Susie King Taylor:
A Glimpse Into the Life of a CivilWar Contemporary

 Unique among the literatureof the Civil War is the memoir of Susie King Taylor. Much of the rare valueof her book is that owing to her having gained her freedom so early inthe war, she is in a position to observe some of the most interesting firstsof the Civil War.

Background

 Born August 6, 1848, to Raymondand Hagar Baker at the Grest Farm in Liberty County, Georgia, 35 milessouth of Savannah. “I was born under the slave law of Georgia.” Her motherwas a domestic servant for the Grest Family.
 About 1854 Susie and herbrother were permitted by Mr. Grest, their “owner” to come to Savannahto live with her grandmother Dolly Reed, who appears to have been freedby Mr. Grest, who became her guardian. The Grests appear to have virtuallyfreed Susie and her brother without going through the complexities of Georgialaw

Education in Savannah

 She and her brother “weresent to a friend of my grandmother, Mrs. Woodhouse, a widow to learn toread and write. She was a free woman and lived on Bay Lane, between Habershamand Price Streets, about half a mile from my house.
 “We went every day about9 o’clock, with our books wrapped in paper to prevent the police or whitepersons from seeing them. We went in, one at a time, through the gate,into the yard to the L Kitchen, which was the schoolroom. She had 25 to30 children whom she taught, assisted by her daughter, Mary Jane.
 “The neighbors would seeus going in sometimes, but they supposed we were learning trades, as itwas the custom to give children a trade of some kind.”
 Susie and her brother remainedwith Mrs. Woodhouse’s school for two years. Then, Susie was sent to “aMrs. Mary Beasley until May 1860, when she told my grandmother she hadtaught me all she knew, and grandmother had better get someone else whocould teach me more, so I stopped my studies for awhile.
 
 

Learning from White Students

 “I had a white playmate .. . named Katie O’Connor, who live on the next corner of the street frommy house, and who attended a convent. One day she told me if I would promisenot to tell her father, she would give me some lessons. On my promise notto do so, and getting her mother’s consent, she me lessons about four months,every evening. At the end of this period she was put into the convent permanently,and I have never seen her since.
 “A month after this, JamesBlouis, our landlord’s [white] son, was attending the High School, andwas very fond of grandmother, so she asked him to give me a few lessons,which he did until the middle of 1861, when the Savannah Volunteer Guards,to which he and his brother belonged, were ordered to the front under GeneralBarton. In the first battle of Manassas, his brother Eugene was killed,and James deserted over to the Union side, and at the close of the warwent to Washington, D.C. where he has since resided.”
 

At Age 14

  “On April 1, 1862, aboutthe time the Union soldiers were firing on Fort Pulaski, I was sent outinto the country to my mother. I remember what a roar the guns made. Theyjarred the earth for miles. The fort was at last taken by them. Two daysafter the taking of Fort Pulaski, my uncle took his family of seven andmyself to St. Catherine Island. We landed under the protection of the Unionfleet, and remained there two weeks, when about thirty of us were takenaboard the gunboat P_______, to be transferred to St. Simon’s Island, andat last, to my unbounded joy, I saw the ‘Yankee.’”

Face to Face with a “Yankee”

 “After we were all settledaboard and I started on our journey, Capt. Whitmore, commanding the boat,asked me where I was from. I told him Savannah, Georgia. He asked if Icould read:  I said, “Yes.” Can you write? he next asked. “Yes, Ican do that also,” I replied, and as if he had some doubts of my answershe handed me a book and a pencil and told me to write my name and whereI was from. I did this; when he wanted to know if I could sew. On hearingI could, he asked me to hem some napkins for him. He was surprised at myaccomplishments (for they were such in those days), for he said he didnot know there were any Negroes in the South able to read or write. Hesaid, “You seem to be so different from the other colored people who comefrom the same place you did .” “No,” I replied, “the only difference is,they were reared in the country and I in the city, as was a man from Darien,Georgia named Edward King.” That seemed to satisfy him, and we had no furtherconversation that day on the subject.”


Susie King Taylor’s Home and school house in Savannah on South BroadSt., now Oglethorpe Avenue


 

Teaching on St. Simon’s Island

On April 5, 1862,Commodore Goldsboroughasks Susie to take charge of a school for children on St. Simon’s Island.She agrees to do so and requests books and testaments (Bibles). In a weekor two she receives two large boxes of books and testaments from the North.

Gaston Bluff School

 In her little school at GastonBluff, Susie has about 40 children to teach, besides a number of adultswhom she taught at nights “all of them so eager to learn to read, to readabove anything else. Chaplain French, of Boston, would come to the schoolsometimes, and lecture to the schools, sometimes, and lecture to the pupilson Boston and the North.”


Negro School in Liberty County, ca. 1890
After the Civil War Susie King Taylor moved to Liberty County andworked as a teacher. She soon move to Boston. This photograph by WilliamWilson was taken two decades later.
(Courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society, William Wilson Collection)


 


 

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