Lucy Higgs Nichols: What Nurses Can Learn From Her Story

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Written by Ayana Dunn, BSN, RN Content Writer, IntelyCare
Lucy Higgs Nichols stands with Union soldiers.

Lucy Higgs Nichols (April 10th, 1838, to January 25th, 1915) was an African-American woman who escaped chattel slavery in the U.S. and served as a nurse for the Union Army in the Civil War. Her bravery and resilience make her a key nurse from history and a remarkable role model to all nurses. Let’s explore her story, the ways in which it’s impacted by historical context, and how she can inspire today’s nurses.

Lucy Higgs Nichols: Chattel Slavery

To understand the extent of Nichols’ courageousness, we must briefly address the system of chattel slavery, a brutal form of mass human trafficking, from which she escaped. In the 1600s, European chattel slavery was already flourishing in the Caribbean and Latin America before spreading to the U.S.

Although there have been various forms of slavery throughout human history, chattel slavery was a system that the U.S. officially adopted from the British. In this system, enslaved people from various parts of sub-Saharan Africa were stripped of their humanity based on the myth of inherent racial inferiority and viewed as property to increase the enslavers’ financial gain.

Various forms of physical and psychological torture were normalized under the guise of punishment and doled out when enslavers had the desire to inflict pain for any reason. Enslaved people were often torn away from their families when they were sold without consent to other forced labor camps, also known as plantations. Enslaved status was passed down through generations. Children born to enslaved mothers, often as a result of forced breeding, were abducted shortly after birth to be trafficked to other enslavers.

Unless an enslaved person was willing and able to endure the risks of escape, their freedom was at the discretion of their enslavers. Should they manage to seek freedom, they were relentlessly hunted by human traffickers — also known as slave catchers or slave patrols — who sought to force them back into chattel slavery.

These armed traffickers were composed of both employees officially working for enslavers and random White people acting spontaneously. They tortured, assaulted, murdered, and stole from freedom-seekers. They also demanded that Black people prove their freedom on demand regardless of their status, and raided their homes without warning.

Lucy Higgs Nichols: Early Life

Based on these conditions, you can see what Nichols was up against. You can imagine how she and her loved ones were likely treated while enslaved, and how choosing to set herself free wasn’t an easy choice.

Nichols was born into chattel slavery in North Carolina. She was then forced to move with her enslavers to Mississippi, then Tennessee. There are conflicting accounts regarding the fate of her husband, but we know that she took her daughter with her when she escaped. Her daughter later died during one of the battles Nichols survived when she volunteered as a nurse — her daughter was no older than 5.

Lucy Higgs Nichols: The Civil War

In 1862, Nichols escaped enslavement and traveled until she encountered the Indiana 23rd Regiment, a section of the Union Army, in Tennessee. Although she was pursued by her former enslaver, she was able to seek protection from them under the Confiscation Act. This act declared that all property, which included enslaved people, that could aid the Confederacy was to be seized by the federal government, including the Union Army. Enslaved people were to be freed from bondage, never to return to their former status.

Although the source of her nursing knowledge remains unknown, Nichols nursed the soldiers on the frontlines, during sieges, and while on strenuous marches. She was a skilled forager when she needed specific healing herbs. Despite all she endured, Nichols was known for her kindness, dedication, and integrity. Along with working as a nurse, she served as a sewing woman, laundress, and cook.

Lucy Higgs Nichols: Post-War Life

After the war, Nichols was included in the Union Army’s victory march. Many of the men were from New Albany, Indiana, where she chose to live when the war ended. Some of them employed her as a maid. She remarried, and after her second husband died, she continued working as a laundress.

Nichols maintained contact with the veterans she nursed during the war. She attended their reunions and marched in memorial parades. She was the first and only Black woman to join The Grand Army of the Republic, a Union Army veteran’s association. She continued caring for ill veterans, and they reciprocated that care whenever she fell ill.

Despite the affection and recognition she received from her former regiment, Nichols wasn’t recognized as an Army nurse by the federal government. She applied for the pension that was owed to her and other Army nurses, but she was rejected. Sadly, her situation was common — many Black veterans were denied the promised compensation for military service. The veterans she nursed advocated for Nichols’ pension, which helped her to finally receive a pension of $12 per month.

Nichols died in her late 70s. She was buried with military honors in an unmarked grave in New Albany.

How Lucy Higgs Nichols’ Story Relates to Today’s Nurses

What can you take away from Lucy Higgs Nichols’ life? Keep reading to learn about how her journey can help you improve your nursing career.

1. Set Yourself Free

If Nichols chose to remain enslaved, her life would’ve been wildly different in negative ways. She wouldn’t have been able to accomplish all she did if she hadn’t made the decision to seek freedom.

The same goes for you. To take positive steps forward, you’ve got to leave something behind. Maybe that’s jobs that don’t serve you, or engaging with negative coworkers. Once you’re willing to let go of anything holding you back, you make more room for what you need and desire.

2. Understand the True Meaning of Bravery

We’re often led to believe that bravery equates to fearlessness. That’s one way to view it, but in reality, true bravery is achieving your goals despite your fears.

Escaping chattel slavery was treacherous and frightening, just like serving in a war. Nichols was an amazing woman, but still a human being. It’s safe to say she felt plenty of fear throughout her experiences, but she didn’t let that stop her.

Some of the most important decisions we make cause us to feel fearful. Speaking up to a coworker who isn’t mindful of boundaries, leaving a stable job to pursue nurse entrepreneurship, and advocating for change in your workplace culture can all give you butterflies. What else can they do? Lead to fulfilling outcomes, or at the very least, allow you to let go of emotional burdens by expressing yourself. See your fears as a sign of growth, because seeking freedom often requires bravery.

3. Compassion and Integrity Go a Long Way

Nichols was reputed to be a genuinely lovely person. She even nursed veterans back to health after the war. As a result, the former soldiers rallied for her to receive her military service pension when she and other Black veterans were denied. They also invited her as a guest at weddings, and later nursed her back to health when she grew ill. As you can see, the other veterans reciprocated her kindness when given the chance.

You may not receive the same degree of appreciation as she did, nor should that be your reason for being a great nurse. Knowing you’ve made a positive difference in someone’s life is worthwhile in itself. Without good health, it can be difficult to enjoy life to its fullest. You’re making the world a better place by helping people stay healthy. Trust us, your work makes ripples, even if you don’t get to see them.

How Has Lucy Higgs Nichols Inspired You?

There’s a lot to learn from Lucy’s remarkable story. Apply her life lessons to your practice by finding nursing jobs that align with your values through IntelyCare.