Illustration by Gregory Copeland

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, RH.6-8.9, WHST.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.9, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, RI.6-8.9, W.6-8.4, W.6-8.9, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Time, Continuity, and Change • Individual Development and Identity • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions • Power, Authority, and Governance • Civic Ideals and Practices

U.S. HISTORY

True Teens of History

A Voice for Freedom

Susie King Taylor offered healing and hope to the Union’s first Black soldiers during the Civil War. Then she preserved her story—and theirs—in a powerful memoir. 

Click here to take a Prereading Quiz before you read this article.

Question: How does Susie King Taylor’s perspective help you understand the Civil War?

Question: How does Susie King Taylor’s perspective help you understand the Civil War?

Susie King Taylor stared anxiously at the path leading into camp. All night, the crackle of distant rifle fire had kept the 15-year-old awake in her tent. Now it was morning, and she still smelled gunpowder on the breeze.

Where were they?

It was July 1864 on Morris Island in South Carolina. Days earlier, Susie had watched hundreds of Union Army troops march out of camp. A group of Southern states known as the Confederacy had broken away from the United States in 1861, opposed to ideas of ending slavery. The Union Army was fighting to keep the nation together. 

Susie knew some of the troops from her camp would never return. Most of them had escaped slavery, like Susie herself. They were among the first Black men to fight in the Civil War (1861-1865). A victory for the Union Army would help secure freedom for millions of Black Americans. Susie felt proud to be part of the effort.

Her official job was washing uniforms, but Susie did much more. She taught the soldiers to read and write. And she cared for the wounded as one of the first Black Army nurses. 

Suddenly, Susie heard cries of pain. A few soldiers staggered into view, their uniforms stained with mud and blood. She knew even more wounded men would follow. 

Susie took a deep breath. Then she ran to get bandages.

Susie King Taylor, 15, was anxious. She stared at the path leading into camp. She could hear rifle fire in the distance. It had kept her up all night in her tent. Now it was morning. She still smelled gunpowder on the breeze.

Where were they?

It was July 1864 on Morris Island in South Carolina. Days earlier, Susie had watched hundreds of Union Army troops march out of camp. A group of Southern states known as the Confederacy had broken away from the United States in 1861. The Confederacy was opposed to ideas of ending slavery. The Union Army was fighting to keep the nation together.

Susie knew some troops from her camp would never return. Like Susie, most of them had escaped slavery. The troops were among the first Black men to fight in the Civil War (1861-1865). A win for the Union Army would help secure freedom for millions of Black Americans. Susie felt proud to be part of the effort.

Her official job was washing uniforms. But Susie did much more. She taught the soldiers to read and write. And she cared for the wounded as one of the first Black Army nurses.

Suddenly, Susie heard cries of pain. She saw a few soldiers staggering toward the camp. Their uniforms were stained with mud and blood. She knew even more wounded men would follow.

Susie took a deep breath. Then she ran to get bandages.

Born Into Slavery 

GHI Vintage/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Taken in the 1860s, this is the only confirmed photo of Susie King Taylor. It was published in her book.

The fight for freedom was close to Susie’s heart. Born in August 1848, she spent her early years enslaved in coastal Georgia, on a plantation called Grest Farm. Her mother labored in the house. Susie might have been forced to work there too. However, her grandmother Dolly stepped in.

Dolly had once been enslaved on Grest Farm. For an unknown reason, the Grest family had allowed her to move to the nearby city of Savannah. Dolly lived independently, but the family remained her legal guardians. When Susie turned 7, the Grests let her move in with Dolly.

At the time, it was illegal for enslaved children to attend school. But Dolly sent Susie to a secret school in the home of a free Black woman. Susie made sure to enter only when no one was looking. She covered her books in newspaper to hide them from the police. If caught, both Susie and her teacher would face steep fines. They might also be whipped in public. 

The risks paid off. Susie mastered reading and writing at a time when only 5 percent of Black people in Georgia were literate. Yet she lived in fear. Would she be arrested for continuing to take lessons? Ordered back to the plantation? From her grandmother’s window, she sometimes saw other enslaved children being marched down the street to the auction block to be sold to the highest bidder. The terrible sight haunted her.

The fight for freedom was close to Susie’s heart. Susie was born in August 1848. She spent her early years enslaved on a plantation called Grest Farm. It was in coastal Georgia. Her mother labored in the house. Susie might have been forced to work there too. But her grandmother Dolly stepped in.

Dolly had once been enslaved on Grest Farm. For unknown reasons, the Grest family had let her move to the nearby city of Savannah. Dolly lived independently. But the family stayed her legal guardians. When Susie turned 7, the Grests let her move in with Dolly.

Back then, it was illegal for enslaved children to attend school. But Dolly sent Susie to a secret school in the home of a free Black woman. Susie made sure to enter only when no one was looking. She covered her books in newspaper to hide them from the police. If caught, both Susie and her teacher would face big fines. They might also be whipped in public.

