Susie King Taylor: The Courage of an African American Nurse and Teacher

Below is an interview with Elizabeth Lindqwister, the summer 2019 Liljenquist Family Fellow, and Prints & Photographs Division staff members, Karen Chittenden and Micah Messenheimer, about creating a Story Map focusing on the Civil War experience of Susie King Taylor.

Many courageous people are pulling double and triple duty in this time of quarantine for the COVID-19 pandemic. More than ever, it is time to honor nurses. For National Nurses Week, we are highlighting this pivotal role with a Story Map about a daring Civil War African American nurse and teacher, Susie King Taylor, who also served in extraordinary times.

The Susie King Taylor: An African American Nurse and Teacher in the Civil War Story Map was created by Elizabeth Lindqwister. We talked with Liz about how she drew on her interest in history as an undergraduate student at Stanford University and her background in digital humanities to craft Taylor’s own writings into a compelling visual story.

Susie King Taylor, known as the first African American Army nurse. Frontispiece of Reminiscences of My Life in Camp. Published, 1902. //

Susie King Taylor, known as the first African American Army nurse. Frontispiece of Reminiscences of My Life in Camp. Published, 1902. //

Q: What about Susie King Taylor sparked your interest?

A: I became interested in Susie King Taylor early in my internship, after looking at photographs of nurses that were recently added to the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs. I understood that the majority of the well-known women tended to be white, and often came from affluent or otherwise privileged backgrounds. Susie was one of the only non-white nurses in the collection, and after reading her memoir, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp, I came to understand that her time serving with a black Union regiment contributed to a wartime experience that was not well-documented in this period. Featuring Susie would challenge and diversify the historiography of Civil War nursing, and I wanted to elevate her voice just as historians had done with other nurses.

Cover <em> Reminiscences of My Life in Camp.</em> By Susie King Taylor, 1902. //

Cover of Reminiscences of My Life in Camp. By Susie King Taylor, 1902. //

Q: What led you to present her history in a Story Map?

A: I wanted to translate her narrative from words alone to something an audience could engage with visually. Susie was an incredibly talented writer, so I saw an opportunity to select meaningful quotes from her memoir. Even though the Prints & Photographs Division holds only one portrait of Susie, I knew the Library’s rich collections contained images of people and places she encountered in her life. And when I found out the Library had published similar projects using Esri Story Maps, the decision to use the platform to combine visual storytelling with the written story was obvious.

Screenshot from Susie King Taylor: An African American Nurse and Teacher in the Civil War

Screenshot from Susie King Taylor: An African American Nurse and Teacher in the Civil War.

Q: What were some surprising things you uncovered during your research?

A: I was surprised to realize that Susie’s duties as a “nurse” extended far beyond our contemporary understanding of nursing. She carried out the usual healthcare duties—dressing wounds, caring for the sick, etc.—but she also served as a laundress, cook, weapons-cleaner, and educator. The latter role was something Susie became known for, as she taught reading and writing to fugitive slaves, soldiers in the regiment, and later operated schools for African American children and adults in the postwar South. So her historical title as “laundress” tended to undercut the extent of the work she actually did in the war.

“[Captain Trowbridge] found me at Gaston Bluff teaching my little school, and was much interested in it.”

Smith Plantation, Port Royal Island, S.C. Albumen print stereograph by Hubbard & Mix, between 1863 and June 1866. //

Smith Plantation, Port Royal Island, S.C. Albumen print stereograph by Hubbard & Mix, between 1863 and June 1866. The regiment Susie traveled alongside, the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment, was based at Camp Saxton, located on the Smith Plantation in Port Royal, South Carolina. Lieutenant Colonel Charles T. Trowbridge was the regiment’s commander. //

Q: How has this project shaped your future work and projects?

A: This project was such an eye-opening example of how graphics and photography can be used to drive important historical arguments. Since this summer, I’ve begun planning for my honors thesis—which similarly focuses on gender and women’s roles in wartime America—and many of the sources I’m consulting are visual.

Seeing just how nuanced and different Susie King Taylor’s narrative was from the histories of other Civil War nurses pushed me to constantly look for what perspectives and narratives are absent. These lessons in historical methodology will apply to any period I study in the future and have already changed the way I engage with history.

Q: What other projects did you work on as a Liljenquist fellow?

A: Though the Susie King Taylor Story Map served as a “capstone” to my summer, I primarily wrote short biographies on other Civil War nurses in the Liljenquist collection. The collection includes images of many well-known nurses—Clara Barton, for example—and the research for those was pretty straightforward. In other cases, the collection has only a portrait of a nurse, her name, and her hospital location—nothing else. Those projects were the most time-intensive and difficult to work on, since the secondary literature for nurses is also particularly thin, but they were definitely the most rewarding.

Drapery study for figure of Music, Library of Congress. Drawing by Kenyon Cox, circa 1896. //

Annie Etheridge, Civil War nurse of 3rd Michigan Infantry Regiment with Kearny Cross medal. Hand-colored tintype by Lothrop’s Ferrotype Gallery, between 1863 and 1865. //

Union nurse Clara Barton. Albumen carte de visite by Charles R. B. Claflin, circa 1865. //

Cynthia R. Tuell Denham, Civil War nurse at Lovell General Hospital, U.S.A., Portsmouth Grove. Albumen carte de visite by Joshua Appleby Williams, between 1862 and 1865. //

Outside of my work in the Prints & Photographs Division, I wrote blogs about my work for the Learning and Innovation Division, highlighting different tools and methodologies educators could use to help students engage with primary sources.

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