell an amazing tale. One is Union and two are Confederate, although all three are Southerners.

The three Civil War widows were young women when they married their octogenarian suitors, and although this age gap might seem strange to Americans today, such marriages were not uncommon decades ago, for one simple reason. The women came from destitute Southern families, in regions devastated by the farm depression of the 1920s. At that time, a Civil War pension was one of the few steady incomes available to rural families. An impoverished girl might marry a much older veteran, in part to be his caretaker. In return, the young lady was often granted her husband's reliable pension after his death.


"We really loved each other. And love don't forget."

Mrs. Gertrude Grubb Janeway, the last Union widow, resides in the small town of Blaine, Tennessee, not far from Knoxville. She was born in July 1909, forty-four years after the conclusion of the Civil War. In 1927, at the age of eighteen, she married eighty-one-year-old John Janeway, a Union army veteran who, at age eighteen, was forcibly enlisted in early 1864. On July 31, 1864, Janeway was captured near Chattahoochee, Georgia, after a skirmish between General William Sherman's cavalry and the Confederates. Paroled in Savannah, Georgia, on November 30, 1864, Janeway then reported to a prisoner of war camp in Maryland on December 10.1 His capture ended his Civil War service, but the country's obligation to his widow, Gertrude Janeway, continued nearly 140 years after his service.

Mrs. Janeway's closest relative, nephew Duel Grubb, dutifully visits her every Saturday afternoon. She resides in a little log cabin with a rusting roof, rough-hewn walls, and piles of scrap on the front porch. The last Union widow, an elderly woman, lays in a hospital bed, partially raised so she is half sitting, in the far right corner of the small room; the room has a new tile floor, two televisions, a solitary lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, and an old wood-burning stove. Mr. Grubb introduces his aunt, and she eagerly replies, "I've been expecting you" in a melodic and delightful drawl. Mrs. Janeway, who recently celebrated her ninetieth birthday, wears a blue dress with a matching blue ribbon in her gray hair, which is pulled straight back. She has kind and deep blue eyes.

Mrs. Janeway is eager to talk about her childhood. "When I was a young 'un, I's born and raised in the country 'bout two miles from here." She waves her finger to an imaginary spot beyond the cabin. "The doctor didn't get there in time, so two old people had to do the work." She pauses, then shakes her left fist and continues emphatically: "Grubb was my family name. My mama was Hattie Grubb, my daddy was Tom Grubb; they worked on the farm all the time. They raised an awful good garden. We couldn't buy [food]. We had no money to buy it. We had to raise it or starve. We had some apple trees that really helped us out. Mama would gather 'em for breakfast. I had just one good dress to wear to school. I was the oldest of four, with three brothers. My father died in 1922; my mother died in 1939. I lived with my brother Rueben 'til he died in 1989." She stops, then summarizes with, "We was just as poor as we could be."

She knows a little about her husband's Civil War service, beginning with his 1864 enlistment as an eighteen-year-old. "John lived up the road a little piece, towards New Corinth [Tennessee]. He had just shelled up a bushel of corn to get ground. As he was heading to the mill, a bunch of soldiers came 'long and they all stopped. One of them said to him, 'You look like a stout young man. How 'bout getting up with us and joining the army?' He looked around, wondering how he'd get the meal back home, but decided to join anyway. When he joined the army, he gave them the fake name of January so that his mama and daddy couldn't find him." Her gaze turns to the large oval portrait of her and her husband, hanging on the rough-hewn wall. "His mama and daddy worried about him. But his father said that the Lord'll make a man of him."

Mrs. Janeway says that her husband rarely spoke of his Civil War days. "Not hardly ever, unless I asked about it. Sometimes he'd answer me and sometimes he wouldn't. He wasn't stuck up a bit, but when he talked about it, he talked just like you and me talk." She waves her left hand back and forth between us. "But sometimes he'd say, 'Honey, don't ask me so many questions. I don't want to talk about it.' He did tell me one story of when he laid down during a fight, and when he stood up, he saw a bullet had gone through his hat brim. He was later captured at Atlanta and served to the end of the war."

She discusses her eighty-one-year-old groom, whom she married as an eighteen-year-old bride in 1927. "After the army, he came back to here, got a wife, and went to California 'til she died. Then he came back here again as an old man, where he still knew a few people. He was surprised that Mama, who he knew from their youth, was still alive, so he called on her. He came four times to talk to her 'fore asking permission to see me. So my family went to church and he came to see my mother. He asked her for permission to see me. Mother told him, 'She's old enough. Ask her.' So he turned right around and asked me, right there in the middle of church! I was only fifteen, so we went together three years on account of my age. Then my man got the license. We was married in the middle of a big road 'bout half a mile from here: no one but me and my man and the squire, and another man that drove us up there. He was the one who also got the preacher. By the time we was done, every door and window had peeping faces. My man said, 'I do.' He treated me as good as a baby, he never gave me a short word. Once he scolded me and I cried, but he apologized." She gazes again at the portrait on the wall, then points to it with great pride. The hand-tinted picture shows a seated young Mrs. Janeway wearing a large hat, her feet unable to reach the floor; she sits beside an elderly man. "We had that [photograph] taken in Knoxville, about 1927. It's the only picture of us together." Just below the portrait is a color picture of a white tombstone.