The risks paid off. Susie mastered reading and writing. At the time, only 5 percent of Black people in Georgia were literate. Yet she lived in fear. Would she be arrested for taking lessons? Ordered back to the plantation? From her grandmother’s window, she sometimes saw other enslaved children being marched down the street to the auction block to be sold to the highest bidder. The terrible sight haunted her.

A Daring Escape

In the spring of 1862, when Susie was 13 years old, her life turned upside down. Police arrested Dolly. They accused her of plotting to become free. Immediately, Susie was sent back to Grest Farm.

The Civil War had started the year before, and Georgia—a Confederate state—was a key battleground. War supplies could be shipped in along its Atlantic coast. The Union wanted to block those supplies.  

Just days after Susie was forced back to Grest Farm, Union troops began a siege on nearby Fort Pulaski. Susie could hear the roar of cannons from the plantation. Like other enslaved people in the South, the teen faced a difficult decision. She could stay put and hope to be freed after the war. Or she could flee to territory controlled by the Union for a chance at freedom now. If she got caught, she would likely be brutally whipped—or worse. 

Susie decided to run. 

On April 13, she fled Grest Farm with her uncle and several cousins. Following the smell of the Atlantic Ocean’s salty sea air, the group scrambled 25 miles east to the Georgia coast. There, they were taken in by Union forces (nicknamed “Yankees” by Southerners). Susie later recalled the joy she felt.

“I wanted to see these wonderful ‘Yankees’ so much, as I heard my parents say the Yankee was going to set all the slaves free,” she wrote.

She would soon learn that wasn’t quite the case.

When Susie was 13, her life turned upside down. It was in the spring of 1862. Police arrested Dolly. They accused her of plotting to become free. Susie was sent back to Grest Farm at once.

The Civil War had started the year before. Georgia was a Confederate state—and a key battleground. War supplies could be shipped in along its Atlantic coast. The Union wanted to block those supplies.

Then Union troops began a siege on nearby Fort Pulaski. That was just days after Susie was sent back to Grest Farm. She could hear the roar of cannons from the plantation. Like other enslaved people in the South, the teen faced a tough decision. She could stay put and hope to be freed after the war. Or she could flee to territory controlled by the Union for a chance at freedom now. If she got caught, she would likely be brutally whipped—or worse.

Susie decided to run.

On April 13, she fled Grest Farm with her uncle and several cousins. They followed the smell of the Atlantic Ocean’s salty sea air. They traveled 25 miles east to the Georgia coast. There, they were taken in by Union forces (nicknamed “Yankees” by Southerners). Susie later recalled the joy she felt.

“I wanted to see these wonderful ‘Yankees’ so much, as I heard my parents say the Yankee was going to set all the slaves free,” she wrote.

She would soon learn that was not quite the case.

Susie King Taylor understood that knowing how to read and write could help Black Americans succeed after the war.

Setting Up School 

A Union boat took Susie and the others to nearby St. Simons Island. About 600 other formerly enslaved men, women, and children had also taken refuge there. Escaping slavery hadn’t made them completely free, however. The Union Army treated them as contraband, or property that had been taken from the Confederacy—not as people. 

Even worse, Susie and the others weren’t safe. Confederates sometimes snuck onto the island to kidnap Black people and return them to their enslavers.

There was a bright spot, though. After learning that Susie was educated, a Union officer gave her books to set up a school. She held class for 40 children every day and their parents at night.

Even as a teen, she understood that knowing how to read and write could help Black Americans succeed after the war, says historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar. Dunbar co-wrote the biography Susie King Taylor: Nurse, Teacher & Freedom Fighter.

“Susie believed in the power of literacy and knew that, without it, freedom was limited,” says Dunbar.

A Union boat took Susie and the others to nearby St. Simons Island. About 600 other formerly enslaved men, women, and children had also taken refuge there. But escaping slavery had not made them completely free. The Union Army treated them as contraband, or property that had been taken from the Confederacy. They were not treated as people.

Even worse, Susie and the others were not safe. Confederates sometimes snuck onto the island to kidnap Black people and return them to their enslavers.

But there was a bright spot. A Union officer learned that Susie was educated. So he gave her books to set up a school. She held class for 40 children every day. She taught their parents at night.

Even as a teen, Susie understood that knowing how to read and write could help Black Americans succeed after the war. That is according to historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar. Dunbar co-wrote a biography titled Susie King Taylor: Nurse, Teacher & Freedom Fighter.

“Susie believed in the power of literacy and knew that, without it, freedom was limited,” says Dunbar.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection/New York Public Library

Susie King Taylor supported this unit of soldiers, shown near Beaufort, South Carolina, in an undated photo.

Joining the Fight

On January 1, 1863, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The order formally freed the 3.5 million enslaved people in states that had withdrawn from the Union. 

It was official: Susie and the other escapees on St. Simons Island were no longer “contraband.” They held a barbecue to celebrate. “It was a glorious day for us all,” she wrote. 

