Lucy Higgs Nichols

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Lucy Higgs Nichols in 1898 celebrating Indianapolis with the G.A.R. on her recent government pension approval. Stuart B. Wrege History Room, New Albany Floyd - County Public Library

Lucy Higgs Nichols (April 10, 1838 – January 25, 1915) was an African American escaped slave and nurse for the Union Army during the American Civil War. Known affectionately as "Aunt Lucy", her sole photo shows her surrounded by veterans of the Indiana 23rd Infantry of the Army of the Tennessee. She was as devoted to the soldiers as they were to her and her daughter, Mona. She lost her daughter and husband during the Civil War, and after the war ended, settled in New Albany, Indiana where she worked as a housekeeper to several officers and eventually married John Nichols. She lived in New Albany with her second husband John Nichols for more than forty years, until her death on January 25, 1915 at the Floyd County Poor House.

The Grand Army of the Republic admitted her as their only honorary, female member, not only of Sanderson's Post, men's group, but of the United States. "Aunt Lucy" was treated as family and loved by all the soldiers that knew her. Due to their sustained effort, she was granted her government pension for diligent nursing and other services with them in 28 battles from June 1862 through the end of the war. She marched in victory with the troops in Washington, D.C. on May 23, and May 24, 1865 for the Grand Review of the Armies. Although her accomplishments were buried in archives for more than 100 years, in 1898, newspapers articles writing about the special act of congress, which granted her pension, once spread her fame across the country. These included The Janesville Gazette, The Salem Democrat, Atlanta Constitution, The Logansport Journal, The Denver Post, The Freeman, and The New York Times.

Early life[edit]

Until recently, little was known about Lucy Higgs as a child, but local historians from New Albany, Indiana, Pamela R. Peters, Curtis H. Peters, and Victor C. Megenity, and others discovered documents regarding her ownership as a slave in Hardeman County, Tennessee. Pamela Peters wrote an article about their findings which appeared for Black History Month in Traces magazine, (Winter 2010).

Rueben Higgs' heirs were allotted a portion of slaves and land in July 1855. An additional, earlier family record lists Lucy's birth as April 10, 1838, when she was sent south with other slave property to Mississippi and divvied out to Wineford Amanda Higgs, the only child of Rueben and his first wife Elizabeth, who both died in 1845 miles apart. According to the Higgs Family cemetery archives from Hardeman County.[1] The families went to court again, when Wineford died and the slave children were sent back up to Grays Creek, Tennessee to be divided in equal value between his other heirs. On Tuesday, January 8, 1861 court documents again list Lucy with four other slaves and their value to be divided out between Willie and Prudence Higgs after their next eldest son, Marcus Higgs, died.

Escape from slavery and the Civil War[edit]

Lucy Higgs with her daughter Mona escaping slavery from Grays Creek, Tennessee to the Union lines, June of 1862.

In late June 1862, Lucy, her daughter, Mona, and some other slaves escaped from Grays Creek, Tennessee, crossed the Hatchie River and eventually arrived at the Union lines who were camped at the fairgrounds near Bolivar, Tennessee almost thirty miles away. Major Shadrack Hooper of Indiana's 23rd, who recorded all of their battles as adjutant, reported her joining their regiment and described her character as someone with integrity, honesty, intelligence, always smiling, cheerful and kind, a willing washerwoman, seamstress, nurse, cook, and singer, as well as a "rattling good forager".[2][3] Other soldiers and the regiment surgeon, Magnus Brucker, described her as a faithful nurse.[4]

Lucy Higgs Nichols foraged herbs and gave medicine to soldiers from Indiana's 23rd Infantry during the Civil War, 1862-1865.

Her first husband joined the Union lines as a laborer under General Grant or may have possibly served in a colored regiment that was formed, but it is not known what happened to him. Mona, her young daughter, died at the Siege of Vicksburg. Although the details of her death are not known, the Indiana 23rd Infantry offered her a funeral with flowers. In the middle of the war, when the regiment went on furlough to New Albany, Indiana, Lucy went with them and was employed as a servant by several officers, including General W. Q. Gresham. When the Indiana 23rd Infantry were called back to the war in Mississippi, she returned to her nursing duties in service of the Union and was present at every siege. Lucy followed the army east under General Sherman in The March to the Sea and then north where the 23rd Infantry was presented in the Grand Review of the Armies.

After the war: work with the soldiers of the 23rd Infantry[edit]

After the Emancipation Proclamation, Lucy was a free citizen of the New Albany, Indiana community and maintained herself with modest means. She still worked for officers and nursed veterans back to health. So beloved was Lucy that five years after the war, when she contracted measles, she was cared for by the soldiers, until she was well and again years later, when she had a stroke. When General Gresham’s daughter was married, Lucy was an invited guest at Palmer House in Chicago and considered a member of the family.

