ON THIS DATE in 1862, fourteen-year-old Susie Baker King Taylor took charge of a school for ex-slaves in Georgia during the Civil War. She was the first African-American to teach former slaves as well as the first laundress attached to an all-black Union Army regiment, the first black Army nurse, and the only African American woman to publish a memoir of her Civil War life.
Educated as a child by a free black woman in Savannah, King Taylor fled the eastern Georgia city with her uncle’s family during the second year of the Civil War. Along with other African Americans, she came under the protection of the Union (Northern) army on St. Simon’s Island, located about 75 miles south of Savannah. There she accepted a request by Commodore Louis M. Goldsborough to teach recently freed slaves. “I had about 40 children to teach, beside a number of adults who came to me nights, all of them so eager to learn to read,” King Taylor recalled in her 1902 memoir, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers.
King Taylor took on new responsibilities when a Captain C.T. Trowbridge and other Union officers recruited soldiers for the Civil War’s first all-black regiment. She traveled to Beaufort, South Carolina, with a number of soldiers who joined the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, later renamed the 33rd U.S. Colored Troop. Beginning as a regimental laundress, Taylor also cooked and performed nurse’s duties when wounded soldiers returned from a raid up the St. Mary’s River between Georgia and Florida.
Four decades later King Taylor wrote, “There are many people who do not know what some of the colored women did” to help the Union cause. Her own contributions, long overlooked, are finally being recognized.