I’m a little late to the party for Black History Month, but better late than never.
I had seen this picture many times before in my travels and studies of the Civil War, but it wasn’t until recently that I became aware of this woman’s story and struggle.
Susie King Taylor, born Susie Ann Baker on August 6th, 1848, is known to be the first black nurse to serve in the Union army, as well as the first formally enslaved woman to open a school for free colored children in the state of Georgia during the war. Her family history, as detailed in her memoirs “Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops, late 1st South Carolina Volunteers”, makes it little surprising that Susie would later accomplish so much. According to her, she had five ancestors who served in the Revolutionary War on her mother’s side. Susie was the eldest of nine children, three of which died in infancy. The first seven years of her life, she spent with her mother in the care of the Grest Family in Liberty County, Georgia. She recounts that Mrs. Grest was fond of her and her siblings and even allowed them to sleep at the end of her bed until her husband came home.
When she was seven, Susie and her brother were sent to live with her grandmother, Dolly, in Savannah. Her time in Savannah became the most formative in her childhood. Her grandmother was an industrious freed woman who traded goods to earn a living, along with being a laundress and taking care of bachelor rooms. In 1874, her life savings of $3,000 was lost during the collapse of the Freedman’s Savings Bank, a misfortune that befell many freed blacks after the war. Susie, as a young child, would also witness the horrors of slavery. She saw the regular slave auctions as those of her race were sold off like cattle to the highest bidder.
One thing that Dolly understood was that Susie deserved an education. In 1855, it was still illegal for people of color to learn to read and write, especially if they were in bondage. Blatantly breaking the law, Dolly gave Susie into the hands of Mrs. Woodhouse, another free woman of color who took it upon herself to educate those of her race. A group of 25-30 children would daily go to Mrs. Woodhouse, and toted books which were wrapped to hide them.
Susie continued her studies with Mrs. Woodhouse, learning to read and write, which set her up for the extraordinary life ahead of her. She had a few other teachers, including a close white friend who agreed to teach her for a few months, and their landlord’s son until he mustered into the army. With her knowledge, she was able to write passes for her grandmother. Passes were required of slaves when they were unescorted by their masters into town, but even freed people of color needed these passes to be out late at night. Susie was able to forge passes for her grandmother, thanks to her education.
In April of 1861, the firing on Fort Sumter signaled the beginning of tumultuous and hopeful times for the enslaved people of the south. With tensions high, suspicion fell on the colored citizens and any hint of rebellion was severely dealt with. Susie’s grandmother was arrested at her church for singing a freedom hymn, a song that was modified from its religious theme of salvation by Christ to salvation at the hands of the Federal army coming to free them. As a result, Susie went to live with her mother again. After the capture of Fort Pulaski in Savannah by Major-General David Hunter, a decree was made that all enslaved people within the vicinity were declared free. President Abraham Lincoln had reproached General Fremont for doing something similar at an earlier date, but did not countermand Hunter’s declaration. This also led to the establishment of the “contraband” status as more freed people rushed to the Union lines for safety. Susie’s family was no different and she soon joined up with her uncle and family to flee to the St. Catherine Islands in April of 1862. These islands had been occupied by the Union army since 1861 as a prime location to take shelter during storms and training new recruits.
It was on St. Simons Island that she saw her first Yankee. She was also noticed and approached by Commodore Goldsborough to start up a school for the freed slaves on the island. She gladly agreed and was given books to do so. At the age of just fourteen, she was put in charge educating forty young children – and some adults.
While Susie was there, she was privileged to witness the recruitment of the first colored regiment. Formerly called the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, it would later become the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops. The order was given by Major-General David Hunter for Captain C.T. Trowbridge to go to St. Simons and recruit as many as he could find. Many of Susie’s family members joined up here, and it’s also where she marries her first husband, Edward King, a noncommissioned officer with Company E. Though the 1st South Carolina Volunteers were not officially recognized until August of 1862, they did become one of the first colored regiments to engage in combat in the Department of the South.
St. Simons was evacuated in October and Susie King followed her husband to Camp Saxton as a laundress, nurse, and teacher. She was not the only woman in the camp, and Susie talks about befriending the wives and female relatives of the soldiers within the regiment. Her memoirs, the first of its kind published in 1902, goes into detail of her life within the camp. She talks about the fact that the soldiers were deprived of pay for 18 months until they were granted half pay in 1863, then full pay in 1864. Susie, however, would receive no pay for the entire four years of her time with the regiment.
