Susie Taylor was a teacher, army nurse, author and memoirist who overcame adversity and helped others out of slavery. She became the first Black Army nurse when she was recruited to cater to the all-Black Army troop and then later assigned to the 33rd United States Colored Infantry Regiment during the Civil War.
Born Susie Baker into slavery near Savannah, Georgia in 1848, she was living with her grandmother who, despite Georgia’s harsh laws against the formal education of African Americans, sent her to secret schools where she learned to read and write.
Unfortunately, her grandmother was arrested for singing freedom hymns and that affected her secret learning. She was sent back to her mother in Fort Pulaski. The family then fled to St. Catherines Island for Union protection before being transferred to St. Simons Island.
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Taylor worked as the regimental laundress and throughout the war would perform the essential duties of cooking and washing. However, NPS writes that “her literacy proved most useful” as the commanding officers offered her an opportunity to organize a school for the former enslaved because they were impressed with her ability to read and write.
She served as the reading instructor for the regiment of former slaves. The unit’s white abolitionist colonel, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, later wrote of his men, “Their love of the spelling-book is perfectly inexhaustible.”
Taylor met and married Edward King, a black noncommissioned officer in the First South Carolina Volunteers of African Descent. The designation of this regiment was changed to 33rd U.S. Colored Troops.
In March 1863, the regiment was assigned to the occupation of Jacksonville. Taylor, being the wife of King, followed the regiment, serving as the country’s first Black Army nurse while also teaching soldiers how to read and write during their off-duty hours.
Even though she dedicated her time and life to the army, Taylor was never paid for her work because she was registered as a volunteer. She and her husband remained with the unit until it was mustered out of service in 1866.
After the war, the Kings moved to Savannah, Georgia where Taylor continued her teaching career and opened a private school for the children of freedmen but she lost her husband.
In the same year she became a widow, a public school was also opened so she couldn’t continue with her private school. By 1868, Taylor was forced to find work as a domestic servant.
She moved to Boston in 1872 and she married Russell Taylor in 1879. According to reports, she spent much of the rest of her life working with the Woman’s Relief Corps, a national organization for female Civil War veterans.
Apart from being a nurse, Taylor published a memoir “Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers” recorded as the only African-American woman’s documentation of war experiences.
The memoir included her wartime experiences and her time in Jacksonville. Ten years after publishing her memoir, Taylor died in 1912. She is a 2018 Georgia Women of Achievement inductee.