Historians say that she had a one-of-a-kind extraordinary life. Born into slavery in North Carolina in April 1838, Lucy Higgs Nichols was sold to the Higgs family of Tennessee and was handed down to members of that family. In the long run, she became the property of Willie and Prudence Higgs, who owned a farm near Grays Creek, Tennessee. While at Grays Creek, Lucy married fellow slave George Higgs and gave birth to a daughter named Mona.
In July 1862, a Union encampment near the Higgs plantation compelled the Higgs to move their slaves to Atlanta, and thanks to this, Lucy was able to flee with her daughter and husband. It is not exactly known how her husband escaped but what is documented is that Lucy and her daughter Mona ran through the bushes during the Civil War until they reached the Union camp of the 23rd Indiana Regiment.
“They were accepted by the Indiana 23rd, which I should mention was a group of civil war soldiers mustered out of the Southern Indiana area,” Al Gorman, the coordinator of public programs and engagement at the Carnegie Center for Art and History in downtown New Albany, told WAVE 3 News.
At the time, enslaved men and women usually sought asylum with Union troops, as runaway slaves were seen to be “contrabands of war” and could not be returned to their masters, Indy Star reported. Lucy, who found freedom and safety with the 23rd Indiana Regiment, started working with Dr. Magnus Brucker, the regiment surgeon. She learned how to tend to soldiers who were dying or wounded.
She followed the regiment to the siege of Vicksburg, where she cared for the wounded by dressing the wounds of the soldiers and administering medicine. She also worked as a cook and servant and became known as Aunt Lucy by the soldiers who loved her being around.
But while at Vicksburg, Lucy lost her daughter Mona and she was buried by the soldiers. She had at the time already lost her husband in battle. The former slave turned Civil War nurse then joined General William Tecumseh Sherman at Atlanta. Indy Star cites the Louisville Courier-Journal as reporting on Feb. 4, 1889, that Lucy “was sometimes at the rear, sometimes in the front and often in the thickest of the battle, as much a soldier as her male companions, except that she did not carry arms. She never received a scratch.”
In 1865 when the regiment mustered out of Louisville, many of the soldiers went back home to New Albany, Indiana. Lucy settled there as well, working in the homes of many of the soldiers before getting married to John Nichols, a Civil War veteran who had served with the 8th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery. Lucy received invitations to every reunion of the 17th Army Corps and was a fixture in Memorial Day exercises at the National Soldiers Cemetery in New Albany.
There is a well-known photograph of Lucy where she stands surrounded by the 23rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment and other soldiers. According to Gorman, that photograph was taken shortly after she was made the only honorary female member of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), not just in that local post but nationally. The GAR was a fraternal organization of veterans of the Union Army. It did not only make Lucy the only female member but helped her fight for a government pension for her work as a military nurse.
Compensation for nurses was at the time rare no matter one’s race. Nurses were only able to receive a pension after the Civil War but they had to prove their service in war with documents which many of them lacked. Getting people to confirm their service was also difficult. However, Lucy had the backing of her fellow veterans who petitioned Congress for her pension.
In 1898, after six years of applying for a pension and being denied, Lucy was granted a pension of $12 per month by a special act of Congress. This development appeared in newspapers across the U.S.
After the recognition of her acts of valor, Lucy passed away on January 5, 1919, in poor health and alone. She outlived her husband John Nichols and several of the soldiers and was buried with military honors in the colored cemetery next to her husband, WAVE 3 News reported.
In 2019, a sculpture depicting Lucy fleeing slavery with her daughter was dedicated on the grounds of the historic Second Baptist Church in New Albany. The church is known for being a link in the Underground Railroad.