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Susie Baker King Taylor
Susie Baker King Taylor Susie Baker King Taylor


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Susie Baker King Taylor was the first African American army nurse As the author of "Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops, Late 1st SC Volunteers", she was the only African American woman to publish a memoir of her wartime experiences She was also the first African American to teach openly in a school for former slaves in Georgia 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 fulfil 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 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 spokesman 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 1030 pm," 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 of 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 Wentworth 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 fascinating 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, eager to please, and quite aware that any present danger could never match the ordeals they had already survived, 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 colored 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.