Taylor, Susie King 1848–1912
Susie King Taylor 1848–1912
Civil War nurse, teacher
On January 1,1863, Susie King was among hundreds of people who listened to a recitation of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. As laundress to the First South Carolina Volunteers, the Union Army regiment that was hosting this party, she had a great deal in common with “her” soldiers. Like most of them, 14-year-old Susie was a newly freed slave enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime moment. She spent her days washing clothes, comforting the wounded and the sick, and teaching both adults and children to read and write—all without wages, which, she acknowledged, would have been welcome despite the great satisfaction she gleaned from knowing she was helping to build a society in which all black people could work alongside their former masters to make a better world.
The generations after Susie King Taylor are fortunate to have her journal, A Black Woman’s Civil War Memoirs, since it is the only known record of a black woman’s achievements during this period. Yet she herself did not intend it to fulfill any reporting function. She simply used it as a place to show the events of her life and the feelings of her heart, which gradually dulled from optimism to disappointment that the equality she had yearned for never materialized. As a 53-year-old woman penning her memoirs, a disillusioned Susie wrote: “I sometimes ask, was the war in vain?”
According to the widely read Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 by British actress Fanny Kemble, floggings, filth, ignorance, and poverty were the norm for most of Georgia’s 280,000-strong slave population before the Civil War. However, life seems to have been much easier on the Isle of Wight, the Georgia Sea Island plantation where Susie, the eldest of nine children, was born in 1848. The Grests treated her and her brother with great affection, their childless mistress even allowing them to sleep on her bed when her husband was away on business. This easy-going atmosphere, Susie’s first experience of mutual trust between black people and white, became part of the standard by which she judged all later relationships with white people.
Stability was another blessing for Susie. Unlike many former slaves who had been sold away from their parents when they were too young to remember them, Susie was able to trace her own ancestry all the way back
Born August 5, 1848, Grest Plantation, Isle of Wight, GA; first of nine children of Hagar Ann Reed and Raymond Baker; married Edward King, 1862 (died, 1866); married Russell Taylor, 1879. Died October 6, 1912, in Boston. Buried in unmarked grave, Mount Hope Cemetery, Roslindale, MA.
Civil War teacher, nurse, and laundress; thereafter, a teacher and domestic worker.
from her own mother, Hagar Ann, to a great-great-grandmother who had died at 120 years old, after sending five of her seven children off to battle in the Revolutionary War.
When she was seven years old Susie was sent to live in Savannah with her grandmother, Dolly Reed. A slave deemed sufficiently trustworthy to live in town under the protection of a guardian, Dolly was a resourceful woman who made a good living. Part-time laundress, part-time cleaning lady, she was also a part-time entrepreneur who visited her daughter every three months in a hired wagon laden with bacon, flour, sugar, and other city-bought staples for sale. The wagon would make its return journey just as heavily laden, its cargo this time consisting of chickens and eggs.
While Dolly lived an unusually independent life she had always felt hampered by her own enforced illiteracy. She was determined that her granddaughter be spared the same experience, so she flouted strict laws to make sure Susie was educated. After looking around for a safe place, Dolly sent Susie first to Mrs. Woodhouse’s School, where her books had to be wrapped in paper “to prevent white persons from seeing them,” then on to Katie O’Connor, a white playmate who agreed to teach Susie on condition that the lessons were kept a secret from her father.
Slaves who wanted literacy found such stealth necessary because, according to Fanny Kemble’s journal, many pre-Civil War plantation owners believed that “the very slightest amount of education, merely teaching them to read, impairs their value as slaves, for it instantly destroys their contentedness.” While Susie understood the words of this explanation, Kemble disagreed with it, and chose to persist in her search for a real reason. Some weeks later, she was able to add a telling comment to her journal: “The penalties for teaching them are very severe—heavy fines, increasing in amount for the first and second offense, and imprisonment for the third.”
If Susie’s future value as a marketable commodity was impaired by her education, her value as a surreptitious spokesperson for her grandmother and her friends was considerably enhanced. As a result of her lessons, she was able to write passes that allowed them to stay out after curfew without risking the arrest that her grandmother had once had to suffer. “Pass the bearer—from 9 to 10.30 p.m.,” such missives read, “Signed, Valentine Grest.”
During the second half of the 1850s the plantation owners found their iron grip on their slaves weakening. One curb was provided by the Anti-Slavery Society literature that was circulating freely throughout the South; another came with the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1859. A third came from staunch Afro-American support given to abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and his vociferous newspaper, The Liberator.
Like other slaves who regularly read newspapers, Susie found that following all these sympathetic currents gave the very word “Yankee” a romantic mystique. Despite the slaveowners’ efforts to prevent them from escaping to the North by circulating tall tales about Yankee atrocities, she and thousands of others found themselves eager to form their own opinions óf these highly unusual white people. Their chance came at the beginning of April of 1862, when Fort Pulaski outside Savannah was captured by Lincoln’s forces. Because Georgia’s Sea Islands were now in Union hands, hundreds of slaves fled the isolated plantations and streamed into military encampments for safety.
