Susie King Taylor becomes the first black army nurse in the Civil War

Portrait of Susie King Taylor
Susie King Taylor

Susie King Taylor was born into slavery on a plantation in rural Georgia in 1848, which is where she lived until the age of seven, when she was allowed to move to Savannah to live free with her grandmother. She remembered that trip to Savannah fondly, traveling there by coach with a driver by the name of Shakespeare, a man with a wonderful beard that went almost to his knees.

And so it was that under the watchful eye of her grandmother, every day at 9am Susie and her brother would walk half a mile from their house to the home of Mrs. Woodhouse, a friend of their grandmother, to learn reading and writing. The kids wrapped their books in paper to keep the police from seeing them, since literacy was illegal for blacks in Georgia. Her grandmother made sure they went as she was adamant they become literate.

The time soon came that Susie learned all she could from Mrs. Woodhouse. So she began taking lessons from a white playmate. Once Susie learned all she could from her, she took lessons from the son of her grandmother’s white landlord. The young man was fond of her grandmother and accepted her request to teach Susie.

Writing came in handy for Susie almost immediately. She began to write passes for her grandmother and other local black folks, who needed a pass to legally be out after nine in the evening. Otherwise they were arrested and fined, which in the case of a slave meant the slave owner were to pay the fine.

In her early teens, the Civil War broke out. Her family fled Savannah to St. Simons Island, a Union Army controlled area in Georgia. With her inquisitive eyes and kind demeanor and her education, she impressed the army officers. They asked that she become a teacher for children and even some adults.

In her words, “After we were all settled aboard and started on our journey, Captain Whitmore, commanding the boat, asked me where I was from. I told him Savannah, Ga. He asked if I could read; I said, ‘Yes!’ ‘Can you write?’ he next asked. ‘Yes, I can do that also,’ I replied, and as if he had some doubts of my answers he handed me a book and a pencil and told me to write my name and where I was from. I did this; when he wanted to know if I could sew. On hearing I could, he asked me to hem some napkins for him. He was surprised at my accomplishments (for they were such in those days), for he said he did not know there were any negroes in the South able to read or write. He said, ‘You seem to be so different from the other colored people who came from the same place you did.’ ‘No!’ I replied, ‘the only difference is, they were reared in the country and I in the city.’”

“I would gladly do so, if I could have some books,” she replied to the request. And so she became the first black teacher of freed black students to work in a freedmen’s school in Georgia.

It was also here that she met Edward King, a black non-commissioned officer. She became his wife and as he was a soldier, she traveled through the war with his regiment. Susie became a teacher to the men, teaching them to read and write. And with her soothing care and fearless attitude, she became a nurse to them as well, thus making her the first black army nurse in the Civil War.

In looking back on the experience, Susie said, “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 mangled by the deadly shells, without a shudder; and instead of turning away, how we hurry to assist in alleviating their pain, bind up their wounds, and press the cool water to their parched lips, with feelings only of sympathy and pity.

She received no pay for her work as a nurse. Which she had no regrets about. “I gave my service willingly for four years and three months without receiving a dollar. I was glad…to care for the sick and afflicted comrades.”

All this she accomplished by the age of 18.

Notes:

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“Susie King Taylor becomes the first black army nurse in the Civil War” sources:

  • Susie King Taylor, known as the first African American Army nurse. [Boston: Published by the author, from a photograph taken earlier] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2003653538/>.