SHARING THE STORIES OF NORTHWEST CONNECTICUT'S AFRICAN AMERICAN CIVIL WAR SOLDIERS
John L. Watson
Not all battles of the Civil War involved soldiers. For one Connecticut couple, a major struggle was proving they were ever married.
John L. Watson was an African-American man born in 1836. He enlisted in the 29th Connecticut Infantry on December 3rd, 1863 as a sergeant and married his wife Harriet J. Watson on December 8th, 1863, shortly after his enlistment. He was formally mustered into the United States Army on March 8th, 1864. Watson was busted in rank to a private on May 1st, 1865. The reasons for John L. Watson’s demotion are unknown, but during the Civil War, many soldiers were reduced in ranks due to being found absent without leave. This differs from desertion in that Watson intended all along to return to the army. He was mustered out of the army on October 24th, 1865,
An affidavit Dr. Edward Sanford attesting that John and Harriet Watson were married
Little is known about Watson’s post-war life except that he worked as a laborer, and that he died of unknown causes on June 2, 1874, leaving behind his wife, Harriet J. Watson. For Harriet, the battle was just beginning, this one over collecting her husband’s pension. In her applications, Harriet established that she and John were always quite poor, and she stated that she needed John’s pension because she had “no other means of support than her daily labor.” Her initial attempt at applying for his pension was denied after she was unable to prove that her marriage to John was a legal marriage. As Tera Hunter argues in her book Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century (Belknap Press, 2017). Marriage in the Civil War era was a privilege available to those who followed the gender norms and legal mechanisms established by the elite. Hunter states that in the post-war era, the federal government forced African Americans to conform to the notions of marriage espoused by white Americans. Whereas black couples relationships before the war tended to be fluid, in the process of applying for pensions, widows had to retroactively establish that their marriage was “under the flag,” a phrase used by African Americans in the post-war era for government-sanctioned marriage. In this way, the federal government took another step toward increased power. While during the war the government exerted unprecedented power in conscription, taxation, and the suspension of habeas corpus, after the war federal power extended even into marriage.
Like so many other African American couples, the Watsons never received a legally-issued marriage certificate. The lack of a legal marriage contract meant that Harriet J. Watson had to fight for proof of her marriage to John L. Watson by bringing in witnesses who knew her and John L. Watson to testify that the two of them were actually married, a task that Harriet completed at great effort and cost. Eventually, after bringing in approximately ten witnesses who gave legal affidavits - most dictated to a lawyer or clerk because they were illiterate, Harriet was able to prove that she was in fact married to John L. Watson and was able to collect his pension. Harriet J. Watson first received John L. Watson’s pension on April 8, 1891. Harriet was paid eight dollars a month up until the month of her death in 1902.