Photo from 1898, Indiana's 23rd Infantry at a reunion of the Grand Army of the Republic in Indianapolis, Indiana. Lucy Higgs Nichols stands in the center. Stuart B. Wrege History Room, New Albany - Floyd County Public Library

As the Grand Army of the Republic was forming posts all over the nation, Lucy was made an honorary member of Sanderson’s Post. She attended every meeting and reunion with the soldiers. At the last meeting of more than seventy veterans the officers escorted her with much respect. Many volunteer nurses during the war were denied pensions and Lucy was no exception, but the GAR rallied to her defense again and she was eventually granted $12 a month in a special act reported by The Committee on Pensions on July 1, 1898, which subsequently made her famous in many newspapers of the time.[5]

Personal life and later years[edit]

On the University of Kentucky Libraries Database of Notable Kentucky African Americans, John Nichols, Lucy's second husband, is described as residing in Tennessee and Indiana with his mother and father as free community members, according to the 1850 census of Washington County.[6] Indiana's 152nd Infanttry listed him as a musician, but after the war he joined the colored regiment before returning to New Albany after three years.[7] Floyd County, Indiana's index to Marriage Record from 1845-1920 shows that Lucy and John married on April 13, 1870. They did not have any children together. The 1910 census still shows them living quietly on Naghel Street. Lucy Nichols is listed on the ledger to the Floyd County Poor House as being admitted on January 1, 1915. Even though her birthplace is listed on the register as Kentucky, she is listed clearly on Rueben Higgs' court and family inventories as being born in Halifax County, North Carolina before they moved to Grays Creek, Tennessee. The register shows her death as January 25, 1915. She is buried in an unmarked grave at West Haven Cemetery.


  • A marker in her honor was erected in 2011 by the Indiana Historical Bureau and Friends of Division Street School.[8] As listed on Indiana Historical Bureau Markers, Lucy Higgs Nichols' marker is located at 38° 17.283′ N, 85° 48.763′ W. in New Albany, Indiana. A summary of her life and accomplishments appears on the front and back of the marker.
  • The Carnegie Center for Art & History in New Albany, Indiana houses an exhibit, Remembered: the Life of Lucy Higgs Nichols, Men & Women of the Underground Railroad.
  • The Frazier History Museum in Louisville, Kentucky reprises the life of Lucy Higgs Nichols each year through programs and a local theatrical interpretation.
  • An historical novel based on the life of Lucy Higgs Nichols, Honorable (Purpose in Repose), and a companion book for younger readers by Indiana author Kathryn Grant were published in 2013.[9]


  1. ^ "Hardeman County, TN - Cemeteries - Higgs Cemetery". Retrieved 2013-11-13. 
  2. ^ "A Historical Sketch of the 23rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry". Retrieved 2013-11-13. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ "Magnus Brucker Papers, 1861-1868". Retrieved 2013-11-13. 
  5. ^ HB4741, Congressional Serial Set, v.74, pt.3, p.617 – 1898
  6. ^ "Notable Kentucky African Americans - Nichols, John and Lucy A. Higgs". Retrieved 2013-11-13. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ "Newsroom". Retrieved 2013-11-13. 
  9. ^ News and Tribune (July 16, 2013). "Author to talk book on woman who escaped slavery"

Further sources[edit]

  • Newspapers
    • "Daughter of the Regiment," Janesville Daily Gazette, 03/14/1889, p. 1
    • “Negro Woman Given Membership in G.A.R.,” Atlanta Constitution, 01/31/1891.
    • “GRAY HEADS AND GRAY BEARDS IN REUNION,” New Albany Daily Ledger, 09/21/ 1894."Colored Nurse's Pension," Logansport Journal, 07/15/1898, p. 5
    • "Noted Woman Warrior Receives Her Reward," New York Times, 12/14/1898.
    • “Why Aunt Lucy Got a Pension,” The Denver Sunday Post, 12/18/1898.
    • “Negress Who Nursed Soldiers Is a Member of the G. A. R.,” The Freeman, 09/03/1904.
    • “Only Woman Ever Member of G.A.R. Dies in Asylum,” New Albany Daily Ledger, 01/29/1915.
    • Lucy Nichols in "Obituary Notes," New York Times, 01/31/1915.
    • Lucy Nichols article, New Albany Weekly Ledger, 02/03/1915.
    • Shiels, Damain, “Who Shot General McPherson,” Civil War Gazette, 02/01/2001.
    • Bean, Amanda, “The Civil War: 23rd Indiana Regiment,” News and Tribune, 03/13/2013.
    • HOOPER, SHADRACH K.,A Historical Sketch of the 23rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry July 29, 1861, to July 23, 1865, Report of the Indiana-Vicksburg Military Park Commission, 1910, PREPARED IN PAMPHLET FORM BY THE AUTHOR FOR PRIVATE DISTRIBUTION TO THE SURVIVORS OF THE 23RD INDIANA REGIMENT AT THEIR ANNUAL REUNION, NEW ALBANY, INDIANA, 09/29-30/1910.
    • Peters, Pamela R., Peters, Curtis H., and Meginity, Victor C.,"Lucy Higgs Nichols: From Slave to Civil War Nurse of the 23rd Indiana Regiment," Traces (Winter 2010): 35-39.
  • Documents and records
    • The National Archives, US Colored Troops Military Service Records, film 3M589
    • The Civil War Archive – Indiana Units
    • Floyd County, Indiana, Index to Marriage Record 1845-1920
    • Inclusive Volume W. P. A. Book Number Indicates Location of Record, Book 6, p. 572.
    • Caron’s Directory of the City of New Albany 1888-1889
    • Halifax County Deed Books, Bk. 22, p. 225, No. 24
    • United States Federal Census Records, 1830,1840,1850,1860,1870,1880,1890
    • Hardeman County, Tennessee Records, Inventory of Rueben Higgs’ Slave Property, 03/02/ 1846
    • Hardeman County, Tennessee Records, Inventory of Rueben Higgs’ Slave Property, 07/09/ 1855
    • Hardeman County, Tennessee Records, Index to Marriage Record January 1866
    • Floyd County, Indiana, General Affidavit for claim No. 1130541, 29/07/1993
    • Floyd County, Indiana, Pension Office, Deposition #6, Case of Lucy Nichols, No. 1130541, 04/12/1894
    • 55th Congress, 2nd Session, H. R. Report No. 4741 {to accompany H.R. 1366}, 06/23/1898

External links[edit]