Mrs. Janeway proudly points to a number of framed certificates on the wall. One is a recent letter from the governor of Tennessee, congratulating her on her ninetieth birthday. It makes no mention of her Civil War widow status. Another certificate is from the Daughters of Union Veterans, who honor her for her unique standing.

"We really loved each other. And love don't forget. I really do miss him. We had ten years of good times. I wish it had lasted twenty or forty years." She says this mournfully, even though she has been a widow for sixty-two years.

After her husband died, Mrs. Janeway did not work-she explains that her right hand cannot shut-but she did receive her husband's Civil War pension. She removes her right arm from under the blanket to show her deformed hand, then quickly puts it back under the covers.

Eastern Tennessee was one of the most sectionally divided areas during the Civil War. Although the state left the Union to join the Confederacy, few residents of this poor area could afford slaves; the region's poverty created some Unionist sympathy. President Andrew Johnson, the Democratic successor to the Republican president Abraham Lincoln, grew up in Greeneville, about sixty miles east of Mrs. Janeway's home. As a child, however, she never saw any simmering emotions from the Civil War. She adds, "I never really traveled much beyond the country here anyway."

Mrs. Janeway discusses her ancient cabin. "Lord, I can't tell you how old [the cabin] is. It was here when I was a little girl, and I remember it as a child. Lord, I guess it was 'bout five years after we was married that we bought this. We had to save up five dollars a month until we had enough to get it."

Mr. Grubb drives to the New Corinth Church to show me Mr. Janeway's grave. As we travel past the cow pastures littered with hay rolls and slatted tobacco barns, he offers additional information on his aunt. "We made an application for a medical aide to see Gertrude, and on the form, we wrote that she was a Civil War widow. Well, that seemed a bit extraordinary to the hospital clerk, who called a reporter. But you have to understand one thing about Gertrude. She lives a very simple life and really doesn't want for anything. We got her Supplementary Security Income in 1981, only because of the health insurance. She has offers from people to pay her property taxes, which doesn't amount to much, but she declines it because she doesn't believe in that. She didn't even have electricity in the cabin until 1984. She only got that air conditioner in the past couple of years, and one of the televisions was donated by her mailman." After a pause, Mr. Grubb continues appreciatively, "Because of Gertrude's deformed hand, she probably never would have married if it hadn't been for Mr. Janeway."

At the country churchyard, Mr. Grubb points down the road. "We figure that's where Mr. Janeway was enlisted into the army." Then, turning around to look at the small building, he continues, "This is where Mr. Janeway and Gertrude first met, so it's kinda fitting that they will be buried here together. Gertrude and Rueben used to walk eight to ten miles to church each way every Sunday, even though she couldn't walk very well. Gertrude will be buried next to Rueben. She figures that Mr. Janeway has been here long enough on his own, and now there's no room to bury her next to her husband."

Mr. Janeway's gravestone has the incorrect last name "January" carved on it. There is an engraved patriotic shield, followed by "Co. B 14th Ill. Cav." It is the same tombstone shown in the photograph by Mrs. Janeway's bed. The Grubb family does not know where Mr. Janeway's first wife is buried in California, and Mr. Grubb admits, "We really don't even know where to start looking."

Mr. Grubb chuckles, then tells another story. "Well, somehow the military got wind that she was the last Union widow, so some important general wanted to fly down here and present her with some silly award. Gertrude declined that offer. You know, if it weren't for that newspaper interview last year, no one would know of her and she would have died quietly without any fanfare. Maybe just a small obituary in the local newspaper."

Mr. Grubb says his aunt has no desire to meet Mrs. Alberta Martin, who was at the time believed to be the last Confederate widow. "Her people really wanted to meet Gertrude, but Gertrude just wasn't interested in being some puppet for their cause. Besides, after all, we won the war." He speaks this statement in a distinctive Southern accent. He further explains that Mrs. Janeway has turned down all requests for personal appearances at various Civil War events throughout the country.

Gertrude Grubb Janeway died on January 17, 2003, at the age of ninety-three.

MAUDIE CELIA HOPKINS The Final Confederate Widow

"He was a clean, respectable man-no nasty tramp. I called him 'Mr. Cantrell' a lot, but 'Bill' if I needed him to do something for me."

In 1996 Alberta Martin of Elba, Alabama, crowned herself as the last living widow of a Confederate soldier. When she died in 2004, she was given a full Confederate funeral. A few weeks after Martin's death, the Washington Times broke the story that another Confederate widow, Maudie Celia Hopkins, was still living, in Lexa, Arkansas.

