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From a Secret School to Becoming the First Black Army Nurse of the Civil War

Susie King Taylor's extraordinary life is captured in her memoir, one of the most detailed accounts ever written by a woman about life in a Civil War camp.

When Susie King Taylor was born in 1848, it was illegal to educate African Americans in Georgia but she learned to read and write thanks to a secret school. That gift of literacy would allow her to become a trailblazing teacher in her teens and, later, the first black Army nurse during the U.S. Civil War; an experience she shared in her remarkable memoir about life in a Union camp. Today, more than a century later, her words show her fortitude and determination to make a contribution to the war effort. "I gave my service willingly for four years and three months without receiving a dollar," she wrote, adding that she was glad "to be allowed to go with the regiment, to care for the sick and afflicted comrades."

Taylor was born in slavery in Liberty County, Georgia and, when she was seven years old, her owner granted permission for her to live with her grandmother, Dolly Reed, in Savannah. Reed had a passionate belief in the importance of education, so she sent her granddaughter to a secret school run by a free African American woman, Mrs. Woodhouse. "We went every day about 9 o’clock, with our books wrapped in paper to prevent the police or white persons from seeing them," Taylor later recalled. "After school we left the same way we entered, one by one. The neighbors would see us going in sometimes, but they supposed we were learning trades, as it was the custom to give children a trade of some kind."

Taylor quickly learned all she could from the school, and continued her education in secret with the help of various "teachers," including two white youths who knowingly broke the law to teach her. Taylor's life was upended, however, after her grandmother was arrested for singing freedom hymns at a church meeting and Taylor was forced to return to live with her mother on the Isle of Wight.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Taylor fled to Union-controlled St. Simons Island. Her ability to read and write brought her to the attention of Union officers who asked the teenager if she would organize a school if they could obtain books and materials. She gladly agreed and, at age 14, Taylor became the first black teacher for freed African-Americans at a freely operating school in Georgia. She taught 40 children in a day school and, as she wrote in her memoir, “a number of adults who came to me nights, all of them so eager to learn to read, to read above anything else.”

Soon after, she married Edward King, an African-American non-commissioned officer stationed there with the First South Carolina Volunteers of African Descent. When the island was evacuated in 1862, she opted to follow his regiment as a nurse. For three years, she served as a nurse and laundress for the regiment, and taught many black soldiers to read and write in their off-duty hours. After the war was over, Taylor and her husband returned to Savannah where she established another school for freed African-American children. Sadly, her husband died shortly afterward, and the opening of a free school nearby forced Taylor to close hers. Seeking new opportunities, she traveled to Boston as the domestic servant of a wealthy family and remarried in 1879.

More than ten years later — and over thirty years after the end of the Civil War — Taylor wrote one of the most detailed memoirs ever written by a woman about life in a Civil War camp. Her memoir, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp, was also the only memoir ever written by an African-American woman about her experience during the Civil War. Taylor died in 1912, but her memoir remains to remind us of the important role of black troops, as well as the often unrecognized role that women played during the Civil War: “There were loyal women, as well as men, in those days who did not fear the shell or the shot, who cared for the sick and the dying.”

Books About Courageous Civil War Women

Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School

Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School

Written by: Janet Halfmann
Illustrated by: London Ladd
Recommended Age: 6 - 9

As an enslaved child in Kentucky, Lilly Ann Granderson learned to read from her master's children as they played school, and she passed on what she learned to others on the plantation. When she was sold to a plantation in Mississippi, she learned that it was illegal for enslaved people to learn to read and write, and the punishment was brutal: thirty-nine lashes. Granderson was still determined to teach others, however, so she formed a secret night school, despite the risks, and taught hundreds of people. This inspiring story about a little-known champion of literacy captures Granderson's unwavering belief in the power and importance of education.

