December 1898, over 30 years after the end of the Civil War, the Owensboro Messenger Inquirer printed an article titled “She’s a Real Veteran.” “By a special act of Congress,” the article explains, “Aunt Lucy Nichols of this city will receive a pension of $12 a month.” Written so casually, it’s not immediately clear how revolutionary it is that a black woman was being granted a pension from the United States government for work she did as part of the military during the Civil War. That quietly revolutionary story is that of Lucy Nichols.
Lucy Higgs was born April 10th, 1838 in Halifax County, North Carolina. Enslaved from birth by the Higgs family, we know very little about her early life. Lucy involuntarily moved with the Higgs around the south as she grew up within the confines of slavery. Lucy established a family, marrying a man also enslaved by the Higgs family and gave birth to a child just before the Civil War broke out. While living in Western Tennessee in 1862, Lucy’s enslavers decided to move her and her family further south. Before this move was possible, Lucy took her liberty into her own hands and self-emancipated with her young daughter Mona. Less is known about what happened to Mona’s father, although some sources claim he self-emancipated as well and joined with a different US Army regiment, potentially serving with the United States Colored Troops.
Lucy and Mona traveled 30 miles under pursuit by their enslavers before finding sanctuary with the 23rd Indiana infantry regiment stationed in Bolivar, TN. Citing the Confiscation Act of 1862, the Hoosier soldiers provided safety and shelter, but most importantly their invocation of the Confiscation Act of 1862 granted legal freedom to Lucy and Mona. This law specifically allowed for the United States government to seize any property owned by people who aided in or participated in the rebellion. Since the Confederate government considered enslaved people property, the Confiscations Act granted many people their freedom.
“All slaves of persons who shall hereafter be engaged in rebellion against the government of the United States, or who shall in any way give aid of comfort thereto, escaping from such persons and taking refuge within the lines of the army; and all slaves captured from such persons or deserted by them and coming under the control of the government of the United States; and all slaves of such person found on or being within any place occupied by rebel forces and afterwards occupied by the forces of the United States, shall be deemed captives of war, and shall be forever free of their servitude, and not again held as slaves.”Confiscation Act of 1862
To show her gratitude Lucy remained with the 23rd Indiana, serving as a cook, laundress, and nurse. With no connection to her husband, who later died due to illness, staying with the regiment ensured Lucy and Mona’s safety in what was a terrifying world for freedom seekers whose freedom was still very much in question as the war raged on.
While the 23rd Indiana was celebrating the surrender of Vicksburg July 1863, Mona fell ill and tragically passed away. Mona’s death left Lucy “absolutely alone but,” according to a postwar newspaper article, “she still clung to the regiment.” The heartbroken Indianans organized an ‘elaborate funeral’ to lay young Mona to rest.
Lucy remained with the regiment throughout the remainder of the war, providing necessary services to the men. As the 23rd advanced through Georgia and the Carolinas her own life was often at risk as she worked near the front lines, providing vital care to the wounded and sick and support to the rest of the regiment.
By the Battle of Bentonville in March 1865, Lucy had been with the regiment for nearly three years. Part of Sherman’s Right Wing, they arrived after the heaviest fighting had ended. Although the 23rd Indiana saw limited action at Bentonville, their presence was noted. Lucy, as a nurse, may have been called into action to help care for the wounded of other regiments but primary sources have yet to be found to provide insight into her role here.
After the surrender at Bennett Place, Lucy traveled with her regiment to Washington DC and marched with them in the Grand Review of the Armies, one of the final acts of the Civil War. Lucy’s freedom was now secure, but it had come at a high cost. Within just a few years she lost her husband and daughter. With little else to her name and nowhere to go, Lucy chose to accept the invitation of the men of the regiment to return with them to New Albany, Indiana.
Lucy lived out the rest of her life in New Albany, where she became a vital part of the community and remained close with many of the men of the 23rd Indiana. In 1870, she married John Nichols and lived with him until his death in 1910. She attended every reunion and many other events as a member of the regiment, including marching in some of the first Memorial Day parades. Lucy became one of the only female members of the Grand Army of the Republic, a national fraternal organization of US Army Civil War veterans.
In 1892, thirty years after Lucy joined with the 23rd Indiana as their nurse, the United States Congress passed an act granting a federal pension to “all women employed by the Surgeon General of the Army as nurses, under contract or otherwise, during the late war of the rebellion.” Pensions had become essential in providing monetary relief to those who served the Union during the war and who needed financial help as they aged. This act extended that assistance to many more who labored in the service of the Union. However, after applying for pension twice, Lucy Nichols was denied, most likely due to her race.
In 1895, 55 of the 23rd Indiana veterans campaigned for Lucy to get her earned pension from the US government. It was December 1898 before their complaints were finally heard and Congress passed a special act specifically to grant a federal pension of $12 a month for the rest of her life to Lucy Nichols. This special act of Congress made Lucy a minor celebrity and articles like the one below were printed in newspapers across Indiana and Kentucky. After 30 years, Lucy finally began to receive the recognition she deserved and had been given by her friends in the 23rd Indiana.
In 1915, five years after her husband’s death, Lucy was admitted to the Floyd County Poor Farm. She died there a few weeks later on January 29, 1915 at the age of 76. Tragically, the location of her grave is unknown.
Not until the 21st century did history begin to recognize Lucy for her acts during the Civil War. In 2011, a historical plaque was erected near her church, the Second Baptist Church of New Albany. In 2019, the church unveiled a nine-foot-tall statue of Lucy and her daughter Mona, further cementing her legacy within the community. With these monuments and the written sources and photographs that remain, we are fortunate to be able to tell the story of Lucy Nichols. Her strength and valor gained not just her freedom from slavery but her work with the 23rd Indiana helped ensure the freedom of so many others.
Research is actively ongoing to find more information about Lucy and others like her as it relates to the Battle of Bentonville. For more information about Lucy Nichols, her incredible life, and the rest of the 23rd Indiana regiment, check out these resources below (click on title for link):
This article written by Colby Lipscomb, Education Coordinator at Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site.