ALBERTA MARTIN HAS A BONE TO PICK with Lucy Marsden, the fictional heroine of the bestselling 1989 novel Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, by Allen Gurganus. "She thought she was the last one," scoffs 89-year-old Martin, from Elba, Ala. "She was wrong."

Marsden isn't the only one to draw the feisty widow's fire. Martin, whose second husband, William, was drafted into the Fourth Alabama Infantry in 1864—a mere 63 years before she met him—is badgering Alabama into reinstating the monthly $50 Confederate widow's pension she has been entitled to since her third husband's death in 1983. (The state, operating on the erroneous assumption that no one was left to collect the checks, stopped funding Confederate pensions 10 years ago.) Back in 1865, William, then 20, was one of only a few hundred men to survive Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's bloody nine-month siege of Petersburg, Va. That Martin exists has enraptured both history buffs and Alabama, which formally proclaimed er the only living Civil War widow last month. "She's living, breathing, touching your hand," says William Rambo, head of the Confederate Memorial Park in Mountain Creek, Ala.

Martin's story comes up a bit short in the romance department, though. There were no thunderclaps when Alberta Farrow, 21, a farmer's daughter from Danley's Crossroads, met William Martin, an 82-year-old storekeeper with 12 children, in 1927. "I married him 'cause I wanted to get out of my house," says Alberta, who had been caring for eight siblings and an infant son since her first husband's death a year earlier in a car crash. But soon after her marriage, when she met William's 17-year-old grandson, Charlie, lightning did strike. "It was love at first sight," Martin says.

When William died in 1932, Alberta and Charlie wed and were together for 50 years. Now, Martin is enjoying her late-dawning celebrity. "My name will probably go down in books," says the Oldest Confederate Widow, "like one of those famous movie stars."