First Benefits for Women Veterans – Lucy Higgs NicholsPosted: October 11, 2015
Story: Historian, Veterans Health Administration
Pensions were the first veterans benefits authorized for women in their own right.
Women have been eligible for survivors pensions, as spouses or dependents, since the Colonial period. Women were present on the battlefield of every American war and provided essential services as nurses, carriers, or various other “unofficial” capacities, yet they did not earn recognition, status, or financial benefits from others, including the government. Women voluntarily spent their own money and went to places that put them in harm’s way with no hope of pay or reimbursement to help the war effort. Only a handful of women were documented to have loaded cannons or bore arms alongside of the men and a rare few were bestowed with any form of compensation for their service.
All that changed after the Civil War. Hundreds of women, including some former slaves, served as nurses during the American Civil War. They mostly worked as unpaid volunteers or contractors with organizations like the U.S. Sanitary Commission or U.S. Christian Commission, and received no federal benefits for their service. Clara Barton and other Civil War nurses relentlessly sought some form of benefit for the women who left their homes to selflessly aid the men and military forces. Victory was hard-won on August 5, 1892, over 30 years after the Civil War started, when Congress authorized the first pensions for women who served as nurses for the Union forces during the war.
Although the pensions were authorized, they were not so easy to obtain. Men who served in the military typically received discharge or disability papers with which to prove their service and aid in obtaining benefits. Women nurses had none of those. Many women gave up the search for witnesses who could help vouch for their service and for those who persevered, it often took years. You can imagine the difficulties encountered by former slaves seeking pensions, as most of them could not read or write, but one beloved nurse, Lucy Higgs Nichols, was fortunate:
In 1861 Union General Benjamin F. Butler issued an order that runaway slaves would be considered as “contrabands of war” and not to be returned to their masters. Many slaves fled and embarked on treacherous journeys to the nearest Union forts or encampments seeking asylum and freedom. That summer, a small group of runaway slaves slipped by the large Higgs farm near Grays Creek, Tennessee, on their way to find one of many Union regiments camped in the vicinity. There they met Lucy Higgs, a slave on the Higgs’ farm, and she soon joined them on their freedom quest. Lucy Higgs traveled at night on foot, through fields, briars, and underbrush until they found a Union camp near Bolivar, Tennessee. There, Lucy joined the 23rd Indiana regiment and served as a nurse during the war. She was the only African American woman in the regiment. She traveled with the regiment to Vicksburg and other battlefields in the South and came to be known affectionately as “Aunt Lucy” by the men.
After the war ended and the 23rd Indiana regiment mustered out in the summer of 1865, Lucy followed the men when they returned to their homes in New Albany, Indiana, and she made it her hometown, as well. Lucy later married John Nichols and the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) allowed her to become an honorary member. In 1898, after six years of applying for a pension and being denied, she received a nurse’s pension of $12 per month by a Special Act of Congress, with full support from veterans of the 23rd Indiana regiment. She died in 1915 and was buried with full military honors next to her husband in what was then known as the Colored Cemetery in New Albany.