Taylor, Susie King (1848–1912)
Taylor, Susie King (1848–1912)
Author of Reminiscences of My Life in Camp, the only Civil War memoir by an African-American woman veteran. Born Susie Baker on August 6, 1848, on the Isle of Wight off Savannah, Georgia; died on October 6, 1912, in Boston, Massachusetts; daughter of Raymond Baker and Hagar Ann (Reed) Baker (slaves on the Grest farm); married Sergeant Edward King, early 1860s (died in September 1866); married Russell L. Taylor, in 1879 (died c. 1902); children: (first marriage) one son (died 1898).
Born a slave; escaped to freedom during the Civil War (April 1862); joined the First South Carolina Volunteers, later the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops, as a laundress, nurse, and teacher; was a teacher and house servant in Savannah, Georgia (1866–74); moved to Boston (1874); organized the Women's Relief Corps (1886); was president of local WRC (1893). Publications: Reminiscences of My Life in Camp (1902).
After four years of the bloodiest fighting in American history, Union troops captured Charleston in February 1865. South Carolina had been the first state to secede from the Union in 1861, and Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor was the scene of the initial battle. Among the Union troops entering the city were the men of the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops, and with them was 17-year-old Susie King (later Taylor), the nurse, teacher and laundress to Company E. As the departing Confederate troops set fire to the beautiful city, the Union troops, black and white, battled the blaze. Nevertheless, the civilian population of Charleston reviled the black soldiers, who had formerly been their slaves.
This was one of the most dramatic moments of the Civil War. For over 200 years, slave-owners had regarded their captive laborers as childlike inferiors, lacking the virtues of whites. This myth was shattered by the 180,000 African-American soldiers who shouldered arms for the Union. The sight of disciplined black troops turned the world upside down for pro-slavery Charleston residents. Susie King Taylor would record this event with customary restraint in her memoir Reminiscences of My Life in Camp.
Susie Baker was born a slave in 1848 on the Grest farm on the Isle of Wight, one of a chain of barrier islands off the Carolina and Georgia coast. Virtually all of what we know about Taylor's life comes from her memoir, and she says little about her own parents. Family legend was preserved through her grandmother Dolly Reed , a half-Indian woman born in 1820 who married Fortune Lambert Reed. Dolly's own grandmother lived 120 years and had seven children, five of whom died in the Revolutionary War.
Taylor was raised by her grandmother, who attended Mrs. Grest in Savannah. Slaves were forbidden to learn to read by law and custom, but some urban bondspeople were able to get an education despite this prohibition. As a child, Susie surreptitiously attended a school in the home of a free African-American woman; she "went every day about nine o'clock," wrote Taylor, "with her books wrapped in paper to prevent the police or white persons from seeing them." Later, a white playmate gave her some lessons, but only after Susie promised not to tell the girl's father about their studies. A white high-school student then instructed her further.
Taylor does not tell us how she first heard that the South had seceded from the Union, or that the Northerners were coming to put down the rebellion. There had been a huge celebration by secessionists in Savannah when Georgia left the Union, filling a square in the European-styled city. When Northern troops occupied the Sea Islands at the beginning of the Civil War, the whites told their slaves only that the Yankees planned to work them like oxen. But Taylor could read, and somehow managed to ascertain that the war might bring the end of slavery. At this early stage, however, the North was fighting only to restore the Union, not to abolish slavery.
In early April 1862, Union troops captured Fort Pulaski off the Georgia coast near Savannah: Taylor could hear the roar of the guns from miles away. When the Union general, David Hunter, declared that slaves within his lines would be declared free, she escaped with her uncle and his family, reaching St. Catherine Island about 25 miles south of the city. A Union gunboat removed a party of 30 African-Americans farther south to St. Simon's Island, where, Taylor wrote, "to my unbounded joy, I saw the 'Yankee.'"
The Northern officers soon learned that the 13-year-old girl could read and asked her to instruct the 40 children gathered on the island. In a few weeks, when books arrived from the North, Taylor taught the children by day and adults at night, "all of them so eager to learn to read, to read above all else." The escaped slaves heard rumors that the war would soon end, and that they might all be shipped to Liberia.
The situation on the Sea Islands was unique. These islands were 83% black and militarily undefended by the secessionists. When Union warships approached, many of the former slaveholders fled to the mainland, leaving behind their slaves and a rich cotton crop. Northern civilian antislavery activists came down to help organize farming on a free labor basis, and to teach. There were about 600 African-Americans on St. Simon's, and these were freed by the Union general as "contraband of war." Earlier in the conflict, President Abraham Lincoln had rebuked another Union general who followed this policy, but now Lincoln, driven by the logic of the war, let the order on the Sea Islands stand.
There was a military component to this new policy as well. When a few secessionists on St. Simon's, reinforced by a landing party, attacked some ex-slaves, the freed slaves regrouped, armed themselves, and fought back. General Hunter tried, without the backing of his superiors, to organize a black regiment, but the project was poorly planned and did not succeed. By August, however, Captain C.T. Trowbridge came to the islands to recruit black men for a regiment, the First South Carolina Volunteers, and in November, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a militant abolitionist, became its colonel. Taylor joined this regiment, and after the war both the famous colonel and the unheralded washerwoman wrote accounts of their experience.
