NEW ALBANY — Through the passage of time, history has a way of forgetting those who have roamed this earth. The deceased might be remembered by their loved ones for a while, but when that generation, too, departs this existence, memories dissipate like smoke in the wind. All that’s left of a life well-lived are at times only a few brief mentions of a name on a roll of microfilm.
Lucy Higgs Nichols was more than just a line in an old dusty book. Her heroic acts despite personal heartache are the stuff of legends. But unlike the Greek tales of lore, the writings about Nichols were buried under the trash heap of time. Thanks to a little digging by Pam and Curt Peters and Vic Megenity, Nichols’ 150-year-old narrative has been resurrected so future generations can know her remarkable life.
“It’s a pretty wonderful feeling [to discover Nichols’ story] especially because I think black history in Floyd County had been neglected and it’s an important link to the past for the black community,” Pam Peters said. “It’s one more thing for them to be proud of.”
Peters speaks about “Lucy” with the familiarity one usually reserves for friends. But when she first met Nichols through a friend’s old stories, Peters didn’t realize the importance of the former slave to New Albany.
Years later, as Megenity was attempting to protect the old Floyd County Home on Grant Line Road, he too found evidence of Nichols and verification that she had lived at the site and shared the news with Peters.
Hoping to obtain a historic marker and save the historic landmark, Megenity, Peters and her husband traveled to Bolivar, Tenn. From this town in the summer of 1862, Nichols had fled from the chains of slavery. With a toddler and the child’s believed father in tow, the 23-year-old woman journeyed three miles and joined the Union forces of the 23rd Indiana.
First she worked as a cook and seamstress for the soldiers, but eventually Nichols became a nurse, not an easy feat for a black woman in 19th century America. According to 23rd regiment member Maj. S.K. Hooper in an 1898 Denver Post interview, Nichols would travel to the front lines with the men, offering sips of water to those fighting and bandaging their wounds.
“During an engagement — and we had many of them — she would fearlessly get to the front and find out [about] the officers and men, for men and officers were all one to Aunt Lucy. She didn’t go into the battle where it was thickest, but she would hover around giving water to parched lips here, dragging back a wounded man there, and acting like the angel she was by her sympathy and gentleness,” Hooper said.
While near Vicksburg, Miss., Nichols’ daughter Mona died. Even though she was devastated by the loss, she continued to travel with the 23rd through battle after battle. Sometime thereafter, Hooper said her partner died in battle after joining the U.S. Colored Troops.
“Later on, her husband was killed. At all events, he never returned and the supposition was that he was laid away with the thousands of unknown, both black and white, who had given up their lives for the glorious cause,” Hooper said.
After her tragic losses, Nichols became closer to her military family. When the regiment received furlough, Nichols returned to New Albany with the 23rd at their invitation. By this time, the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect and the national government considered former Confederate slaves free. Able to choose her own destiny, Nichols wasn’t forced to return to the war zone with the regiment, but for some reason she continued her voluntary service. In all, she survived more than 25 battles.
“She chose to go back into battle with them and I think that combination of her helping them when they were in ill health or injured and the fact that she voted herself to come back to the foray with them…. They just thought the world of her,” Peters said.
After the war ended, the men appreciated Nichols unselfish service so much that they made her an honorary member of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization. Several reports indicated that she rode at the front of celebratory parades throughout the years.
“To meetings and reunions, she is escorted by the officers of the regiment as if she was a queen and there is just as much respect and deference shown her,” Hooper said. “She is welcome in every house and at every fireside left to the 23rd Indiana as an honored friend and guest, and the prayer of us all is that the years may deal gently with the loving old woman!”
Nichols became accustomed to life in the river town following the war, settling in as a servant to some of the veterans’ families. In 1870, she married John Nichols, a former soldier of the U.S. Colored Troops. They’d have no children.
In 1892, Congress approved legislation that would begin to offer pensions for Civil War nurses. The following year, the former 23rd veterans Nichols had taken care of for so long finally got the opportunity to return her generosity. The men petitioned the government for Nichols to receive a stipend and six years later she managed to secure a $12-a-month pension.
Even with this monetary assistance, she died nearly penniless at the “Poor Farm” in 1915. Although proof of a military burial next to her husband at West Haven Cemetery exists, no graveside marker has been found to date.
While her body’s location remains a mystery, the story of Nichols has been shared far and wide. The Carnegie Center for Art and history in New Albany supports a permanent exhibit that honors the Civil War hero. Titled “Remembered: the life of Lucy Higgs Nichols,” admission is free and open to people of all ages.
Peters hasn’t given up on her love of local historical research. She and several other historians continue to investigate additional black women who aided New Albany troops during the Civil War.
“[Lucy’s story is] another example of how rich the African-American history is here and how we shouldn’t neglect it,” Peters said. “We just have to keep digging.”