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Nursing the Wounded: Angels of Mercy


Nurses, both women and men, worked for the Union Army in hospitals and on battlefields. Though most had no formal training, they provided care and comfort to thousands of soldiers and civilians. Susie King Taylor and Ann Stokes were former slaves who gained their freedom as the Union took over Confederate strongholds in the South. Once under the protection of the Union Army, these women took an active role in the fight for freedom by becoming nurses to wounded soldiers.

Taylor and Stokes both served as caregivers for the sick and wounded though their experiences were different. Taylor treated the wounded on the battlefield, but received no pay or compensation for her work. Stokes served several years on a hospital ship and was paid regular wages. She would go on to become the only African American woman to draw a Navy pension based on her own service during the Civil War.

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Black and white photograph of a brick building showing African American women on two balconies with hanging laundry.  African American women and men along with white men and children can be seen sitting and standing in the courtyard below. Courtesy National Archives, Washington, D.C.
African American hospital workers, including nurses,
at a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, July 1863

Courtesy National Archives, Washington, D.C.

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Fugitive slaves, known as "contraband" worked for the Union Army as nurses, cooks, laudresses, and laborers.

Sepia toned photograph of several African American women and men standing outdoors.  Courtesy Massachusetts Commandery Military Order of the Loyal Legion and the U.S. Military History Institute.
Contraband who served with the 13th Massachusetts Infantry c. 1863-1865
Courtesy Massachusetts Commandery Military Order of the Loyal Legion
and the U.S. Military History Institute

Three-quarters length, standing, full face to left, black and white photograph of Susie King Taylor standing in a uniform wearing a head covering.
Susie King Taylor, 1902
Courtesy East Carolina University

Susie King Taylor's memoirs are the only known published recollection of the experiences of an African American nurse during the Civil War. In a letter to Taylor, reproduced in her book, Lt. Colonel Trowbridge, commander of the regiment, praises her "unselfish devotion and service through more than three long years of war in which the 33d Regiment bore a conspicuous part in the great conflict for human liberty and the restoration of the Union."

As a young slave girl, Susie King Taylor had been secretly taught to read and write. Her abilities proved invaluable to the Union Army as they began to form regiments of African American soldiers. Hired by the 1st South Carolina Colored Volunteers as a laundress in 1862, her primary role was nurse to wounded soldiers and teacher to those who could not read or write. Taylor served for more than three years working alongside her husband, Edward King, a sergeant in the regiment.

Color photograph of a book cover showing a gold image of tent and the book title, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the author's name Susie King Taylor. Color photograph of an interior page from Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops Late 1st S.C. Volunteers showing a reproduction of a letter to Taylor by Lt. Colonel Trowbridge, commander of the regiment, praises her devoted service as a nurse. Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops Late 1st S.C. Volunteers, Susie King Taylor, 1902
Courtesy East Carolina University

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…the cause, which nerved the soldiers to pour out their life-blood, was her cause, and that of her race. James H. Payne. 27th United States Colored Troops, 1865

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Ann Stokes was first taken aboard a Union Naval vessel as "contraband" in 1863. As was typical of most former slaves, Stokes could not read or write, but was hired as a nurse. She worked under the direction of the Sisters of the Holy Cross nuns aboard the U.S.S. Red Rover, the first Union Naval hospital ship. Stokes became the first African American woman to serve on board a U.S. military vessel and was among the first women to serve as nurses in the Navy.

Black and white illustration of the interior interior view of a hospital ward on the U.S.S. Red Rover showing rows of beds on either side and a nurse tending to a patient. Harper's Weekly, May 9, 1863. Courtesy Harper's Weekly.

Black and white photograph of the U.S.S. Red Rover Navy hospital ship, at a dock. Courtesy National Library of Medicine.
U.S.S. Red Rover, 1863
Courtesy National Library of Medicine

The U.S.S. Red Rover, a converted former Confederate paddle steamer became the first U.S. Naval hospital. During the Civil War, nearly 3000 patients were treated onboard.

Illustration of the interior view of a hospital ward on the U.S.S. Red Rover, Harper's Weekly, May 9, 1863
Courtesy Harper's Weekly