Susie King Taylor's story, though dramatic, is told in a matter-of-fact style. She was clearly a young woman of great courage and totally devoted to the cause of freedom. In several life-threatening situations she displayed the level-headedness of a born leader. Her writing, too, is direct and unadorned. The picture that accompanies her book shows a beautiful woman of poise and dignity, with eyes that have seen sorrow. In an equal society, she might have been a professional nurse, teacher, or writer, but the prejudices of the time confined her choices.
The new regiment trained at Camp Saxton in Beaufort, South Carolina. There the men learned the complex maneuvering that characterized military training during the Civil War. Taylor was assigned to Company E, and of the ten companies in the regiment only one other seems to have had a woman in Susie's role. The relations between the men and women sound mutually respectful in her account.
In 1862, when she was 14, she married Sergeant Edward King. In the style of the times, the writer Susie King Taylor kept her private life to herself and tells us little about her husband. After the war, he tried to work as a carpenter, but whites kept him from practicing this skilled trade, and he worked instead as a longshoreman. He died soon after the war in September 1866, while Susie was pregnant. Nor does Taylor say much about her second husband, Russell L. Taylor, whom she married in Boston in 1879. He died about the time her book appeared in 1902. She writes little about her father or son, except to describe the latter's death in 1898. Her mother Hagar Reed Baker , however, acquired 700 acres of land near Savannah, a remarkable accomplishment for a freedwoman.
On January 1, 1863, a white South Carolinian, who had earlier freed his own slaves, read President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation to the assembled troops at Camp Saxton amid great feasting and rejoicing. While the Proclamation was limited in its scope, freeing rhetorically only those slaves it could not free physically, it laid the groundwork for the 13th Amendment that did end slavery. One soldier, who approached Higginson, confided that last year he had been a servant to a Confederate colonel, but now he was proud to be a soldier fighting for Emancipation.
[W]hen 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?"
—Susie King Taylor
While battling the Confederates, the regiment had to fight the Union as well. Black troops were paid only half the money given to white troops. In protest, the men refused the half-pay, a great sacrifice for those with families. Not until 1864 did they receive their full pay, including the money owed to them. Taylor, probably because her position was unofficial, received no pay for her service, and she wrote that she was happy simply to care for the men.
The First South Carolina Volunteers, later reorganized as the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops, fought bravely in 12 battles along the coast, from Jacksonville, Florida, to South Carolina. Higginson describes many of these clashes in detail, citing the steely determination of his men, who were fighting not only for the cause of freedom, but to destroy racist myths about African-Americans. Being a Civil War nurse took enormous courage. Taylor was never in combat, but she could disassemble, reassemble, and fire a musket. When wounded men returned to camp in great pain, the nurses had no effective anesthesia to offer. In this capacity, Susie met Clara Barton , the celebrated Civil War nurse. Taylor found her to be cordial and dedicated to service.
Life in camp was not all battle and preparation. Given the limited supplies, Taylor did her best as a reading instructor. She also served a turn as cook, preparing vegetable soup and slap-jacks of flour and water, and distributing salt beef and hard-tack biscuits. There was time for fun as well, and the drummer boys trained a pig to march in time with the soldiers. In the evenings, the regiment sometimes held "praise" meetings of prayer and revival.
Taylor had her own dramatic confrontation with death when a boat upon which she was traveling sank. Several passengers died in the disaster and the young nurse and a companion were rescued after four hours in the water at night. Years later, after the war, she suffered another shipwreck. Taylor describes both incidents with characteristic restraint.
When Higginson was wounded, he was replaced by Trowbridge, who led the company through the end of the war. The men fought the Confederates at Fort Gregg on James Island, where they endured many casualties. They took part in the capture of Charleston, and skirmished toward the end of the war with desperate bushwhackers. After the South surrendered in April 1865, the soldiers of Taylor's regiment were mustered out in February 1866.
After the war, the King family returned to Savannah, where Susie opened a school, since there were no schools for the African-American children. "I had twenty children at my school, and received $1.00 a month for each pupil. I also had a few older ones who came at night." When her husband died in 1866, and she was expecting her first child, she moved to the country for awhile, but, a city woman at heart, she soon returned to Savannah. Now there was a public school for black children, and Taylor struggled along financially as a teacher and later as a laundress for a white woman. After accompanying this woman on a journey to Boston, in 1874 Taylor moved to that city with the aid of a Boston family. Taylor most likely left the South to escape the new wave of oppression that descended upon the freedpeople. The brief period of Reconstruction, during which Northern armies occupied the South, was coming to a close. During this time, Southern blacks had gained and enjoyed some civil rights, but as the Southern states rejoined the Union, those rights were gradually lost.
