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The Story of Lucy Higgs Nichols

Lucy Higgs Nichols was born on April 10, 1838 in Halifax County, North Carolina, though she would not have been able to tell you that herself. Lucy, along with her parents and two older siblings, were enslaved by Reubin Higgs and his family. The Higgs family moved multiple times during the early years of Lucy’s life, first to Mississippi before landing in Tennessee. At the age of 23 Lucy was separated from her brother, Aaron, and sister, Angeline as was common practice among enslavers at the time. Lucy was, however, able to stay with her husband and daughter, Mona.

The year after she was separated from her siblings, 1862, Lucy made the courageous decision to seek freedom from her enslavers. She bundled up Mona in her dress and ran nearly 30 miles from the farm at which she lived and was met with a Union camp. The US government had passed the Second Confiscation Act earlier that year which allowed Union soldiers to confiscate any resources that they are able to take from those in the Confederacy. Because enslaved people were legally deemed as property in the Southern states, they were able to be protected under this act if they were able to come into contact with the Union Army. Lucy and Mona were able, under this act, to stay with the soldiers even when their enslavers came across the same encampment of soldiers and demanded they return the freedom-seekers. 

The 23rd Indiana Volunteers was the group of soldiers that Lucy and Mona came across and stayed with them for the remainder of the Civil War. This was a group of men from Indiana, mainly New Albany. She was able to use her knowledge of natural remedies to be able to stay with the 23rd and work as a “nurse, cook, laundress, and sewing woman” as they traveled throughout the Southern states. She cared for them when they were sick or injured in battle for the next three years of her life. She served with the 23rd in at least 28 battles of the Civil War, including the Siege of Vicksburg in Mississippi. Unfortunately, it was at this battle that Lucy was hit with more tragedy and heartache. Her young daughter, Mona, died. It is not known what happened to Mona but it is clear that she had made a big impact on the soldiers who buried the young girl and covered her grave with flowers. 

Map showing locations of Lucy’s personal and military life

In 1865, when the Civil War ended, Lucy and the 23rd joined with other regiments of the Union army and marched in a victory parade in Washington D.C. Lucy was clearly important to the 23rd, who made her an honorary member of the Grand Army of the Republic, or the GAR. 

Following the end of the Civil War Lucy needed to find a place to live. Because the only homes she had had before the war were those of her enslavers, she followed the 23rd Indiana Volunteers back to New Albany, Indiana where she was able to find work as a housekeeper and began to build a life. Five years after moving to New Albany Lucy married John Nichols and the two bought a house on Naghel Street. 

Photo from the GAR Reunion in English, Indiana in 1898. This is the only known photo of Lucy.

Nearly 30 years following the end of the Civil War, in 1892, Congress passed the Army Nurses Pension Act which granted women a $12 pension every month. As Lucy got older she began having health problems that made it difficult for her to keep working as a housekeeper and this pension would greatly help her financially, especially after the loss of her husband. However, this bill did not apply to Lucy because there was no official record of her joining the Army as a nurse. Twice she petitioned to get her duly deserved pension and twice she was rejected. For six long years Lucy and members of the 23rd petitioned the government and gave depositions confirming that Lucy had, in fact, served as a nurse during the Civil War. It was not until 1898 that Lucy was finally awarded her pension by a Special Act of Congress. 

When Lucy died in 1915 she was buried with full military honors next to her husband, John. However, the location of their graves has been lost to time. The loss of Lucy was felt in New Albany and she was memorialized in articles in not only New Albany newspapers but even the New York Times. 

Death announcement of Lucy Nichols with incorrect age. Lucy did not know her own birthday and so had to guess at her age throughout her life.

Lucy Higgs Nichols was a brave young woman who risked her life to create a better life for herself and her daughter by escaping her enslavement. She was a “good, true and faithful” nurse who took special care of Union soldiers during the Civil War. She was a good citizen who earned the respect and affection of people in New Albany, many even called her “Aunt Lucy.” And she was one of a very few former enslaved people whose service during the Civil War was rewarded with a pension from the United States government.

To see more resources and artifacts related to Lucy’s life come see us at the Carnegie Center and visit our exhibition all about her, Remembered: The Life of Lucy Higgs Nichols.

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