Susie King Taylor
African-American army woman
Of the hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of African-American women to serve with the Union army's "colored" regiments during the second half of the war, Susie King Taylor is the only one to have left a published memoir of her experiences. This unique memoir provides readers with a good look at the workings of the first African-American regiment formed during the war, and it demonstrates that military service for African-American army women was quite similar to what it was for white women. Like her white counterparts in other regiments, Taylor spent her time in the army doing a range of tasks to support the common soldiers, some of which occasionally bordered on the paramilitary.
Susie Baker was born a slave in Georgia in 1848. She became a freedwoman at age fourteen, after first becoming contraband of war when her uncle in April 1862 did what so many slaves had already begun to do across the South. He sought liberation behind Union lines (in his case, boarding a Federal gunboat that was passing near Fort Pulaski). Susie Bakers uncle took as many members of his extended family with him as he could. She was one of these escapees, many of whom later found themselves associated with a newly formed regiment of black soldiers, the 1st South Carolina Infantry Volunteers (later renamed the 33d Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops) organized by Major General David Hunter of the Unions Department of the South and commanded by Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson of Massachusetts.
Initially assigned the position of a regimental laundress, Susie Bakers ready demonstration of her many skills--not the least of which was her ability to read and write--soon resulted in the expansion of her responsibilities. During the course of her time with the regiment, Baker continued to do washing and cooking for the men, but she also served as a regimental nurse, making use of both conventional and folk techniques when tending to the sick and wounded and to sustain her own good health. "I was not in the least afraid of the small-pox," she later wrote, "and 1 drank sassafras tea constantly, which kept my blood purged and prevented me from contracting this dread scourge."
Baker also functioned as the regiments reading and writing instructor, sharing with the other former slaves the lessons she had learned secretly as a child. As for her own learning of new things while in the regiment, Baker rejoiced at the opportunity to master the inner workings of a musket and to develop considerable skill in shooting at a target. At some point during her first year, Susie Baker married a sergeant in the regiment named Edward King. Together they served until the 33ds mustering out in February 1866.
After the war, Susie Baker King and her husband moved to Savannah, Georgia, where she opened a private school for black children. Edward King died suddenly in September 1866, leaving his wife to fend for herself, a task made more difficult by the opening of a free school for blacks in town. By 1868 Susie King was reduced to employment as a domestic servant, the waged job most readily available to African-American women in the postwar period (and into the twentieth century). Although she continued in domestic service, she did not remain in the South, instead heading north in 1874 and settling in Boston, a city she praised for being a far more just environment for blacks than any to be found in her native South.
In 1879 Susie Baker married again, this time to one Russell Taylor. She dedicated much of her later life to the Woman's Relief Corps, a national organization for female Civil War veterans established in 1873. "All this time," she wrote in her 1902 memoir, "my interest in the boys in blue has not abated. My hands have never left undone anything they could do toward their aid and comfort in the twilight of their lives." Susie Baker King Taylor's date of death is unknown.
Source: "Encyclopedia of the American Civil War" edited by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, article by Elizabeth D. Leonard
This page last updated 04/28/05
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