Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A unique book of Civil War memoirs

A Black Woman's Civil War Memoirs, Susie King Taylor
 Patricia W. Romero & Willie Lee Rose, eds.

The original title of this book, privately published in 1902, is Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops, Late 1st South Carolina Volunteers.  I can see why it was re-named for the edited edition I read, published in 1988.  As with Sarah Emma Edmonds' memoirs, the new title highlights what makes this book so special. Willie Lee Rose writes in her introduction,
There is nothing even vaguely resembling Susie King Taylor's small volume of random recollections in the entire literature of the Civil War, or in that of any other American conflict insofar as I am aware.  These are the memoirs of a black woman who was born a slave, who had the good fortune to gain her freedom early in the war, with the education and ability to observe and the will to recall in later years, the significance of the events in which she was a vigorous participant.
In an introduction to the original edition, the colonel of the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops wrote along similar lines:
Actual military life is rarely described by a woman, and this is especially true of a woman whose place is in the ranks, as the wife of a solider and herself a regimental laundress. No such description has ever been given, I am sure, by one thus connected with a colored regiment; so that the nearly 200,000 black soldiers (178,975) of our Civil War have never before been delineated from the woman's point of view.
Susie King Taylor was born in Georgia in 1848.  She was raised in Savannah by her grandmother, who defied the laws against educating slaves to send both the young Susie and her brother to an underground school.  This early education would prove crucial in her later life.  In early 1862, she was sent back to her owners' country plantation.  There her uncle took her with his own family as they escaped toward the Union soldiers then occupying the Georgia coast.  The coastal Sea Islands were full of cotton plantations, and as white southerners fled from the Yankees, the slaves stayed behind.  Though there was some controversy over their exact status, these African Americans were effectively free of slavery from that point on.  Susie King Taylor immediately found work in teaching both children and adults, though she was only 14 herself.

The small communities of newly free people were vulnerable to raids by Confederate forces, who took anyone they captured back into slavery.  The men gathered together what defenses they could.  Eventually they were recruited into the Federal army, as one of the first regiments of black soldiers.  Susie King Taylor married a sergeant in the regiment, Edward King, which led to her enrollment as a laundress.  But she did much more than that, in teaching the men to read and write, and in nursing them.  She traveled with the regiment on a campaign down to Florida, and she was with them when they marched in to occupy Charleston in February of 1865.  There, where the war began, black troops were among the first to enter the surrendered city, where they helped fight a raging fire set by the retreating Confederates.

After the war, Susie King Taylor settled with her husband in Savannah, where she opened a school for black children.  After her husband died, she supported herself and a child by teaching, but also by working as a cook and a laundress. Eventually she moved to Boston, where she lived the rest of her life.  She continued to devote herself to the soldiers of the war, both black and white.  She helped organize a branch of the Women's Relief Corps, the sister organization of the veterans' Grand Army of the Republic, which assisted vets in need.  She wrote quite scathingly about people who had forgotten the soldiers' sacrifices in the war.

This is a short book, certainly not an in-depth account of the author's experiences in slavery or in the Civil War.  I agree with the editors, though, that it is fascinating.  It is full of wonderful details, like Confederate attempts to frighten slaves away from the Yankees with posters in the streets, showing them as rattlesnakes and wildcats, too dangerous to approach. ("Certainly not!" her grandmother told her.)  I appreciated the editors' careful notes, which provide a lot of context for her account.  The last sections of the book deal with the state of race relations at the time, and I found those chapters very moving.  She wrote of the horrors of lynching (the editors note that at least 85 African Americans were lynched in 1902, the year her book was published).  Susie King Taylor also reported a trip she took to Louisiana, after learning her son was gravely ill there.  Living in Massachusetts for twenty years left her unprepared for the racism that she faced every moment in the south.  She was unable to bring her dying son home with her, because blacks could not travel on the sleeping cars and he was too weak to sit up in the regular seats.  "It seemed very hard," she wrote, "when his father fought to protect the Union and our flag, and yet this boy was denied, under this same flag, a berth to carry him home to die, because he was a negro."

Susie King Taylor ended her book with a plea:
[B]ut now, despite all the hindrances and "race problems," my people are striving to attain the full standard of all other races born free in the sight of God, and in a number of instances have succeeded.  Justice we ask - to be citizens of these United States, where so many of our people have shed their blood with their white comrades, that the stars and stripes shall never be polluted.

Let the people say, Amen.


  1. This sounds like a fascinating read...History in a person's own words is so much more real! (that doesn't quite make sense but hopefully you know what I mean)

    1. Absolutely! It's the "I was there & I saw it" element. That's why I also love reading books of letters & journals (and a big reason I work in archives).

  2. Sounds absolutely great--I really like memoirs, and this one is extraordinary in being by a black woman with the military during the Civil War.

    I love the way you find these gems. Interesting review.

    1. Jane, I thought this might be something that you would enjoy! The title of it just jumped out at me from a shelf of Civil War books.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!