Susie King Taylor

Susie King Taylor’s book “A Black Woman’s Civil War Memoirs—Reminisces of My Life in Camp with the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops, late Ist Carolina Volunteers,” is a unique and valuable perspective on the war. It’s an insightful revelation that begins with her own life story, which is perhaps best presented here in her own words. “I was born under the slave law in Georgia in 1848,” she begins, “and was brought up by my grandmother in Savannah. There were three of us with her, my younger sister and brother. My brother and I being the two eldest, we were sent to a friend of my grandmother, Mrs. Woodhouse, a widow, to learn to read and write. She was a free woman and lived on Bay Lane, between Habersham and Price streets, about half a mile from my house. We went every day about nine o’clock, with our books wrapped in paper to prevent the police or white persons from seeing them…She had twenty-five or thirty children whom she taught, assisted by her daughter, Mary Jane. The neighbors would see us going in sometimes, but they supposed we were there learning trades, as it was the custom to give children a trade of some kind.

“After school, “ Ms. Taylor continued, “we left the same way we entered, one by one, when we would go to a square, about a block from the school, and wait for each other.

“I remained at her school for two years or more, when I was sent to a Mrs. Mary Beasley, where I continued until May, 1860, when she told my grandmother she had taught me all she knew, and grandmother had better get someone else who could teach me more, so I stopped my studies for a while. A month after this, James Blouis, our landlord’s son, was attending the High School, and was very fond of grandmother, so she asked him to give me a few lessons, which he did until the middle of 1861, when the Savannah Volunteer Guards, to which he and his brother belonged, were ordered to the front under General Barton.”

It was during the early stages of the war that she, having acquired the ability to write, began writing passes that Blacks had to have in order to move about. She was soon dispatched to St. Simon’s where she was soon put in charge of teaching the children on the island. But she made one demand—she needed books. The general said she would have them in a week. “In a week or two I received two large boxes of books and testaments from the North. I had about forty children to teach, besides a number of adults who came to me at night, all of them so eager to learn to read, to read above anything else. Chaplain French of Boston, would come to the school, sometimes, and lecture to the pupils on Boston and the North,” she related.

Along with her teaching, Taylor often worked as a nurse, though this experience is not fully discussed in her memoirs. We do learn, however, that she often accompanied Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, on her rounds, particularly after the Fort Wagner massacre.  This was during Barton’s eight months in the Sea Islands. Like Barton, Taylor endured and tended to the wounded, doing all she could to alleviate the pain and sickening circumstances of the soldiers. Included in her memoirs is a letter to her from Colonel Trowbridge, an officer of the 33rd Regiment, about her inability to be placed on a pensioner’s role for her actions. “Dear Madam, the manuscript of the story of your army life reached me today,” the colonel wrote. “I have read it with much care and interest, and I most willingly and cordially indorse it as a truthful account of your unselfish devotion and service through more than three long years of war in which the 33d Regiment bore a conspicuous part in the great conflict for human liberty and the restoration of the Union. I most sincerely regret that through a technicality you are debarred from having your name placed on the roll of pensioners, as an Army Nurse; for among all the number of heroic women whom the government is now rewarding, I know of no one more deserving than yourself.” Unfortunately, she never received pay for her services, and this included her care for many who were afflicted with smallpox and unable to receive vaccinations from the disease.

With the war over and Reconstruction underway, she and her husband Edward King left the regiment and returned to Savannah. There she opened several schools while her husband struggled in vain to find gainful employment and sadly died as a result of an accident while working as a longshoreman.

Eventually she, faced with the advent of charter schools, was no longer able to make a living as a teacher. She bundled her child and took a job with a wealthy white woman from Boston. Though she was no longer in the South, she remained concerned about liberty, justice and equality. “Living here in Boston where the Black man is given equal justice, I must say a word on the general treatment of my race, both in the North and South, in this twentieth century,” she recorded in her memoirs. “I wonder if our white fellow men realize the true sense or meaning of brotherhood. For two hundred years we had toiled for them; the war of 1861 came and was ended, and we thought our race was forever freed from bondage, and that the two races could live in unity with each other, but when 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? Has it brought freedom, in the full sense of the word, or has it not made our condition more hopeless?”

By 1874, she began a succession of jobs with white families in the Boston area before marrying Russell Taylor in 1879. No matter where she roamed or resided, she was a staunch foe of Jim Crow and the KKK. Towards the end of her life she provided assistance to Afro-Cubans at the end of the Spanish American War. In 1886, she played a critical role in organizing the Corps 67 of the Women’s Relief Corps, and held a number of leadership positions, including president of the Corps, and later was a member of the all-Black corps of Boston, called the Robert A Bell Post.

After her death on Oct. 6, 1912, she was the recipient of many tributes and honors, most notably having a school dedicated to her in 2015 in Savannah, and a historic marker for her by the Georgia Historical Society. 

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