Edward Thomas Watson was born September 5, 1856, two miles from Thomson, Georgia, oldest son of John Smith Watson and Ann Eliza Maddox. His family - land and slave owners - descended from Georgia's early Quaker residents who had settled in 1768 in Columbia County.
The Civil War and Reconstruction profoundly disturbed Watson's boyhood. His father was twice wounded; two of his uncles returned from the war incurably injured or sick. Watson's beloved grandfather, Thomas Miles Watson, suffered a debilitating stroke in 1863 and soon died. The chaos of Reconstruction and the general economic collapse of the postwar South eventually left the Watsons destitute.
In 1873, after losing the family plantation and a succession of smaller farms, they moved to nearby Augusta where John S. Watson found work operating a boarding house and saloon. The contrast between antebellum agrarian life and degrading urban existence forever marked Watson's worldview.