Lucy Higgs Nichols was born into slavery on April 10, 1838. She was raised on the Higgs family plantation outside of Gray Creek, Tennessee. It is presumed she married there and had a daughter named Mona. The young family fled from the plantation to Bolivar, Tennessee and the safety of Union Army stationed there. It is here she befriended Col. William Sanderson and the Federal soldiers of the 23rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Before the war, most of this regiment piloted and worked on steamboats built in New Albany, Indiana. Later, during the war, they were called the “Boat Regiment.”
Lucy accompanied the soldiers when they left for battle. She nursed and assisted this regiment through 10 major Civil War battles and 18 minor battles. This included General Sherman’s “March to the Sea.” While the 23rd Indiana Regiment fought at the Battle of Vicksburg, Mississippi, Lucy lost her young daughter, Mona. She was given a burial befitting of any of the soldiers.
At the conclusion of the Civil War, Lucy marched in the victorious Grand Review in Washington City, now called Washington D. C. She traveled over 3000 miles with Indiana’s 23rd Regiment.
After the war, First Lieutenant and Adjutant for the Indiana 23rd Regiment, Shadrach K. Hooper wrote that the regiment lost 524 men to mortal wounds, disease, and combat injuries, during their four years fighting. It was his belief that Lucy Higgs helped care for a majority of these men.
Lucy stayed with the officers of the regiment after the end of the Civil War. At this time, she returned with them to New Albany, Indiana, where she met and married her second husband John Nichols after her first husband had perished during the war. The young couple made their home in this Southern Indiana town where they worked and became part of the community.
One of the officers Lucy met while ministering to the soldiers was Isaac Smith. He was instrumental in building the new 2nd Presbyterian Church of New Albany during the early 1850s. Local oral tradition says Lucy attended this church while on leave with the soldiers and after the Civil War. Leading evidence and verbal memories state that this 2nd Presbyterian Church was a major stop on the Underground Railroad in Indiana before and during the Civil War. Second Presbyterian Church is today known as “The Town Clock Church.” During 1890, the church was sold and is now the 2nd Baptist Church of New Albany, where Lucy later attended.
Because of the 23rd Regiment’s high regard for Lucy Higgs Nichols, the members of the Sanderson Post of the National Grand Army of the Republic (a national Civil War veterans’ organization) made her the first black woman given an honorary membership into this prestigious body.
Lucy was so loved by the men of the 23rd Regiment after the Civil War, they saw to her medical care when she became ill. Later, they fought for her in the United States Congress to obtain a Civil War nursing pension. At the time, this type of pension for black or white women was difficult to obtain. Her pension was finally awarded in 1898.
Lucy lived in New Albany, Indiana for 50 years and died on January 25, 1915. She was laid to rest in New Albany, Indiana at the West Haven Cemetery. A recent statue by local sculptor David Ruckman was placed in a small park behind “The Town Clock Church.”
Your writer would like to thank the following people for the resources of this blog post: Pam R. Peters, author of The Underground Railroad in Floyd County Indiana, January 2001. The Stuart Wrege Historical Room, New Albany-Floyd County Public Library. The late First Lieutenant and Adjutant for the 23rd Indiana Volunteer Regiment, Shadrach K. Hooper. Lastly, Jerry Finn, Executive Director for the Horse Shoe Foundation for his great Inspiration.
Old Civil War 23rd Indiana Volunteer Regiment
Lucy Higgs Nichols surrounded by her fellow members of the Sanderson Post of The Grand Army of the Republic