In Boston, she worked in domestic service, married Russell L. Taylor in 1879, and probably
lived in the West End black community. In 1886, she organized the Women's Relief Corps, a women's auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic, the Civil War Northern veterans' association. She became the local president in 1893, and prepared a census of the surviving black veterans from her regiment. She also won a quilting award in 1898 that was probably a fund-raising effort for the veterans.
Taylor tells us little about her life in Boston, for her book is a Civil War memoir. That city had been the home of abolitionists before the war, and for awhile after it remained remarkably free of racial antagonism. "I have been in many states and cities, and in each I have looked for liberty and justice; … but it was not until I was within the borders of New England, and reached old Massachusetts, that I found it," she wrote. Boston's black community was small but vibrant, and the likelihood is that Taylor was an active member. In 1895, Boston's African-American women hosted the first convention of what later became the National Association of Colored Women. Pauline E. Hopkins wrote for the nationally circulated Colored American Magazine. In 1898, the state dedicated a monument to African-American soldiers and their white officers who fought in the Massachusetts regiments. The fiery editor William Monroe Trotter demanded full civil and political rights in his weekly Guardian newspaper.
Taylor does not mention these various activities, but in a perceptive chapter titled "Thoughts on Present Conditions," she reflects on the injustices committed against black people. She is particularly concerned with lynching, which at that time was rampant and public throughout the South. Nor could she understand why the national government refused to intervene and put an end to the wave of terror directed against African-Americans. She decried the hypocrisy of a Confederate women's group that wanted to ban Uncle Tom's Cabin, the antislavery book by Harriet Beecher Stowe that was being staged as a play, while they turned a blind eye toward lynchings occurring about twice weekly.
I do not uphold my race when they do wrong. They ought to be punished, but the innocent are made to suffer as well as the guilty, and I hope the time will hasten when it will be stopped forever…. In this "land of the free" we are burned, tortured, and denied a fair trial, murdered for any imaginary wrong conceived in the brain of the negro-hating white man. There is no redress for us from a government which promised to protect all under its flag. It seems a mystery to me. They say, "One flag, one nation, one country indivisible." Is this true? Can we say this truthfully, when one race is allowed to burn, hang, and inflict the most horrible torture weekly, monthly, on another? No, we cannot sing "My country, 'tis of thee, Sweet land of Liberty!" It is hollow mockery.
In 1898, her son, an actor, fell ill while touring the South. Wrote Taylor in Reminiscences of My Life in Camp:
On February 3, 1898, I was called to Shreveport, La., to the bedside of my son, who was very ill. He had been traveling on business when he fell ill, and had been sick two weeks when they sent to me. I tried to have him brought home to Boston, but they could not send him, as he was not able to sit and ride this long distance; on the sixth of February I left Boston to go to him. I reached Cincinnati on the eighth, where I took a train for the south. I asked a white man standing near—before I got my train what car I should take.
"Take that one," he said, pointing to one.
"But that is a smoking car!"
"Well," he replied, "that is the car for colored people." I went to this car, and on entering it all my courage failed me. I have ridden in many coaches, but I was never in such as these. I wanted to return home again, but when I thought of my sick boy I said, "Well, others ride in these cars and I must do likewise," and tried to be resigned, for I wanted to reach my boy, as I did not know whether I should find him alive….
I got to Marion, Miss., at two o'clock in the morning, arrived at Vicksburg at noon, and at Shreveport about eight o'clock in the evening, and found my son just recovering from a severe hemorrhage. He was very anxious to come home, and I tried to secure a berth for him on a sleeper, but they would not sell me one, and he was not strong enough to travel otherwise. If I could only have gotten him to Cincinnati, I might have brought him home, but as I could not I was forced to let him remain where he was. It seemed very hard, when his father fought to protect the Union and our flag, yet his boy was denied, under this same flag, a berth to carry him home to die, because he was a Negro.
Her son remained behind and died alone.
On the way there and back, Taylor experienced the harassment of local whites, and even witnessed a hanging at Clarksdale, Mississippi. Somehow, she managed to keep up her hope for the future, without denying her disappointment in the present. She concluded her memoir with these words: "Justice we ask,—to be citizens of these United States, where so many of our people have shed their blood with their white comrades, that the stars and stripes should never be polluted."
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Army Life in a Black Regiment. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1962 (first published in 1869).
Taylor, Susie King. Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the Thirty-Third U.S. Colored Troops, Late First South Carolina Volunteers: A Black Woman's Civil War Memories. Edited by Patricia W. Romero (with new introduction by Willie Lee Rose). NY: Markus Weiner, 1988 (reprint of 1902 edition).
Wilson, Leslie. "Susie King Taylor," in Notable Black American Women. Edited by Jessie Carney Smith. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992, pp. 1108–1113.
Emilio, Luis F. A Brave Black Regiment. NY: Bantam, 1992 (first published in 1894).
Rose, Willie Lee. Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964.
Glory (122 min. film), starring Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington, released in 1989, concerns the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, which fought in the same area as the First South Carolina Volunteers.
Mark Schneider , author of Boston Confronts Jim Crow, 1890–1920 (Northeastern University Press, 1997)