In honor of Veteran’s Day, we celebrate the sacrifice of a little known black female service member, Susie Baker-King. She was the first African American Army nurse. She lived to provide the only eyewitness report by a black woman who was an active participant during the early part of the Civil War. In 1862, she was a mere 14 years old when she earned her freedom by enlisting in the union Army. Her post was with one of the first black regiments of the Civil War, the First South Carolina Volunteers. The regiment was under the leadership of Colonel Thomas Higginson who was a well-known white abolitionist and Army officer.
Mrs. Baker-King described her service by stating, “I was enrolled as company laundress, but I did very little of it, because I was always busy doing other things throughout camp and was employed all the time doing something for the officers and comrades.” Additionally, she could read and write, and she taught many of the troops to do the same.
The war ended in 1865 and she married and lived a full life. In 1902, she published a memoir called Reminiscence of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers, which included a forward by Colonel Higginson.
Indigo Thread shares an excerpt from Mrs. Baker-King’s book below in honor of her life and work supporting U.S. service members during the Civil War.
The fourth day, about five o’clock in the afternoon, the call was sounded, and I heard the first sergeant say, “Fall in, boys, fall in, “ and they were not long obeying the command. Each company marched out of its street, in front of their colonel’s headquarters, where they rested for half an hour, as it was not dark enough, and they did not want the enemy to have a chance to spy their movements. At the end of this time the line was formed with the 103d New York (white) in the rear, and off they started, eager to get to work. It was quite dark by the time they reached Pawnell Landing. I have never forgotten the good-byes of that day, as they left camp. Colonel Trowbridge said to me as he left, “Good-bye, Mrs. King, take care of yourself if you don’t see us again.” I went with them until they got out of sight, and then I returned to the camp. There was no one at camp but those left on picket and a few disabled soldiers, and one woman, a friend of mine, Mary Shaw, and it was lonesome and sad, now that the boys were gone, some never to return…
When the wounded arrived, or rather began to arrive, the first one brought in was Samuel Anderson of our company. He was badly wounded. Then others of our boys, some with their legs off, arm gone, foot off, and wounds of all kinds imaginable.
My work now began. I gave my assistance to try to alleviate their sufferings…My services were given at all times for the comfort of these men. I was on hand to assist whenever needed.
Susie Baker-King’s story is one of courage and service. Her efforts, though not often mentioned in the history books, are significant and ought to move us all to hold true to a phrase that inspired her: “Nothing ventured, nothing done.”
Indigo Thread: Women of Vision and Purpose is a column on Orijin Blog and Magazine. The column focuses on Black women in the media and other areas of society, including social, cultural, economic and spiritual. The blog appears on Wednesdays, and the magazine version of the column appears in each edition of the publication. It is written by anthropologist and actress, Michelle Flowers, who is based in Los Angeles, CA.