Susie King Taylor: The First African American Army Nurse

Susie King Taylor

“I was born under the slave law in Georgia, in 1848, and was brought up by my grandmother in Savannah.”

So begin the memoirs of Civil War nurse Susie King Taylor, a most unusual woman in many ways. She was literate from a very early age, having been taught to read and write by a free woman of color living in Savannah, but even such a simple thing as attending school was difficult for enslaved people. It was illegal for them to be taught to read or write, so any schooling had to be conducted in secrecy. Little Susie and her peers had to walk about half a mile every day, their books wrapped in paper to keep the police or nosy white people from seeing them. They entered singly, hoping that the neighbors of her teacher would think they were there to learn trades, which was legal.[1]

A Black Woman’s Civil War Memoirs

Susie’s forward-thinking grandmother made sure that her grandchildren got all the education available to them. Living in a larger city made this much more possible than had the family lived on one of the large cotton plantations in the South Sea Islands, and in Ms. King Taylor’s book, A Black Woman’s Civil War Memoirs published in 1902, she continually circles back to her advantages of having such a grandmother and living in a city.

On April 1, 1862, just before the Battle of Fort Pulaski, fourteen-year-old Susie joined her uncle and his family. They traveled as a group to St. Catherine’s Island, which was under the protection of Union troops. It was here that Susie saw, for the first time, the “Yankees” that had previously figured so large in her imagination. She had been told that a Yankee was a terrible thing and would hurt her and her family. They should be avoided at all costs.[2]This did not turn out to be true. Instead, the Union forces welcomed Susie’s family and recruited them to help in many ways.

Susie’s skills at reading and writing (and hemming napkins!) impressed all who met her, and she was ferried to St. Simon’s Island, where she was asked to set up a school for the children on the island. She agreed and was provided with textbooks by northern abolitionist groups.[3]By doing so, she became the first black teacher of freed African American students to work in a freedman’s school in Georgia. She taught up to forty children in her day school and “a number of adults who came to me nights, all of them so eager to learn to read, to read above anything else.” [4]

General David Hunter

While on St. Simon’s, several Union officers arrived under the orders of General David Hunter, who gained renown for his unauthorized 1862 order emancipating slaves in three Southern states, including Georgia. They were tasked with filling up the ranks of his regiment. Hunter had heard that the men on St. Simon’s Island were brave and capable. Captain C. T. Trowbridge was one of these officers, and he met Susie at her school. He immediately enrolled her as a laundress to the 1stSouth Carolina Volunteers, and her brother as a member of the regiment.

She did not stay a laundress for long, as an epidemic of varioloid—a less-serious type of smallpox—hit their camp—Camp Saxon– soon after arriving in Beaufort, South Carolina. Susie had been vaccinated against smallpox and was able to nurse her patients safely.

Young Susie stayed at Camp Saxon with the 1stSouth Carolina Volunteers, acting as a literacy teacher to the “comrades,” as she called them, of Company E. She met and married Sergeant Edward King in 1863, when she was just fifteen, and stayed with him as the South Carolina Volunteers became the 33rdU. S. Colored Troops.

I taught a great many of the comrades in Company E to read and write, when they were off duty. Nearly all were anxious to learn. …I gave my services willingly for four years and three months without receiving a dollar. I was glad, however, to be allowed to go with the regiment, to care for the sick and afflicted comrades.[5]

1st South Carolina Volunteers at Smith Plantation

She was allowed to stay with her husband and comrades as they moved to Jacksonville, Florida, back to Camp Saxon, and then on to Camp Shaw near Port Royal, fighting small skirmishes with Rebel gunboats and landed troops. While there she learned to handle a gun and accompanied some of the men on picket duty.[6]Her “comrades” were constantly involved in small encounters with Confederate troops. Smallpox continued to be a problem, and Susie King’s memoirs claim she met Clara Barton at Camp Shaw during Barton’s stay in the South Sea Islands to care for those who were afflicted with the disease, including the formerly enslaved.

Susie King’s caring hands tended all who came her way, not just the men of Company E.

Our boys would say to me sometimes, “Mrs. King, why is it you are so kind to us?   You treat us just as you do the boys in your own company?”

I replied, “Well, you know, all the boys in other companies are the same to me as those in my Company E; you are all doing the same duty, and I would do just the same for you.”

“Yes,” they would say., “we know that, because you were the first woman we saw  when we came into camp, and you took an interest in us boys ever since we have been here,  and we are very grateful for all you do for us.”[7]

Susie’s hands

 King’s nursing did not look at all like modern nursing. Instead, she gave palliative care, which is what most nurses did at the time of the Civil War. Palliative care is focused on providing relief from the symptoms and stress of a serious illness or injury. Its goal is to improve the quality of life for the patient, and for the injured and ill men under Susie King’s care it was certainly an improvement for them. She saw gruesome sights on a daily basis and wrote about her reaction to this:

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 of only sympathy and pity.[8]

 Susie King stayed with the Union troops throughout the fight to take Fort Gregg and beyond. Like so many African American nurses, she never received a penny for her services. She endured several changes of command, having to prove to each new white officer that she was a person of quality and worth. This was made easier by the fact that most of the officers with whom she came in contact were Boston abolitionists. Susie endured being cast adrift at sea more than once as troop support moved among the islands surrounding the coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

The South Sea Islands

On February 28, 1865, the soldiers and support staff of the 33rd USCT. were ordered to Charleston. There they landed under a flag of truce, only to find that their assistance was needed in fighting the fires ordered set by Confederate General Hardee after he and his troops evacuated the city.

For three or four days the men fought the fire, saving the property and effects of  the people, yet these white men and women could not tolerate these black soldiers, for many of them had formerly been their slaves; and although these brave men risked life and limb to assist them in their distress, man and even women would sneer and molest them whenever they met them. [9]

Captain Charles Trowbridge

On February 9, Trowbridgeal Orders were received for the regiment to muster out. Although glad to go home, Susie King was sorry to part with Colonel Trowbridge. She wrote that he had been very kind to her and always introduced her to anyone who came into the camp from the North.[10]

When Susie and her husband left Charleston, they were thrown into a segregated South. They lived in Savannah, where Susie taught school, but she had to charge her pupils a fee to attend. As the Freedman’s Bureau opened more and more free schools, she lost her students. Soon after she began a night school for adults. Her husband had previously been a skilled “boss” carpenter, but rules were put in place that kept independent contractors of color from working at their chosen professions. White men were chosen for those jobs. He was forced to unload ships docking in Savannah, although soon he had other men working for him. He was respected by those who employed him and apparently did well. Edward King died in September 1866, a few months before the birth of their first child.[11]

By 1880 Susie King had moved to Boston. She worked for a very wealthy woman as a housekeeper. While there she met and married her second husband, Russell Taylor. She became involved in GAR volunteer work with their female auxiliary branch, the Women’s Relief Corps and never stopped advocating for her veteran “comrades.” America’s first African American military nurse died in 1902.

A letter from Colonel Trowbridge

[1]Susie King Taylor, A Black Woman’s Civil War Memoirs, 29-30.

[2]George C. Rable, Damn Yankees: Demonization and Defiance in the Confederate South, Ch. 2.

[3]Taylor, 37-39.

[4] Taylor, 37-38.

[5]Taylor, 52.

[6]Ibid., 61.

[7]Ibid., 67.

[8]Ibid., 87-88.

[9]Ibid., 107-108.

[10]Ibid., 111.


2 Responses to Susie King Taylor: The First African American Army Nurse

  1. Meg
    Informative. Enlightening. Compelling.
    Loved the Letter from Colonel Trowbridge.
    Thanks for sharing!

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