When the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, the camp celebrated by roasting a whole oxen. She talks of harrowing experiences like being caught adrift and nearly dying of exposure with a few other ladies when their boat capsized. She talks of fleas, learning to shoot a rifle, working with Clara Barton, visiting Fort Wagner, cooking flapjacks in their mess pots, and a pet pig that the drummer boys had taught tricks. On one occasion when visiting a neighboring village with a lady named Mary Shaw, their wagon was stolen and they had to walk ten miles back to camp. She recounts the anxiety of the times her regiment would leave for battle and the joys that came with victory. When Charleston fell in February of 1865, she was one of the women to go into town to help after the Confederates had burned much of it, and was surprised to see the citizens snub their nose at the army that was willing to help them regardless of their Southern sympathies. It’d be something of a precursor to the prejudice and injustices she would witness after the war.
In her memoir Susie sums up her service well. “My dear friends! Do we understand the meaning of war? Do we know or think of that war of ’61? No, we do not, only those brave soldiers and those who had occasion to be in it, can realize what it was. I can and shall never forget that terrible war until my eyes close in death. The scenes are just as fresh in my mind today as in ’61. I see now each scene, – the roll-call, the drum tap, “lights out”, the call at night when there was danger from the enemy, the double force of pickets, the cold and rain. How anxious I would be, not knowing what would happen before morning!… We do not, as the black race, properly appreciate the old veterans, white or black, as we ought to. I know what they went through, especially those black men, for the Confederates had no mercy on them; neither did they show any toward the white Union soldiers…I look around now and see the comforts that our younger generation enjoy, and think of the blood that was shed to make these comforts possible for them, and see how little some of them appreciate the old soldiers.”
The 33rd U.S. Colored Troops were officially mustered out on February 9th, 1866 with a heartfelt General Order #1 given by Trowbridge himself. Susie, as well as the other soldiers, had developed a special bond with their commander over the years and that fellowship was maintained even during the Reconstruction Era after the war. However, times did not necessarily become better for Susie and her fellow emancipated race. Susie and Edward went back to Savannah. She was able to start a school, earning a wage as a teacher, while her husband struggled to find work despite his skills as a craftsman. He died on September 16th, 1866, just months before their firstborn child would come into the world.
For years afterward, she would struggle to find occupation as a teacher as more free schools like the Beach Institute would entice pupils young and old from her classrooms. Susie gave herself to domestic work, something she knew just as well, and hopped around different families until she found herself in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1872, she was awarded a $100 bounty for her late husband’s service in the war, but she would remarry in 1879 to Russell Taylor. She also helped to organize the Corps 67 Women’s Relief Corps, a companion organization to the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic), and helped to take a census of the veterans in her area of Boston, Massachusetts.
In her memoir, she goes into detail about the injustice of the Jim Crow laws of segregation in the south. One such occasion was when she traveled to Shreveport, Louisiana to take care of her dying son in the 1890s. Perhaps it was her experiences and reflections on this visit that inspired her to pen her memoir of her time as a freed slave in the service of the Union army.
Her parting words at the end of her memoir sum up the importance of studying and honoring the contribution of the colored race in our nation’s history.
“I wonder if our white fellow men realize the true sense or meaning of brotherhood? For two hundred years we toiled for them; the war of 1861 came and was ended, and we thought our race was forever free from bondage, and that the two races could live in unity with each other, but when we read almost every day of what is being done to my race by some whites in the South, I sometimes ask, ‘Was the war in vain? Has it brought freedom, in the full sense of the word, or has it not made our condition more helpless?’ In this ‘land of free’ we are burned, tortured, and denied a fair trial, murdered for an imaginary wrong conceived in the brain of the negro-hating white man… All we ask for is ‘equal justice’, the same that is accorded to all other races who come to this country of their free will (not forced to, as we were), and are allowed to enjoy every privilege, unrestricted, while we are denied what is rightfully our own in a country which the labor of our forefathers helped to make what it is… I do not condemn all the Caucasian Race because the negro is badly treated by a few of the race. No! For had it not been for the true whites, assisted by God and the prayers of our forefathers, I should not be here to-day.”
Even further, she tells us why the story of her and her fellow negresses should not be disregarded either.
“There are many people who do not know what some of the colored women did during the war. There were hundreds of them who assisted the Union soldiers by hiding them and helping them to escape… The soldiers were starving, and these women did all they could toward relieving those men, although they knew the penalty, should they be caught giving them aid… These things should be kept in history before the people. There has never been a greater war in the United States than the one of 1861, where so many lives were lost, – not men alone but noble women as well.”
“Reminiscence of My Life in Camp with the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops, late 1st South Carolina Volunteers”, written by Susie King Taylor; Markus Weiner Publishing, Princeton, NJ; Copyright 1988 for the edited edition by Patricia W. Romero and Willie Lee Rose