In addition to abolishing slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation authorized the U.S. military to enlist African American men as soldiers. African Americans had volunteered for duty in the Union army prior to this time, but thereafter the number of volunteers for military service increased exponentially. The Army assigned volunteers to segregated regiments whose members were collectively referred to as the United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.). Approximately 175 regiments were formed, and 180,000 African American soldiers fought for the Union. By the war’s end, the U.S.C.T. comprised one-tenth of all Union troops. According to the National Park Service, the number of fatalities across U.S.C.T. regiments totaled 68,178, with many dying from infection and disease.
The majority of firsthand accounts of life in the colored regiments were written and published by the white officers who led them. Susie King Taylor’s memoir is a rare exception. With the encouragement of a white officer, Taylor published an account of her time with the 33rd Regiment U.S.C.T. This volume is the only Civil War memoir published by an African American woman.
Taylor was born a slave on Grest Farm near the coast of Georgia. She spent part of her childhood in Savannah, where she received a clandestine education. In 1862, she gained her freedom by escaping to St. Simons Island, Georgia, then a Union encampment. There she married Edward King, a sergeant in the 1st South Carolina Infantry Volunteers, later named the 33rd Regiment, United States Colored Troops. For approximately three years, Taylor served as cook, nurse, laundress, and teacher for the regiment. Her 1902 memoir, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers, provides a unique window into life in the U.S.C.T. She wrote, “I now present these reminiscences to you, hoping they may prove of some interest, and show how much service and good we can do to each other, and what sacrifices we can make for our liberty and rights.”
I Recall the Experience Sweet and Sad: Memories of the Civil War
January 6-March 30, 2012