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History

Written by: Vashti Harrison
Illustrated by: Vashti Harrison
Recommended Age: 6 - 10

Throughout American history, there were bold, daring black women who broke all expectations and boundaries to make the world a better place! In this engaging picture book, author/illustrator Vashti Harrison introduces young readers to forty trailblazing women, including abolitionist Sojourner Truth, pilot Bessie Coleman, chemist Alice Ball, politician Shirley Chisholm, mathematician Katherine Johnson, poet Maya Angelou, and filmmaker Julie Dash. This inspiring book, filled with stunning full-page illustrations of each of the featured women, reminds young readers that every great leader began as a little leader, taking their first steps towards something big. Younger readers can also enjoy the board book Dream Big, Little One for ages 2 to 5.

Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters

Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters

Written by: Andrea Davis Pinkney
Illustrated by: Stephen Alcorn
Recommended Age: 8 - 12

Ten women who contributed to the fight for equal rights, from Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman during the time of slavery to Rosa Parks and Dorothy Height during the Civil Rights era, each get their own profile in this inspiring book. Andrea Davis Pinkney's text bursts with admiration for these dedicated campaigners for abolition, desegregation, and women's rights, while her use of colloquialisms and vivid description will have kids flipping the pages to find out what happens. Each profile is accented by a dramatic, stylized portrait from Alcorn. This lively book will bring history to life for young readers.

Memoir of Susie King Taylor: A Civil War Nurse

Memoir of Susie King Taylor: A Civil War Nurse

Written by: Pamela Dell
Recommended Age: 9 - 12

Susie King Taylor was born enslaved in a state where teaching a slave was against the law — but courageous people ran secret schools where she learned to read and write. When the Civil War broke out, even though she was only a teenager, that ability allowed her to teach other freed African American citizens. She also served for years as an unpaid nurse for one of the Union's black regiments. She would become the only African American woman to write a memoir about her Civil War experience. In this first-person account, tweens will see through Taylor's eyes, gaining new perspective on the lives of black women during her day.

Heroism Begins With Her: Inspiring Stories of Bold, Brave, and Gutsy Women in the U.S. Military

Heroism Begins With Her: Inspiring Stories of Bold, Brave, and Gutsy Women in the U.S. Military

Written by: Winifred Conkling
Illustrated by: Julia Kuo
Recommended Age: 9 and up

From the first days of American history, women have served in the United States military — but too often, their contributions were minimized or overlooked. As Revolutionary War and Civil War soldiers, they had to disguise themselves as men to fight, and even in the 20th century, they were often sidelined, even as they fought to break down barriers and prove they belonged alongside their male counterparts. In this beautifully illustrated book, author Winnifred Conkling introduces readers to courageous women past and present — from Harriet Tubman to Tammy Duckworth — who proudly joined the defense of their nation.

Courageous Women of the Civil War: Soldiers, Spies, Medics, and More

Courageous Women of the Civil War: Soldiers, Spies, Medics, and More

Written by: M. R. Cordell
Recommended Age: 12 and up

The Civil War captured the nation in patriotic fervor — and for many women, staying home and gathering supplies was not enough. Some of them defied all convention so that they could take on unconventional roles, often on the front lines. In this exciting book from the Women of Action series, teens will read 16 stories of soldiers, spies, medics, and more, including Susie King Taylor's tale of joining her husband's regiment as an unpaid nurse. With plenty of sidebars to offer context, this book will create a fuller picture of the role of women in the Civil War.

Reminiscences of My Life in Camp: An African American Woman's Civil War Memoir

Reminiscences of My Life in Camp: An African American Woman's Civil War Memoir

Written by: Susie King Taylor
Recommended Age: Adults

When Susie King Taylor wrote her memoir in 1902, she had no idea that it would be the only account of the Civil War from the perspective of an African American woman. In this reproduction of the original edition of her book, Taylor describes not just life as an unpaid and untrained Union Army nurse, but also her childhood, learning to read and write in a secret school for slaves, and her efforts after the war to support black Southerners and Army veterans — and the racism she faced in doing so. With an introduction by Catherine Clinton giving context to Taylor's story, this book will give adult readers a unique look at Civil War history through the eyes of an often forgotten group.

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