A Civil War Wife’s Story Told Through Genealogy Records

April 4, 2012 at 1:32 am | Posted in My Family History Stories | 7 Comments
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Mother Bickerdyke Memoria Cemetery - Louise Watson

Mother Bickerdyke Memoria Cemetery - Louise Watson

Louise Bolster (b. 1836, MA, d. after 1910 KS) is my gggrandmother and wife of the only Civil War Veteran in my family tree.  In gathering the records for her husband, George Watson, her life started to unfold.  And quite unexpectedly it became more interesting, had more twists and turns, had more intrigue than arguably her husband’s story – and he fought at Gettysburg!  To me, it demonstrated a unique spirit and resilience in the face of war that heretofore, I had not thought twice about being present among the spouses of soldiers.Here’s Louise’s story.  You can judge for yourself what kind of woman she was.

Louise as Young Bride and Mother

Louise was born in 1836 in Barre, Worcester, Massachusetts .  This hamlet of a town with a population of fewer than 3,000 in 1860 is located in rural central Massachusetts.

At the tender age of 16, Louise married Francis Bullard, a carpenter, in 1852.  She married him on the Fourth of July.  It’s hard to imagine that the date was chosen serendipitously.

The couple settled down and began to raise a small family.  Elvira Josephine, born August 9, 1855 and Walter Henry, born June 14, 1858, join the family.  This family would go about their lives in complete anonymity, were it not for the War which changes everything.

Outbreak of War

December 20, 1860 South Carolina cedes from the Union.  Louise has two children under the age of five.  She’s nestled safely in rural Massachusetts and probably doesn’t consider the possibility of War impacting her life.

April 11, 1861, Fort Sumter is fired upon.  The newly-elected President Lincoln responded by calling for an all-volunteer army to regain federal property.  More state ceded from the Union.  We were at War.

To which Francis Bullard heeds the call and enlists on August 23, 1861 – only four months after the firing upon Fort Sumter.  Francis joins Company C of the 21st Massachusetts Volunteers, which being a volunteer unit called them to travel beyond Massachusetts.  Louise is left to tend to her babies, Elvira and Walter, and hope her hero-husband would return safe.

Battle of Chantilly

The 21st MA Volunteers engaged in the Battle of Chantilly, Virginia on September 1st, 1862 as part of the Army of the Potomac’s counterattack on the advancing Army of Northern Virginia.  The advance was halted, but at a great loss of lives to the exhausted Army of the Potomac, including that of Private Francis Bullard.

The Widow-Bride

Twenty-five years old, widowed, and with two young children, Louise faced a difficult life amid a country torn apart by war.  Less than three months later, Louise marries another soldier, Jonathon Rhodes on November 20, 1862.  Louise may have found love again.  She may have been simply looking for financial and emotional support in these trying times.  We’ll never know.  What we do know is the marriage didn’t last long.  With a War raging and a new wife with two children not his own, Jonathon turned elsewhere to continue his life.  He abandoned Louise, and he was not to be seen again.

Louise is again within a very short period of time on her own with her babies and no visible means of support during a War.

Another Kind of Love?

Where a family unit had twice failed to provide Louise’s family comfort and support, she made a choice.  She chose to give her children to another family and make the new family the children’s legal guardians.   The guardians would receive the pension benefits accrued minors of a fallen soldier, their father, Francis Bullard.  Allen Price, a “house joiner” or carpenter, lived near the Bullard family and probably knew Francis through his line of work.  He became the legal guardian of Elvira (age 8) and Walter (age 5) on April 8, 1863.  The Price family remained in Worcester, Massachusetts, so the children were not uprooted from their surroundings.  Little solace having lost their father in death and now their mother.

History only gives us a glimpse into the life of the Price family and what became of the children.  The 1870 US Census for Massachusetts informs us that the Price household has an estimated estate value of $10,000.  Elvira (age 15) is listed as a “domestic servant,” and Walter isn’t to be found.

As for Louise….

Louise Moves On and Moves West

Meanwhile George Watson joined the 15th Massachusetts Volunteers, was captured and released, served in several battles, and is severely wounded at Gettysburg on July 3rd, 1863. He returns to Worcester, Massachusetts to presumably recuperate from his wounds in the leg and left eye.  He eventually is mustered out and returns home to his parents.

