Left: A young Susie King Taylor. Middle: Taylor’s school in Savannah. Right: Taylor in 1902. (Library of Congress)
Born enslaved in 1848, as a child Susan Ann Baker was allowed to reside with her grandmother Dolly in Savannah. There, with her grandmother sending her to an illegal school for African-Americans, Susie learned how to read and write. Her illegal education process ended with the arrest of her grandmother for singing freedom hymns. Sent back to her mother in Fort Pulaski, the family soon fled to St. Catherines Island for Union protection before being transfered to St. Simons Island. Impressed with her ability to read and write, commanding officers offered her an opportunity to organize a school for the former enslaved.
Here, she met Edward King, who like her brother, was a noncommissioned officer in the First South Carolina Volunteers of African Descent. Eventually, 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. This expedition was intended to secure Unionist sentiment in the area and attract escaped enslaved, who could then be recruited as soldiers.
Marrying King, she followed this regiment, serving as the country’s first Black Army nurse while also teaching soldiers how to read and write during their off-duty hours despite never being paid for her work. A Georgia Women of Achievement 2018 inductee, Susie eventually published a memoir of her wartime experiences, becoming the only African-American woman to achieve this accomplishment.
Within this document, she provides a vivid account of experiencing the city as an African-American fighting for equality and against the confederacy. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, here is a look at her time in Jacksonville.
Members of the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops. (Library of Congress)
Military Expeditions, And Life In Camp
By Susie King Taylor
In the latter part of 1862 the regiment made an expedition into Darien, Georgia, and up the Ridge, and on January 23, 1863, another up St. Mary’s River, capturing a number of stores for the government; then on to Fernandina, Florida. They were gone ten or twelve days, at the end of which time they returned to camp.
March 10, 1863, we were ordered to Jacksonville, Florida. Leaving Camp Saxton between four and five o’clock, we arrived at Jacksonville about eight o’clock next morning, accompanied by three or four gunboats. When the rebels saw these boats, they ran out of the city, leaving the women behind, and we found out afterwards that they thought we had a much larger fleet than we really had. Our regiment was kept out of sight until we made fast at the wharf where it landed, and while the gunboats were shelling up the river and as far inland as possible, the regiment landed and marched up the street, where they spied the rebels who had fled from the city. They were hiding a house about a mile or so away, their faces blackened to disguise themselves as negroes, and our boys, as they advanced toward them, halted a second, saying, “They are black men! Let them come to us, or we will make them know who we are.” With this, the firing was opened and several of our men were wounded and killed. The rebels had a number wounded and killed. It was through this way the discovery was made that they were white men. Our men drove them some distance in retreat and then threw out their pickets.
While the fighting was on, a friend, Lizzie Lancaster, and I stopped at several of the rebel homes, and after talking with some of the women and children we asked them if they had any food. They claimed to have only some hard-tack, and evidently did not care to give us anything to eat, but this was not surprising. They were bitterly against our people and had no mercy or sympathy for us.
The second day, our boys were reinforced by a regiment of white soldiers, a Maine regiment and by cavalry, and had quite a fight. On the third day, Edward Herron, who was a fine gunner on the steamer John Adams, came on shore, bringing a small cannon, which the men pulled along for more than five miles. This cannon was the only piece for shelling. On coming upon the enemy, all secured their places, and they had a lively fight, which lasted several hours, and they had a lively fight, which lasted several hours, and our boys were nearly captured by the Confederates; but the Union boys carried out all their plans that day, and succeeded in driving the enemy back. After this skirmish, every afternoon between four and five o’clock the Confederate General Finegan would send a flag of truce to Colonel Higginson, warning him to send all women and children out of the city, and threatening to bombard it if this was not done. Our colonel allowed all to go who wished, at first, but as General Finegan grew more hostile and kept sending these communications for nearly a week, Colonel Higginson thought it not best or necessary to send any more out of the city, and so informed General Finegan. This angered the general, for that night the rebels shelled directly toward Colonel Higginson’s headquarters. The shelling was so heavy that the colonel told my captain to have me taken up into the town to a hotel, which was used as a hospital. As my quarters were just in the rear of the colonel’s, he was compelled to leave his also before the night was over. I expected every moment to be killed by a shell, but on arriving at the hospital I knew I was safe, for the shells could not reach us there. It was plainly to be seen now, the ruse of the flag of truce coming so often to us. The bearer was evidently a spy getting the location of the headquarters, etc., for the shells were sent too accurately to be at random.
Next morning Colonel Higginson took the cavalry and a regiment on another tramp after the rebels. They were gone several days and had the hardest fight they had, for they wanted to go as far as a station which was some distance from the city. The gunboats were of little assistance to them, yet notwithstanding this drawback our boys returned with only a few killed and wounded, and after this we were not troubled with General Finegan. l Source: Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops Late 1st S.C. Volunteers, Susie King Taylor, 1902
Colonel Thomas W. Higginson. (Library of Congress)
The regiment would later return to Jacksonville in February 1864 where its designation would officially be changed to 33rd U. S. Colored Troops on February 8th. Following the civil war and the death of King she opened schools in Savannah and Midway, Georgia, moved to Boston and remarried, only returning to the south occasionally.
Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at firstname.lastname@example.org