The check arrived every month: $73.13.
Irene Triplett, who lived in a North Carolina nursing home, rarely talked about the source of the money. She was the final American to receive a pension from the Civil War – $877.56 a year from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The jaw-dropping fact that someone in the year 2020 was still earning a Civil War pension was the result of two factors: First, Triplett suffered cognitive impairments, qualifying her for the lifelong pension as a helpless adult child of a veteran. Second, her father, Mose Triplett, who’d served as a private in the Confederate Army before defecting to the Union, was on his second marriage when she was born in 1930. He was just a few weeks away from turning 84.
On Sunday, Irene Triplett died at Accordius Health, a long-term care facility in Wilkesboro, N.C., at the age of 90. A relative said she’d broken her hip a few days earlier and died of complications. She never married, and her only brother had died in 1996.
Triplett’s story is a powerful reminder that the Civil War wasn’t all that long ago, said Columbia University historian Stephanie McCurry. “Just like the Confederate monuments issue, which is blowing up right now, I think this is a reminder of the long reach of slavery, secession and the Civil War,” she said. “It reminds you of the battle over slavery and its legitimacy in the United States.”
Many more widows and children of other long-ago soldiers are still alive. According to the VA, there are 33 surviving spouses and 18 children receiving pension benefits related to the 1898 Spanish-American War.
Triplett’s status as a Civil War pensioner began gaining attention in 2011, when the Wilkes Genealogical Society in Wilkes County, N.C., displayed her photograph on its quarterly publication and featured her in a story. The article noted she was one of only two people in the country still reaping a Civil War pension.
One of the piece’s researchers, Jerry Orton, of Syracuse, N.Y., a member of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, first discovered that Triplett was earning the benefit at some point in the late 1980s, after he’d embarked on a research project on surviving widows and children of Civil War soldiers. He’d gotten her name from the Veterans Administration. Eventually, he traveled to North Carolina and interviewed her about her life.
“Irene could not recall much of her childhood and has no recollection of Mose,” the historical society’s article said. “She has virtually no memories of fun, presents, friends, neighbors or such as they lived so isolated, and she had to work on the farm each day where they primarily raised chicken[s] and kept some hogs and cows as well.”
In 2013, an Associated Press story reported that more than $40 billion a year was being spent to compensate veterans and survivors from the Spanish-American War, World War I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Iraq war, and the Afghanistan war. Then, the wire service dropped this juicy nugget: “The Civil War payments are going to two children of veterans – one in North Carolina and one in Tennessee – each for $876 per year.”
But the AP story didn’t name Triplett or the Tennessee recipient. That’s when the tabloid Daily Mail got involved, identifying Triplett for the first time in a major news publication. The headline: “EXCLUSIVE: Revealed, America’s last living link to the Civil War.”
Relying partly on military records, Orton’s research for the genealogical society and an interview with her recently deceased nephew, the Daily Mail piece included a photo of Triplett and painted a colorful portrait of her father: Mose first joined a Confederate regiment in North Carolina in 1862 and then defected to the Union in 1864. He once held a rattlesnake around his neck and sported a Wyatt Earp-style mustache that fell below his chin. He sat on his porch and shot acorns out of trees.
The next year, the Wall Street Journal published its own story on Triplett, a lengthy front-pager that recounted how Mose chose to abandon the Confederacy at exactly the right time – just as he and his regiment were marching through the Shenandoah River Valley on their way to Gettysburg, Pa. The Journal noted that Mose went to a hospital in Danville, Va., with a fever and that state records said he “deserted” on June 26, 1863.
For his future daughter, the timing of his decision could not have been more significant. About a week later, of the 800 men in Mose’s Confederate regiment, 734 of them died at the Battle of Gettysburg, the Journal said.
On Aug. 1, 1864, Mose joined the 3rd North Carolina Mounted Infantry, known as “Kirk’s Raiders,” a regiment that laid waste to Confederate depots, railroads and bridges.
Four months after the war ended in 1865, Mose was discharged and eventually moved back to his native North Carolina, settling on farmland in Wilkes County. Twenty years later, the Journal article said, he applied for his Civil War pension. He and his first wife Mary had no children.
After Mary died in the 1920s, Mose married Elida Hall. He was 78. She was 27. Their 1924 marriage, according to the Journal, was rough. They lost three babies. Then Irene was born on Jan. 9, 1930, but had mental disabilities, according to the newspaper. She was 8 when her father died on July 18, 1938, at the age of 92. His headstone reads: “He was a Civil War soldier.”
When the Journal interviewed Triplett, she said her teachers beat her with an oak paddle, and her parents also hit her.
Other children teased her about her father “the traitor,” one of her relatives told the newspaper. She dropped out of sixth grade. According to the Journal, she and her mother lived for years in a county “poorhouse,” which was infested with rats and mice, before she and her mother later moved into a private nursing home.
“I didn’t care for neither one [of my parents], to tell you the truth about it,” she said. “I wanted to get away from both of them. I wanted to get me a house and crawl in it all by myself.”
After her mother passed away in 1967, Triplett eventually found her own friends at various nursing homes, especially at her most recent stay at Accordius Health. She chewed tobacco from her pouch of Star tobacco. She loved watching the news on television and reporting back to other residents about the latest goings-on.
Jamie Phillips, the home’s activities director, said she spent most days with her, playing bingo and watching her use a red Solo cup as her spittoon. She loved gospel music. Listening to the Bill Withers song “Lean on Me.” Cream cheese cheeseballs. Fried potatoes and onions. Fried chicken and pinto beans. Laughing. This is what she was really famous for.
“Even if you tripped or dropped something, she’d laugh,” Phillips said. “She was set off by anything. I never saw her angry. Everything was funny.”
But if anyone asked her about her father or, in the aftermath of all the news stories, why she was getting a Civil War pension check, she’d demur. “A lot of people were interested in her story,” Phillips said, “but she’d always deflect the conversation to something different going on in the news.”
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The Washington Post’s Harrison Smith contributed to this story.