A BLACK WOMAN’S CIVIL WAR MEMOIRS, by Susie King Taylor. 154 pages, illustrated. Markus Weiner paperback, $9.95
Susie King Taylor was a woman when she wrote these memoirs in 1902, but a girl during the Civil War – just 14 when the Yankee army occupied the Sea Islands and she crossed their lines.
She did a woman’s work, though. Officially a laundress, she was mostly a teacher and nurse for the soldiers of the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first formation of black soldiers raised by the Union. She married a sergeant, but we don’t learn much about him or, indeed, much of anything personal to her – not until the 1890s.
These brief remembrances, self-published as “My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops Late 1st S.C Volunteers” read more like a diary and were intended to perpetuate the story of the service of the black soldiers, to whom she remained devoted all her life. (Which ended in 1912, one of many facts we might have wished the editors to have included, but they didn’t.)
It is not a specially good memoir but it is the only one we have from a black woman in the war. Nevertheless, we can learn a good deal from it.
There are occasional glimpses of the girl, as when the soldiers hold a big barbecue, which is good but not as good as it would have been “at home” in Savannah.
Susie Baker King Taylor was born a slave but apparently was free in 1862. We are not told how that came about.
We learn a little, but not much, about how she learned to read and write, an unusual accomplishment at the time. Because the soldiers – some escaped slaves, some free blacks; some volunteers, some pressed – wanted so much to learn to read, she was important in the camp.
The most interesting parts of the book are not her wartime experiences, but her “Thoughts on Present Conditions” and her account of a mission to her dying son in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1898.
She had been living in Boston, where racial harmony was cherished by many, and she was shocked by what she found in the Jim Crow South. Her account is restrained but the anguish comes through.
She was not allowed to take her boy home to die, because he was too sick to sit up in the railroad car but was not allowed to hire a berth.
Her testament of faith that her country would eventually do the right thing was misplaced but makes for inspiring reading, if you’re into that sort of thing.