Charlotte Huntley, the single and illiterate African American mother of Joseph Hydren, had a very difficult life. With no father figure for her son, she was forced to teach him how to survive in the rapidly changing world. As residents of the northwest corner of Connecticut neither Huntley nor Hydren were slaves, but it must have been difficult for Huntley to explain to her son the unfair treatment they received. When the opportunity came to fight to put an end to slavery, Joseph Hydren jumped at it, enlisting in the 29th Connecticut Infantry in December 1863.
Fort Wood during the Civil War
This forced Charlotte to live in fear for her son’s survival. On March 1864, Joseph mustered into the United States Army and departed for war. Charlotte would never see him alive again. In November 1864 she learned that her only son had died at Fort Wood hospital, currently the site of the Statue of Liberty. Chronic diarrhea and dehydration took his life, a common cause of death during the war due to the poor living conditions - especially a lack of clean drinking water - faced by the soldiers. Three days later, Joseph was buried at Cypress Hill Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. Charlotte not only had to deal with the loss of her only son but also her economic livelihood, as Joseph was her only means of financial support. To do this Charlotte had to prove not only that her son had died, but that he was, in fact, her son.
Graves of Union soldiers, Cypress Hill National Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York
Upon Joseph’s death, Charlotte received the remainder of his bounty, the cash incentive offered to soldiers to induce them to enlist. When that ran out, the fight for a pension began. Connecticut towns would often give money to wives who lost their children or husbands in war, but nothing was granted for mothers. Charlotte instead turned to the pension system, which had been established in 1862 for widows, orphans, and dependent relatives. To qualify, however, Charlotte needed to prove many things. First, she needed to provide evidence that Joseph had died. While this was usually fairly easy (often letters from comrades were used), the medical records at Fort Wood initially did not show that Joseph had died. Further complicating the application was the fact that Charlotte had been abandoned by her husband, making it difficult for her to prove that she was actually Joseph’s mother. Finally, she needed to prove that Joseph was her main source of income and that since his death, she had no money and was unable to work because of her own health. Charlotte was able to get the proof from the Surgeon General Office that her son had died, but she still did not receive a pension. After nine years she hired a lawyer, Lewis J. Blake, to work on her behalf. Blake took the case all the way to James H. Baker, appointed commissioner of pensions by President Grant in 1871. There is no record of a reply by Baker, and Charlotte was still fighting for a pension a decade later. At some point, Charlotte’s request was denied because she had not submitted all required documentation. There is no evidence that Charlotte ever received a pension. Two things are known for certain. The first is that because of cultural and record-keeping differences the pension process was much more difficult for African Americans than for whites. The second is that no matter how many times she was denied, Charlotte Huntley never stopped fighting.