Susie went first to St. Catherine’s Island with her uncle’s family, then, two weeks later, onward to St. Simon’s Island, which was newly under the supervision of the Union Army. While the boat was en route, Captain Whitmore struck up a kindly conversation, and asked her whether she could read and write. Susie assured him that she could do both, and proudly demonstrated her skill for him. His surprise at her competence mirrored the attitude of many southern whites who had never before imagined that black people could be efficient. Whitmore was so impressed by her literacy that he mentioned it to his commodore, who asked her to teach the 40 children on St. Simon’s Island to read and write. She gladly undertook to educate anyone who was interested in learning, and soon received two huge boxes of books and Bibles from northern abolitionists, by way of necessary equipment.
Teaching and laundry absorbed great chunks of Susie’s days. Nevertheless, sometime during 1862, she found the time to marry Edward King, later a sergeant in the regiment who was also educated. However, as is often the case in wartime, the bride’s diary mentions no more about either her wedding day or her marriage. Instead, her diary discloses that the summer of 1862 proved to be a turning point, the passage of which changed the entire direction of the Civil War.
The great event began when some Confederate soldiers stole a boat and came back to the plantation they had fled after the fall of Fort Pulaski. The “rebels” made the mistake of chasing two black men along the beach. Knowing full well that capture by Confederates could mean either death or a return to slavery, the two victims returned to their settlements and gathered about 90 supporters to hunt down their tormentors. In the ensuing skirmish three black men lost their lives before the arrival of reinforcements under the command of Captain Charles Trowbridge. Many sources quote these three casualties as the first black fighters to fall during the Civil War, and cite this battle as the catalyst that led to both emancipation and Lincoln’s decision to form black fighting regiments within the Union Army.
Also, General Hunter, Commander of the Department of the South, had defied Lincoln’s direct orders the previous spring to issue a unilateral announcement of emancipation and to start forming such regiments. According to the distinguished historian, Benjamin Quarles, the infuriated Lincoln was adamant that no emancipation be proclaimed until the North could claim a decisive victory and waited until September 17, when the Battle of Antietam provided the lever he needed. A scant five days later, on September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued the preliminary proclamation, which was set to take effect from the first day of the new year.
The two proclamations changed life dramatically for the 600 people on St. Simon’s Island. The regimental edict being the most urgent, the hunt began at once for men to enlist in what became the First South Carolina Volunteers, the country’s first officially sanctioned black regiment, which was officially mustered in on November 7, 1862, under the command of Colonel Thomas Went worth Higginson.
Although Susie gives little background about the regiment’s first commander, she portrays him as one of the most distinguished white people she ever knew, and makes it clear that she kept in touch with him until his death in May of 1911. Higginson was aware that his new post represented a huge challenge. However, as his diary, Army Life in a Black Regiment shows, he handled this assignment with grace, refusing to bend to the prevailing negative opinions about black people. Within weeks Higginson’s new soldiers justified his confidence in them. Quick to learn, they soon proved themselves a fighting force with initiative and intelligence. Nevertheless, in government eyes this did not entitle them to pay. They fought as volunteers for 18 months, after refusing, on the advice of their white officers, to accept half pay. A sympathetic Higginson fought an ultimately successful salary battle on their behalf, but had to allow his diary to remind him of his own top priority: “The alphabet must always be a very incidental business in a camp.”
Susie King found an urgent new occupation when several cases of smallpox broke out in the camp. Though lacking the professional training later associated with nursing, she shouldered the responsibility of caring for the sickest soldier of all, doing all she could to comfort him despite the surgeon’s orders to keep away from this highly infectious disease. “I had been vaccinated,” she relates in her journal, “and I drank sassafras tea constantly, which kept my blood purged … no one need fear getting it if they will only keep their blood in good condition with this sassafras tea.”
Having proved herself a compassionate medical assistant, Susie King began to spend more time with the injured and the sick. Stray comments from her diary show her handling the constant shortages and the craving for attention with a resourcefulness strongly reminiscent of her grandmother. She tells of custard made for one invalid from condensed milk and turtle eggs; voluntary supervision of the Company E mail pouch, and letters sent on behalf of illiterates unable to write for themselves—all time-consuming occupations that left her little leisure for the usual concerns of a young wife.
