The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All is a 718-page historical fiction novel written by Allan Gurganus and published by Ivy Books in 1989. Written as if dictated to someone who visited ninety-nine-year-old Lucy Marsden when she lived in a nursing home, it tells the story of Lucy who, at the age of fifteen, married fifty-year-old Confederate veteran Captain William Marsden around 1900 and had nine children with him. This book explores issues of race through the lens of the Confederate South, and serves as a journey of self-discovery for Lucy, and it stayed on the New York Times Best Seller list for eight months, winning the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. This was Gurganus’s first novel, selling more than four million copies.
In 1994, the book was made into a four-hour television miniseries that aired on CBS. Cicely Tyson won the Emmy Award as best supporting actress, with Emmy wins garnered in hairstyling, costume design, and art direction. Other Emmy nominations included those for best miniseries, sound mixing, sound editing, and music composition. Other performers included Diane Lane as the young Lucy; Anne Bancroft, playing the older Lucy, who was also nominated for an Emmy; Donald Sutherland as William; and Blythe Danner as Lucy’s mother. Ken Cameron directed, while Joyce Eliason wrote the screenplay. Gurganus took on a small role as a Confederate who led 150 men into battle.
The story debuted as a one-woman play in January 2003 in San Diego, starring Ellen Burstyn. It opened on Broadway in November 2003, but closed after nineteen previews and one regular performance.
Roots of the Novel
In 1968, Gurganus visited a library where he uncovered early U.S. census records. Listed was his great-great-grandfather, Josiah Gurganus; in 1790, his ancestor owned 960 acres of farmland and thirteen slaves. He had known that his ancestors had prospered as North Carolina farmers and that black families with the Gurganus name lived in his hometown, but he had not known of the slavery connection.
At the time, Gurganus was a University of Pennsylvania student tried for draft evasion. He was then given a choice between six years in federal prison or military service, and he chose the latter. He served in the Navy and on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War, where his job was to decode messages from the North Vietnamese and Koreans. During that time, he began reading novels to pass the time, reading 1,200 of them before being discharged.
He first learned about Lucy Marsden in 1981 while living in a writer’s colony in New York. There, he read a newspaper article that stated that nineteen women were still receiving pensions from the government as widows of Confederate soldiers. When he saw the phrase “oldest living Confederate widow,” he was inspired to begin writing – and the project took seven years to complete.
In interviews, Gurganus has called these years the happiest of his life and, his relationship with Lucy through the writing of the novel, his longest monogamous relationship. His characterization of Lucy shows her as sassy and mischievous, with her bastardization of grammar and colorful phrasing creating a memorable down-to-earth voice.
Elements of the Novel
The story is told from two points of view: that of Lucy, who ages 85 years from the start to the finish of the book; and that of William. The odd couple met when Lucy visited William’s home and he is attracted to her. Her parents, worried that Lucy’s eccentric ways will make her hard to marry off, encourage a relationship, despite William’s own – and numerous – eccentricities; these include the likelihood that, in real life, he never actually became a captain, serving as a private throughout the war. Lucy is naïve in sexual matters and, on their wedding night, William shows no tenderness and, in fact, is brutal with her. This foretells their marital relationship overall.
William suffers from nightmares, often about his best friend, Ned Smythe, who enlisted with him when they were only thirteen years old. As William struggles to stop reliving his war years, Lucy alternates between trying to help him heal and becoming frustrated when he remains lodged in the past. William drinks and does not treat Lucy well. When they have their first child, they name him Ned and William wants him to be just like his childhood friend.
Lucy develops a friendship with her husband’s housemaid, Castalia (a former slave), and recalls a poignant story of how her husband’s mother was charred as the family plantation was torched by William Tecumseh Sherman and his army on the move. Other key scenes include when Willie returns to Massachusetts to return a watch that had belonged to a Yankee soldier that he fatally wounded, and Lucy needing to defend herself with a scabbard when her confused husband tried to choke her, post-stroke. In modern times, William – who stockpiled guns beneath their bed – would almost surely be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PSTD) as would many/most Civil War veterans.
Although the book was largely about Lucy, Gurganus used his grandmother, Willie Pitt Gurganus, as the model to develop Lucy’s character. Willie Pitt seldom shared details about her life, causing her grandson to develop a burning curiosity about her past – and causing him to create the garrulous character of Lucy who was far more willing to confide personal details and feelings.
Criticisms of the novel include that the book contains include historical inaccuracies, such as errors involving horses and Lucy remembering slave ships arriving after they had been banned in 1809. Other criticisms include that Lucy was far too willing to discuss sexual issues for a woman of her era, and that the book is too long.