LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Lucy Higgs Nichols was born into slavery on April 10, 1838 in North Carolina before being sold to a family in Grays Creek, Tenn. In 1862, she escaped with her daughter and husband during the Civil War and joined the 23rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment who were camped nearby.
She found her freedom and eventually her new home in New Albany, Indiana.
“She had a one-of-a-kind extraordinary life,” proclaimed Al Gorman, the coordinator of public programs and engagement at the Carnegie Center for Art and History in downtown New Albany.
Nichols’ memory is preserved not only in the Carnegie Center but also at Town Clock Church, now known as the Second Baptist Church.
“They were accepted by the Indiana 23rd, which I should mention was a group of civil war soldiers mustered out of the Southern Indiana area,” Gorman explained.
Nichols found freedom and her calling with the Indiana Soldiers. It is reported her husband at the time died in battle, and she and her daughter found safety with the soldiers.
“She’s a person that has initiative and great forging abilities, and she gets this really unprecedented opportunity to become a nurse,” Gorman explained.
He said Nichols, or Aunt Lucy as the soldiers affectionately called her, found herself on the front line of the Civil war tending to soldiers who were dying or critically wounded.
“Lucy Higgs Nichols agreed to take this job as a nurse,” explained Gorman. “She did so with the understanding that she would be paid for her services, but she never was.”
During the war, Gorman said she ended up losing just only her husband but her daughter, too, and the soldiers of New Albany’s 23rd Regiment never left her side. Nichols found herself then cared for by them as they laid her daughter to rest and put flowers on the young girl’s grave.
There is only one known photograph of Nichols where she stands surrounded by the 23rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment and other soldiers.
“That photograph was taken shortly after she was made the only honorary female member of the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic), not just in that local post but nationally,” Gorman said.
The GAR was a fraternal organization composed of veterans of the Union Army, not only made her the only female member but helped her fight for a government pension for her work as a diligent military nurse.
“The persistence that she and her fellow veterans had in getting this petition is of itself an amazing story,” Gorman said. “When she gets this pension, it goes viral for the times and actually appears in newspapers across the United States.”
Congress awarded Nichols a $12 per month pension.
She died Jan. 5, 1915 in poor health and alone in the Floyd County Poor Farm after outliving her second husband and most of the soldiers.
She was buried with military honors in the colored cemetery next to her husband who was part of the colored troops, but no one ever marked her grave. Historians are still working to find and mark her grave with honor.