In April of 1863, the country’s first hospital for black soldiers opened in Beaufort, South Carolina. By chance the facility’s first patients were from Higginson’s regiment, so Susie King visited her soldiers often. During the summer, she also had the privilege of working alongside Clara Barton, who would later found the American Red Cross. Marking their pleasant association in her journal, she said: “Miss Barton was always very cordial toward me, and I honored her for her devotion and care for those men.” Mature beyond her 15 years, she wrote, in 1864: “It seems strange how our aversion to seeing suffering is overcome in war—how we are able to see the most sickening sights, such as men with their limbs blown off … and instead of turning away, how we hurry to assist in alleviating their pain.”
In February of 1865, the war was in its closing months when the regiment was ordered to Charleston. Now led by Colonel Trowbridge, the First South Carolina Volunteers arrived to find that the Confederate Army had set fire to the city to prevent it from falling into Union hands. Trowbridge’s soldiers hastened to put the fires out, offered whatever aid they could, and scrupulously avoided looting, but their efforts met with only sullen bullying and derogatory remarks from the ungrateful citizens of the city. Susie King’s journal explained this behavior: “These white men and women could not tolerate our black Union soldiers, for many of them had formerly been their slaves.”
She expected things to improve, but she was destined to disappointment. After the end of the war in 1865, prejudice mounted to such an extent that many black soldiers refused to wear any badges identifying them as veterans. Like many others, her husband could find no employment in their native Savannah, although he was a highly trained master carpenter. Instead he became a longshoreman, hiring others to help him load and unload ships’ cargo. But Edward King did not enjoy his postwar life for long. A brief comment in his wife’s journal reveals: “On September 16,1866, my husband, Sergeant King died, leaving me to welcome a little stranger alone.”
Susie King herself had been teaching a little school of 20 students in her log-cabin home in Savannah. The death of her husband, plus the arrival of a free school forced her to close her establishment and retreat briefly to her childhood home in Liberty County. On her return to Savannah, she opened a night school for adults, but once again was forced to close because of competition from the free school.
She moved to Boston and entered domestic service to earn a living. Her movements after this are sketchily described; however, she married Russell Taylor in 1879 and apparently did not need to work any longer. She also joined and then became president of the Women’s Relief Corps, and she packed comfort packages for the soldiers fighting in the Spanish-American War of 1898. She also had a tragic personal brush with racism that same year. Called to Shreveport, Louisiana, because her son was deathly ill, she tried to buy a berth in which to bring him back to Boston, but discovered that “southern hospitality” toward her color barred this luxury. Too ill to travel any other way, her son died in Louisiana, prompting the bitter observation: “It seemed very hard, when his father fought to protect the Union and our flag, and yet this boy was denied, under this same flag, a berth to carry him home to die, because he was a Negro.”
Although this weary 53-year-old woman’s personal grief was crushing, she wrote: “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 today.” Unlike her great-great-grandmother, or her great-grandmother, who reputedly lived for more than 100 years, Susie King Taylor lived only until the age of 61. She died in 1912, and was buried in Roslindale, Massachusetts, next to her second husband.
Hawks, Esther Hill, A Woman Doctor’s Civil War, University of South Carolina Press, 1984, p. 48.
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth, Army Life in a Black Regiment, Michigan State University Press, 1960.
Kemble, Frances Anne, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839, Alfred Knopf, 1961.
Logan, Rayford W., and Michael R. Winston, Dictionary of American Negro Biography, W. W. Norton & Company, 1941, p. 581.
Myers, Robert Manson, editor, The Children of Pride, Yale University Press, 1972, p. 1535.
Quarles, Benjamin, The Negro in the Civil War, Little Brown, 1953, p. 178.
Rose, Willie Lee, Rehearsal for Reconstruction, Bobbs-Merrill, 1964.
Smith, Jessie Carney, editor, Notable Black American Women, Gale Research, 1992, p. 1108.
Taylor, Susie King, A Black Woman’s Civil War Memoirs, edited by Patricia W. Romero and Willie Lee Rose, Markus Wiener Publishing, 1988. (Originally published by the author, 1902.)
New York Times, January 3, 1863, p. 4; May 10, 1911, p.ll.
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with William Cox of the Liberty County Historical Society on August 19, 1996.
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Taylor, Susie King (1848-1912)
Susie King Taylor (1848-1912)
African american educator and nurse
Enslavement. Susie King Taylor was one of many African American Southern women who served the Union army as a laundress, nurse, and teacher. She was born a slave on 6 August 1848 on one of the Sea Islands located thirty-five miles off the coast of Georgia. For most of her childhood she lived with her grandmother in Savannah. With the aid of white acquaintances and free African Americans, Taylor broke Southern laws regulating the activity of slaves and learned to read and write, an accomplishment that would help her find employment in the Northern army.
Contraband of War. When the war broke out Taylor was sent to the Georgia coast by her owners. Shortly after she arrived a combined Union naval and army expedition attacked Fort Pulaski, a Confederate stronghold near her current home, and drove the Southern defenders into the Georgia interior. Taylor, along with her uncle and eight cousins, fled to the Union lines and were immediately declared by Federal military authorities as “contraband” of war. As contraband, Taylor and her family were expected to work for the Union army in some capacity, usually as field laborers. Consequently, the Northern liberators moved them to the Sea Islands off the South Carolina coast to operate captured cotton plantations. Because Taylor could read and write, army officials asked her to run a school for former slave children.
