Susie King was born into slavery in Georgia in 1848. Because teaching slaves was illegal, she, her sister, and her brother went to school in secret, hiding their books and never entering or leaving the school as a group. Some of her education came from a white girl who chose to ignore the law. King used her education to help other slaves, writing them passes so they could move about the community.
In April 1862, King left the city she lived in with her grandmother to be with her mother in the countryside, where the adults thought she would be safer. On her journey, she experienced the bombardment of Fort Pulaski. When the shells fell on the fort the ground shook for miles around. Her uncle decided to move his family and King to a safer location, an island off the coast of Georgia protected by the Union's navy gunboats. After a few days all of the people there went to St. Simon's Island where the 13-year-old girl was put in charge of a school for the children of former slaves.
Life on St. Simon's was hectic and frightening. Families separated by slavery and war they often identified the first moment they saw soldiers as the end of their childhood innocence. In the first moments of the conflict, they helped with the hasty, secret burial of family treasures and were rapidly moved away from perceived danger. The assumed security of home was missing from the lives of children in towns contested by the two sides. Those youngsters became refugees, living from hand to mouth and never quite secure in their temporary or their permanent homes. At Vicksburg, Richmond, and Petersburg, towns that were under siege, the children had to be ready to race to areas of shelter whenever bombardments began. If at all possible, the women and children packed up and moved to the homes of relatives living in the country, adding another level of stress to their lives. Those who stayed behind in their own homes had to hide during the day to avoid becoming victims of robbers or worse. At night, candlelight needed to be hidden so that some soldier did not interpret the light as a signal, resulting in an attack on the home.
African American children became refugees in much larger numbers than other children. As the fighting moved close to plantations where they were enslaved, whole groups ran away to enter the Union lines. In places where the Rebels threatened to overrun communities with large numbers of contrabands or large numbers of freedmen, African Americans took to the roads to avoid being swept into slavery. Carrying everything they could with them, the children suffered from the same privations and pressures as their parents. In some ways, slavery seemed to prepare them for the challenges. Parents emphasized their lessons about sacrifice with stern, often physical punishments. Rather than teaching the youngsters to sacrifice for the common good, they taught them to sacrifice so they would be searched for each other. Rebels slipped onto the poorly protected island and tried to capture any black people that walked alone. As King thought about books and lessons, she also contemplated her future. The Yankee officers constantly searched for able-bodied men that could fill the ranks of the black regiment they were forming and King left her uncertainty behind by enlisting to serve as laundress for that unit.
Many of King's relatives, including uncles, cousins, and eventually a husband, served in the unit. Unafraid of infectious diseases like smallpox, she soon became a nurse as well as a laundress. At night, when the men had no other duties, she taught the eager soldiers to read and write. She became a well-loved and well-respected member of the regiment. When her hospital was located too near the spots where shells fell, her officers would remove her from the danger zone. Although she worked tirelessly for the remaining years of the war, Susie King Taylor was not paid for her services. Following her childhood as a slave, she labored for the right to live life as a free woman.
strong enough to survive slavery. As these refugees found safety, they began to search for the education that had been denied to them for so long. They believed that education would be another tool that would help them survive whatever came after the war. Northern children helped provide books and supplies for African American schools.
Modern Americans reading about the Civil War are frequently surprised at the number of civilians in the army camps. In addition to local citizens who visited as part of their entertainment, slaves who ran away from their homes, contrabands and freedmen, other workers, and family members came to the front to try to locate their loved ones. Mothers sometimes brought their children along. The soldiers loved the visits of the little children and showered them with attention. The men saluted the youngsters as if they were officers, told them stories, and generally treated them like royalty. Nurses in one hospital were surprised when a visiting woman gave birth there. Although the newborn caused the ladies additional work providing food for the child and locating clothing for it, they gladly endured the labor because the men so loved to hold the baby. The nurses believed that having the child in the area helped give the men the will to survive.
Youngsters were among the many people who flocked to the battlefields of the Civil War shortly after any fight. The sites remained pilgrimage goals for years. Although girls were likely to report on the grass that was growing over the location of the carnage, or to comment on the wild flowers that had reappeared, boys delighted in the wreckage of men and animals that resulted from the fighting. They went to the fields as soon as they could, sometimes before the battle ended, eagerly searching for items to add to their collections.
Girls seemed to have useful skills to offer at the edges of the battles. When Tillie Pierce and her friends observed the Union Army beginning to pass through the streets of Gettysburg before the battle there, they stood on the corner and sang national songs to entertain and motivate the men as they passed. Following the battle, soldiers that heard them commented about how much the moment meant. Although the girls prepared bouquets of flowers to give to the men, in their excitement over their roles as greeters, they forgot the flowers completely. As the battle grew, the girls busied themselves handing out water to all who passed, including General George Gordon Meade, who Pierce failed to recognize. Other girls spent the days helping their mothers bake bread for the men. When all else failed, girls would simply sit with wounded soldiers, comforting the men by their presence. The games of girlhood prepared them well for their part in the ''grand and awful spectacle'' that was taking place all around them (Alleman 1889, 52).
Gender did not protect the girls from the realities all around them. As parents determined that one place was safer than another, the girls hurried to reach the new spot. While on the move, they were exposed to the same sights that the boys would run to see—exploding shells, dead animals and men, cannons, and smoke—all the thrilling images of imagination and novel. If the new spot was indeed out of direct fire, it tended to fill up with wounded soldiers seeking shelter and aid. Wherever possible, surgeons set up hospitals and the girls saw amputation and the aftermath of the surgeries—blood, gore, and unattached arms and legs—as they moved about the farms they were on. Pierce helped some officers find their way onto a rooftop to better observe the battle, and they allowed the girl to look for herself, a reward the boys she knew would have loved to share.
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