Glenn Railsback is a genial, middle-aged Arkansas resident with a great interest in Civil War history. He has conducted a great deal of research on Maudie Hopkins and her first husband, William M. Cantrell, a Confederate soldier. According to his findings, Cantrell was born on March 15, 1847, in Wise County, Virginia. William joined an obscure Confederate regiment of the Virginia Infantry raised by J. M. French. The five-foot-four Cantrell, who was assigned to Company A of French's battalion, is described in his war record as having a fair complexion and black hair. Although his unit was based in Virginia, most of the men in the company were from Pike County, Kentucky. After a skirmish in Pike County, the sixteen-year-old Cantrell was captured on April 15, 1863, held in Cincinnati, and returned to the Confederacy in exchange for Union prisoners in May 1863. In 1868 the young veteran Cantrell married Matilda McFall in Kentucky, with whom he later moved to Arkansas. Sometime thereafter he moved to Colorado and was listed as a justice of the peace in a census in the early 1900s. Matilda died in 1929, and Cantrell later appeared in the 1930 census, listed as a widower in Baxter County, Arkansas.

At the time of our meeting, Mrs. Hopkins is eighty-nine and still living alone in a cozy, well-maintained white house on a corner lot in Lexa; she lives hundreds of miles from the most famous Civil War battlefields, such as Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg. Three flags are arranged on her coffee table: the Arkansas state flag, the United States flag, and the Stars and Bars. Mrs. Hopkins has a head full of thick white curls, and she wears a bright blue shirt with a gold United Daughters of the Confederacy pin on her right lapel. "I can hear well," she explains in her surprisingly fast drawl, "but I can't walk too good."

She begins with her childhood. "I was born on December 7, 1914, in Baxter County. My birth name was Maudie Acklin. I grew up there too. My mommy and daddy had a bunch of kids, all I can tell you, so many kids-ten in all. My daddy worked with lumber, but he quit and farmed patches and did things like that. We stripped cane and made molasses out of it. The times were so hard back then, we couldn't get money hardly for nothing. I wore my shoes so long that they were all worn out. We put them together with baling wire. We didn't have no money."

She married William Cantrell, then an eighty-seven-year-old former rebel, when she was nineteen, on February 2, 1934. She recounts how she met her first husband. "I got out of my home when I was young and cleaned houses. I was cleaning the house of a woman who lived not far from Mr. Cantrell when he came over and said, 'I want you to clean my house.' And a bidding war started. She was giving me ten dollars, and he offered twelve dollars. I just wanted a new pair of shoes, so I cleaned his house. It took two days. At the end of the second day, he proposed. 'Why don't we get married?' he said. I asked him for some time to think about it, but he already had the license and the JP [justice of the peace] ready. 'We are going to get married tonight,' he said, so we did. Two neighbors, a man and woman, were there. They were the witnesses, and they stayed all night. My family wasn't there, for they lived up in the hills, but they were pleased about it.

"Once we were married, I went and housed with him in a little town called Advance, and my family all came over to our house. He liked them and they liked him. He was a clean, respectable man-no nasty tramp. I called him 'Mr. Cantrell' a lot, but 'Bill' if I needed him to do something for me. A lot of people laughed about [the marriage], but I paid no attention. In one ear and out the other." She makes this motion with her hands. "We made a garden, peaches and apples, plenty of fruit and vegetables. We raised chickens. A couple gave me some hogs before marriage, so we had meat. And we sold a yearling or two for money."


Excerpted from THE LAST LEAF by STUART LUTZ Copyright © 2010 by Stuart Lutz. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

David DeJonge
The Last Leaf is perhaps one of the most pivotal and valuable references on the American experience in publication. The stories contained in this book are those of the last witnesses and the last first hand accounts of global and American history and is a must have for anyone seeking to comprehend how our world has been forged. (David DeJonge, historian and documentarian of the world's last World War I veterans)
Gregory Gibson
The arcane history bits in Last Leaf are endlessly fascinating. Did you know that FDR's valet was named Arthur Prettyman, or that the last survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire escaped the inferno by following her bosses to safety? On a deeper level, Stuart Lutz delicately conveys the humanity of these 'last leaves,' giving us a profound sense of the whimsy and poignancy of their singular condition. (Gregory Gibson, author of Gone Boy -A Walkabout)
James McPherson
These interviews of the last survivors of historic events offer fascinating insights on the social and cultural history of twentieth-century America. The stories of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary experiences carry a powerful poignancy. (Dr. James McPherson. Princeton University, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom)

Meet the Author

Stuart Lutz (Short Hills, NJ) is the owner of Stuart Lutz Historic Documents, Inc., a firm that buys, sells, and appraises historic documents, letters, and rare manuscripts. Lutz is the current historical documents expert on Pawn Stars — the #1 show on cable television. He has written for American Heritage and Civil War Times, and he has appeared on National Public Radio. More on Stuart Lutz and The Last Leaf can be found at

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