Off to War. As more and more contraband males found their way to the Sea Islands, military commanders began to organize them into infantry regiments. Although only fourteen years old at the time, Taylor immediately offered her services to the First South Carolina Volunteers, later known as the Thirty-Third United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.). The army initially employed her as a laundress, a thankless and unpaid assignment. Taylor, however, rarely served in that capacity. For most of the war, the teenager ministered to soldiers as a nurse. During her off duty hours, she ran an impromptu school for African American soldiers, teaching many of them how to read and write.
Field Duty. Taylor often traveled with the regiment as a medical orderly. During several small engagements she worked close enough to the fighting to hear the whistle of artillery shells over her head. Although assigned to the Thirty-Third U.S.C.T., she served for a brief time with the all-African American Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry during their operations in South Carolina. In July 1863 Taylor assisted the famous Civil War nurse Clara Barton, future founder of the American Red Cross, in treating the heavy casualties following the Fifty-Fourth’s legendary assault upon Fort Wagner. Taylor continued to assist Barton for the next eight months before returning to her original unit. For the rest of the war she continued to move with the regiment on small skirmishes, but most of her time was spent on rear-echelon duty. When the army disbanded the unit in February 1866, Taylor and her husband, a sergeant in the Thirty-Third U.S.C.T., returned to Georgia. Later, she moved to Boston and became active in a veterans’ organization. One of many African American women to serve the Union army without pay or complaint, Taylor in 1902 wrote her memoirs, the first documentation of duties performed by an African American nurse in the Civil War. She died in 1912 at age sixty-four.
Susie King Taylor, A Black Woman’s Civil War Memoirs: Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops, Late 1st South Carolina Volunteers, edited by Patricia W. Romano (New York: Markus Wiener, 1988).
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Susie King Taylor
Susie King Taylor
During the Civil War, black American nurse Susie King Taylor (1848-1912) aided the Union Army. She later helped freedmen and Civil War veterans.
Susie King Taylor was born into slavery on Aug. 6, 1848, on a farm near Savannah, Ga. She learned to read and write, although slaves were prohibited from doing so. During the Civil War she and her uncle escaped from slavery by fleeing to a Union army in Georgia. She joined the all-black 1st South Carolina Volunteers (which later became the 33d U.S. Colored Infantry) as a nurse, teacher, and laundress.
In 1863 she married Sgt. Edward King, also a former slave, and served with him in the South Carolina Sea Islands. They participated in the 1865 capture of Charleston. She bravely attended to the needs of both black and white soldiers. Though King frequently encountered combat, she always remained brave, and her courage and cheerfulness were a source of inspiration to soldiers of both races. She also taught many illiterate Union soldiers to read and write.
Mustered out of the army in February 1866, King and her husband returned to Savannah. She opened a school for free blacks but closed it after her husband died at the end of 1866. She operated a school in Liberty Country, Ga., in 1867-1868 but returned to Savannah in late 1868 to open a night school. With the opening of new public schools for freedmen, King closed her school and worked for a wealthy family.
Moving to Boston, King married Russel L. Taylor, a former Union soldier, in 1879. She remained interested in the plight of Civil War veterans, both black and white, and in 1886 helped organize Corps 67 of the Women's Relief Corps auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic. She served as guard, secretary, treasurer, and president (1893) of the Corps. During the Spanish-American War she furnished and packed boxes for wounded men in hospitals.
Taylor's well-written autobiography, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp (1902), detailed her wartime experiences and the contributions of blacks to the Union cause. It also criticized racial discrimination in the United States, particularly in the South. Taylor noted that blacks had contributed greatly to the preservation of the nation and were entitled to full equality.
Taylor's autobiography, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp (1902; repr. 1968), is the principal source on her life; two short excerpts appear in William L. Katz, Eyewitness: The Negro in American History (1967). Brief biographies of Mrs. Taylor are in Sylvia G. L. Dannett, Profiles of Negro Womanhood, 1619-1900, vol. 1 (1964), and in Charles H. Wesley and Patricia W. Romero, Negro Americans in the Civil War: From Slavery to Citizenship (1968). Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the Civil War (1953), and James M. McPherson, The Negro's Civil War: How American Negroes Felt and Acted during the War for the Union (1965), briefly describe her war work and attitudes toward the race problem.
Taylor, Susie King, b. 1848., A Black woman's Civil War memoirs: reminiscences of my life in camp with the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops, late 1st South Carolina Volunteers, New York: M. Wiener Pub.: Distributed by the Talman Co., 1988. □
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