The two souls meet and are joined in matrimony on November 14, 1867.  Louise started a new life eight months after separating from her children and one year since her last marriage.

With a new family, the end of the War, and the opening of lands West, this little trio strike out west to start a new life.  By way of Iowa and Nebraska, they ultimately settle in northeast Kansas.

Why Kansas?

It may seem apparent that both George and Louise are moving away from a painful chapter in their lives, which may be very true.  But the question remains, why move to Kansas when there are so many states in between?  I would offer two possible motives.  The first may seem obvious in that a Union soldier would settle in and about Fort Leavenworth, a Union stronghold.  Indeed, George remained with the Union Veterans Reserve Corps, an auxiliary force for invalid soldiers, throughout his life.

The second reason lies in the conjoined history of Massachusetts and Kansas.  The staunchly Union Massachusetts had a vested interest in the new Kansas Territory becoming part of the Union as a free or anti-slavery state.  To this end, the Emigrant Aid Society sought to transplant like-minded, abolitionist settlers from Massachusetts to Kansas in the hopes that there would ultimately be a vote among Kansans to decide the question of slavery for the state.  With the population filled with Massachusetts, anti-slavery settlers, the vote would most certainly, they thought, go their way.  Louise’s cousin, Joshua Greenwood, was among the emigrants who settled Topeka, Kansas with this migration in 1854.  Louise may not have been seeking to reunite with her family, but news of what was happening in Kansas, the efforts to make it a Free State, and probably word of cheap land surely made it back to this household giving them further reason to seek a new home in Kansas.

The Last Chapter

The little Watson Family settled in Atchison and Leavenworth by 1880 and for almost 20 years led an uneventful life.  Frank, their son, married in 1888 in Atchison, and began his own family moving to Wichita in 1906. (The story of how Frank joins the family will be explained in a future post.)   George, however, was on furlough from the Veterans Reserve Corps in Clarksville, Tennessee when he died on May 16, 1898.

True to form Louise, now alone, with George gone and Frank raising his own family makes a somewhat unexpected choice.  She seemingly could have moved in with her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren as was the custom of the times. Without a means of support a widow typically didn’t live independently.  Instead, Louise chose to move further west, leaving her family behind.  She makes a home for herself at the Mother Bickerdyke Home for Veterans and Spouses in Ellsworth, Kansas.

The Home – a place of repose for Union supporters  –  was established on the former parade grounds of the Grand Army of the Republic (Union veteran’s fraternity) and sponsored by Mary Ann Bickerdyke, a patroness and pioneer in military nursing and veteran care.

There Louise lived out her remaining days until 1910 with a community of men and women who, like she, had lived the War and bore testimony to the trials it played on the life of not only the soldiers but their families.

Louise is buried among only 31 others in an unmarked grave at the cemetery adjoining what was the Mother Bickerdyke Home.  In 1961, a community headstone was erected by the State of Kansas to recognize those who rest in peace there.  And at last her turbulent, many-trialed life comes to a quiet end.

Rest in Peace, Louise.



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  1. […] Rhoades was Louise’s second husband, who abandoned her, from a recent blog post – A Civil War Wife’s Story Told Through Genealogy Records.   He was a mere supporting character in the drama of my ancestors, George and […]

  2. I’m glad that my brief post on the cemetery helped fill in a blank for her burial. I’ve linked the story from my blog.

    Gale Wall
    Hutchinson, KS
    Digital Cemetery Walk
    Cemetery walks offer an afternoon of discovery.
    Every stone has a story. And they are waiting to be told.

  3. Hello There!
    I really love your opinion. Great job on the look of your website.


    • Glad you like the new site! Stop by anytime!

  4. Hey Beth! Have you ever come across any photos of George Watson?

    • Hi Raymond,

      No, I’ve not found any photos of George. I found an online group interested in his Civil War unit. And some of the members had photos of their Civil War ancestors…so it’s possible. Do let me know if you find one!

      Have a super day.


      • You’ll be one of the first if I do find one.

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