Black men could now officially enlist in the Union Army (see "Black Troops on the Battlefield," below). But even before the proclamation, the men of St. Simons had organized into the 33rd United States Colored* Infantry Regiment. It was one of the war’s first Black units. 

*The term “colored” was once used to describe Black people. It is now considered outdated and offensive.

On January 1, 1863, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. That order formally freed the 3.5 million enslaved people in states that had withdrawn from the Union.

It was official: Susie and the other escapees on St. Simons Island were no longer “contraband.” They held a barbecue to celebrate. “It was a glorious day for us all,” she wrote.

Black men could now officially enlist in the Union Army (see sidebar, above). But even before the proclamation, the men of St. Simons had organized into the 33rd United States Colored* Infantry Regiment. It was one of the war’s first Black units.

*The term “colored” was once used to describe Black people. It is now considered outdated and offensive.

Black Troops on the Battlefield

After the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, the U.S. military began actively recruiting Black troops. “You will set an example of generous self-sacrifice which will conquer prejudice and open all hearts,” one recruitment poster promised. About 179,000 Black men enlisted as soldiers in the Union Army; another 19,000 joined the Navy. 

Though they were fighting for their country, Black troops were not treated equally compared to White troops. They typically served in segregated units. And they were paid $10 a month, with $3 taken out of their paychecks for uniforms. White soldiers received $13 per month with no such fee. In June 1864, Congress granted Black troops equal pay, along with the back wages they were owed.

Black troops served honorably despite the challenges. During the Civil War, 26 Black Americans earned the Medal of Honor for courage in battle.

After the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, the U.S. military began actively recruiting Black troops. “You will set an example of generous self-sacrifice which will conquer prejudice and open all hearts,” one recruitment poster promised. About 179,000 Black men enlisted as soldiers in the Union Army; another 19,000 joined the Navy. 

Though they were fighting for their country, Black troops were not treated equally compared to White troops. They typically served in segregated units. And they were paid $10 a month, with $3 taken out of their paychecks for uniforms. White soldiers received $13 per month with no such fee. In June 1864, Congress granted Black troops equal pay, along with the back wages they were owed.

Black troops served honorably despite the challenges. During the Civil War, 26 Black Americans earned the Medal of Honor for courage in battle.

Susie, now 15, traveled with the 33rd through Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. She washed laundry. She cleaned weapons. She packed ammunition into boxes. She filled canteens and portioned out meals of salted beef. Plus, she taught reading and writing to off-duty troops. 

Like many Black women working for the Union, Susie was paid nothing. As she later wrote, “I gave my services willingly for four years and three months without receiving a dollar.”

Susie was now 15. She traveled with the 33rd through Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. She washed laundry. She cleaned weapons. She packed ammunition into boxes. She filled canteens and portioned out meals of salted beef. She even taught reading and writing to off-duty troops.

Like many Black women working for the Union, Susie was paid nothing. As she later wrote, “I gave my services willingly for four years and three months without receiving a dollar.”

Teen Nurse

As the war dragged on, the number of sick and wounded soldiers grew. There simply weren’t enough medical personnel to care for everyone. So volunteers like Susie took on yet another role, as nurses. The teen bandaged wounds, held damp cloths to fevered foreheads, and cobbled together ingredients for soup. 

“Anything that needed to be done was often done by a nurse,” says Terry Reimer of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. 

Susie now felt much older than her 15 years. She had seen sickening injuries and watched people die. One day, she came upon several skulls in the road. She calmly moved them out of her path.

“I had become accustomed to worse things,” she later wrote. 

As the war dragged on, the number of sick and wounded soldiers grew. There simply were not enough medical workers to care for everyone. So volunteers like Susie took on yet another role, as nurses. The teen bandaged wounds. She held damp cloths to fevered foreheads. She managed to find ingredients for soup.

“Anything that needed to be done was often done by a nurse,” says Terry Reimer of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Susie now felt much older than her 15 years. She had seen sickening injuries. She had watched people die. One day, she came upon several skulls in the road. She calmly moved them out of her path.

“I had become accustomed to worse things,” she later wrote.

Not Forgotten

After four long years and about 620,000 deaths, the Civil War ended in the spring of 1865. The Union had won, yet some Confederates refused to stop fighting. As a result, Susie’s unit battled on for nearly a year after the Confederacy surrendered. 

Formerly enslaved people began new free lives. Susie returned to Savannah and started her own school, charging $1 a month per student to cover the costs. But a free school opened about a year later, putting her school out of business. 

In 1866, Susie’s husband, Edward King—who she had married during the war—died. Susie raised their son alone. Unable to find a steady teaching job, she worked as a cook and house cleaner. 

When Susie remarried in 1879, she gained some financial security. She devoted herself to advocating for Civil War veterans. Susie worried that people had forgotten about the war and those who had served.  

Urged on by the soldiers she had once worked with, Susie penned her wartime memories. Her book, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp, was published in 1902. Historians believe it is the only Civil War memoir about Army life written by a Black woman.