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Susie King Taylor, b. 1848
Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops Late 1st S. C. Volunteers
Boston: The author, 1902.

Summary

Most of what is known about Susie (Baker) King Taylor derives from her memoir, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops Late 1st S.C. Volunteers. She was born into slavery on August 8, 1848, on Grest Farm, Isle of Wight, off the coast of Georgia. At age seven, she moved to Savannah to live with her maternal grandmother, who encouraged her to attend a clandestine school. When Taylor was 14, she escaped with her uncle's family to the Union-controlled St. Catherine Island. Shortly thereafter, Taylor relocated to St. Simons Island, where she opened a school for African American children and adults. Taylor married Sergeant Edward King of the South Carolina Volunteers (later the 33rd U.S. Colored Infantry) and traveled with him as the regiment's laundress, although she also served as cook, teacher, and nurse. Scholar Victoria Sherrow lists her as a Civil War spy, but this information appears unconfirmed (p. 269). After the war, Taylor settled in Savannah, Georgia, with her husband, who was killed in an accident shortly before the birth of their son. Taylor spent much of the remainder of her life in the North, serving as a teacher, domestic servant, and cook. In 1879, Taylor married Russell L. Taylor, about whom little is known. He died in 1901, the year before Taylor published her memoir. Despite her work during the Civil War and her subsequent dedication to political and social reform, Taylor died in relative obscurity in 1912.

Taylor begins Reminiscences with a startling statement: "My great-great-grandmother was 120 years old when she died" (p. 1). The accuracy of Taylor's claim seems less important than her focus on the tenacity of her female relatives, including a great-grandmother who bore twenty-three girls and one boy. Taylor's admiration for women may have stemmed from her close relationship with her grandmother, Dolly. Dolly, with whom Taylor lives for much of her childhood, supports Taylor's education, sending her to an illegal school run by a free African American woman, Mrs. Woodhouse. After learning all she could from Mrs. Woodhouse, Taylor continues her education under the tutelage of various "teachers," both white and black, including playmates, and the son of her grandmother's landlord. Her education ends when she is forced to return to her mother on the Isle of Wight after Dolly is arrested at a suburban church meeting for singing freedom hymns. There Taylor can hear Union soldiers firing on Fort Pulaski. Two days after the fort is taken by Union forces, Taylor flees with her uncle and his family to St. Catherine Island, where they receive Union protection and a transfer to St. Simons Island. Taylor impresses the commanding officers with her ability to read and write and is offered a position running a school for children and adults on the island.

For much of the remainder of the narrative, Taylor focuses on military life—both her own experiences and the actions of her husband's regiment. She recounts her 1862 relocation to Beaufort, South Carolina, where she serves as laundress. (Although she mentions him only in passing, it can be assumed that she had married her first husband, Sgt. Edward King, before or around this time.) She describes numerous battles and intersperses these accounts with personal stories and commentary on life in the South. She relates that the "first colored troops did not receive any pay for eighteen months" and that she herself "gave [her] services willingly for four years and three months without receiving a dollar" (pp. 16, 21). She also tells of a smallpox outbreak, deserters who joined the Union soldiers because they "had no negroes to fight for," and the fun the regiment had with a well-trained pig who learned to "march out with them, keeping perfect time with their music" (pp. 25, 36). Taylor also recounts the "glorious day" of the public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation (p. 18).

Although officially a laundress, Taylor admits that she "did very little of it" as she spends considerable time teaching and tending to the soldiers (p. 35). Through her nursing experiences and the horrors of war, Taylor discovers new depths of human compassion: "It seems strange how our aversion to seeing suffering is overcome in war, --how we are able to see the most sickening sights, such as men with their limbs blown off and mangled by the deadly shells, without a shudder, and instead of turning away, how we hurry to assist in alleviating their pain . . . with feelings only of sympathy and pity" (pp. 31-32).

After the war, Taylor settles in Savannah with her husband and opens a school for African American children. Despite her husband's expertise as a carpenter, he is unable to find work because of his race, so he works at a pier, unloading ships. Though Taylor offers few details about King's death in 1866, scholars have noted that he died in a work-related accident at the pier. Taylor is left to "welcome a little stranger [her son] alone" (p. 54). Around the time of her husband's death, she is also forced to close her school when a free school opens nearby. Taylor's repeated attempts to establish and maintain other schools end in much the same way. In order to support herself and her son, she takes various positions as a domestic servant, forcing her to leave her son with her mother in the South. She eventually settles in Boston, marrying Russell L. Taylor in 1879. Because her "interest in the boys in blue had not abated" during her post-Civil War years, she helps to organize Corps 67 of the Women's Relief Corps, receiving recognition for her efforts in generating a roster of Union veterans in Massachusetts (p. 59).

Taylor's memoir ends with her "Thoughts on Present Conditions" and a description of the death of her son. She rails against still-prevalent racism, observing, "we cannot sing 'My country, 'tis of thee, Sweet land of Liberty'! It is a hollow mockery" (pp. 61, 62). While she finds hope in the North, she condemns much of the South. While traveling to Shreveport, Louisiana, to retrieve her dying son, she is forced to ride on the "car for colored people," harassed by constables because of her race, and sees a hanged African American man. (p. 69). Unable to secure a sleeper berth because of her race, she cannot fulfill her son's wish to die at home. She remains in Shreveport with her son but admits that "It seemed very hard, when his father fought to protect the Union and our flag, and yet his boy was denied, under this same flag, a berth to carry him home to die, because he was a negro" (p. 71-72). Despite her trials, Taylor concludes her memoir with both hope and a demand: "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 should never be polluted" (p. 75-76).

Works Consulted: Blain, Virginia, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy, eds., The Feminist Companion to Literature in English: Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990, 1060; Catherine Clinton, "Susie King Taylor: A Black Woman's Civil War," Forgotten Heroes: Inspiring American Portraits from our Leading Historians, ed. Susan Ware, New York: Free Press, 1998, 95-102; Fleming, John E., "Taylor, Susie King," Dictionary of American Negro Biography, eds. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1982, 581-582; Moody, Jocelyn K., "Susie King Taylor," Dictionary of Literary Biography, eds. Sharon M. Harris, Heidi L.M. Jacobs, Jennifer Putzi, Detroit: Bruccoli Clark Layman, 1978, 339-346; Moody, Jocelyn K., "Taylor, Susie King," The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, eds. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, Trudier Harris, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, 712-713; Reef, Catherine, African Americans in the Military, New York: Facts on File, 2004, 191-193; Romero, Patricia W., "Taylor, Susie Baker King," Black Women in America: an Historical Encyclopedia, ed. Darlene Clark Hine, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, 217-218; Sherrow, Victoria, Women and the Military: an Encyclopedia, Denver: ABC-CLIO, 1996, 269; Smith, Jessie Carney, Notable Black American Women, Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.

Meredith Malburne

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