Lucy Higgs lived an extraordinary life. Born a slave in North Carolina, she gained her freedom during the Civil War, became a nurse to the 23rd Regiment of Indiana Volunteers, and lived out her days in New Albany. In 1898, a special act of Congress awarded her a pension for her services during the war. The Lucy Higgs Nichols Historical Marker at Veterans Plaza, at the intersection of East Market and East 10th streets, honors her life and role in the struggle for racial equality.
Nichols is believed to have been born in 1838. In 1862, she gained her freedom by fleeing to the 23rd Regiment while it camped near Bolivar, Tennessee. According to one account, the men of the 23rd protected Nichols and her baby daughter when their former owner came after them. Nichols became a nurse with the 23rd Regiment and remained with them throughout the war. She participated in at least 28 battles, including the siege of Vicksburg; the capture of Jackson, Mississippi; and the pursuit of Confederate General John Bell Hood in Alabama and Georgia. In addition to serving as a nurse, Nichols also worked for the 23rd Regiment as a cook and servant. Her daughter died in Vicksburg. Nichols was with the regiment when it mustered out in Washington, D.C. She accompanied the men back to Indiana and settled in New Albany. She was the only woman who served with the 23rd Regiment.
In 1870, Higgs married John Nichols, a Civil War veteran who had served with the 8th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery. The couple lived in the Fifth Ward of New Albany with John’s father, Leander. In 1892, Nichols applied for a pension from the United States government after Congress passed an act allowing compensation to Civil War nurses. She was denied the pension but continued to fight for it. She and 55 veterans of the 23rd Regiment petitioned Congress again in 1895. In 1898, Nichols received her pension through a special act of Congress. For the rest of her life she received $12 a month in recognition of her valor during the “War of the Rebellion.”
Nichols became an honorary member of the Sanderson Post of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), the major Union veterans’ organization. She was one of a handful of women to receive such status. Higgs participated in 23rd Regiment reunions, state encampments, and Decoration Day programs, and she marched with the regiment in parades. Her participation in these activities suggests that she considered her wartime service significant.Nichols spent her last years at the county poor house on Grant Line Road because she had no one to care for her. She died January 29, 1915. Her final resting place is believed to be in West Haven Cemetery.
The best overview of Higgs’s life is “Remembered: The Life of Lucy Higgs Nichols,” an exhibit at the Carnegie Center for Art and History. The Carnegie Center is located at 201 E. Spring Street and is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.