While conducting research on the 1st U.S. Colored Cavalry Regiment, Fort Monroe staff came across a Lucy Christian listed as a matron on the regiment’s hospital muster roll for January and February 1865. The 1st U.S. Colored Cavalry was organized at Camp Hamilton, Virginia, right across the bridge from Fort Monroe in present-day Phoebus. Owned by the Segar family, this land was quickly requisitioned by the Union Army during the Civil War to quarter the huge number of troops arriving to secure Fort Monroe.
In May 1861, three enslaved men, Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Shepard Mallory, risked their lives to seek freedom at the union-held Fort Monroe. The commanding officer of the fort agreed to employ them, rather than sending them back to their enslaver. Afterwards thousands of freedom-seekers arrived at Fort Monroe and were known as “Contraband” in that they had been used by enemy forces against the Union. In May 1863, General Order No. 143 created the Bureau of Colored Troops leading to the organization of the 1st U.S. Colored Cavalry. While many Black men enlisted in the U.S. Colored Troops, the Union Army wanted a way to keep Black women and children out of military areas of operation, and as a result, Contraband communities were created. One was located in Phoebus, most likely growing from the families of soldiers in the 1st U.S. Colored Cavalry. It is possible that Lucy Christian came from the ranks of these women.
As a matron, Christian would have had a management role within this hospital unit, most likely supervising administrative tasks and possibly other nurses. Her story, however, is one that has been difficult to trace. Slavery and institutionalized discrimination have left documentation of the lives of Black Americans with many holes. Some records were never created, some have not been prioritized for conservation, and others sit in archives unprocessed and forgotten. Enslaved people were often violently separated from their families, and some who bought their freedom or were freed with the Emancipation Proclamation changed names, dropping the name of their enslaver. For women, multiple marriages might result in several different last names which were not accurately recorded. As a result, genealogy for Black Americans has many unique challenges. Our research of Lucy Christian has kept many of these challenges in mind, and unfortunately not enough information has been located to definitively tell Christian’s story. Below, we recount some of the many possibilities.
Many women, Black and white, joined their husbands, fathers, and sons on the road during the Civil War. Looking through the muster rolls of the 1st U.S. Colored Cavalry, there are two soldiers with the surname Christian: Thomas and Ulmstead. It is possible, but difficult to confirm, that one of these men is a relation of Lucy Christian. Another possibility is that Lucy Christian was enslaved at the Cedar Grove Plantation in nearby New Kent, Virginia. Owned by the Christian family, it is possible that Lucy’s surname comes from that of her enslaver. As with many self-emancipators, she may have risked her life seeking refuge in Union-held Hampton Roads. Finally, a Black nurse by the name of Lucy Christian is listed in the Norfolk city directory for 1872. Did Lucy Christian continue nursing in nearby Norfolk following the end of the war? All of these research trails provide possible explanations for Lucy’s history.
Many Black families, both enslaved and free, did not have easy access to healthcare, and as a result Black women passed down traditional African medical knowledge and additional skills gleaned through years of practice. In John Shaw Billings “Report on Barracks and Hospitals” of 1870, it is reported that, at the Fort Monroe hospital, many of the babies, both Black and white, were delivered by Black midwives before and after the Civil War. It is an additional possibility that Lucy Christian utilized these learned skills during the Civil War and found different work after the conflict when there were not as many opportunities available for Black nurses.
There were many Black women who were contracted as nurses for the Union Army, both officially and unofficially. Some, like Susie King Taylor, were never paid for their services. Taylor traveled with the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops, of which her husband was a soldier, as a nurse. Harriet Tubman provided healthcare at a number of different Civil War hospitals, including a stint inspecting the Contraband Hospital at Fort Monroe. Tubman was officially listed as a laundress, but a knowledge of the properties of many roots and herbs allowed her to care for ailing patients in the Contraband Hospital in Beaufort, South Carolina. Like Taylor, she did not receive pay for her work. Both women received a widow’s pension, rather than a pension of their own. Several notations on Lucy Christian’s muster roll are therefore significant. She is specifically listed as a matron, rather than a laundress. The few other women who appear on the 1st U.S. Colored Cavalry muster rolls are all identified as laundresses, although they most likely filled a wider role. Additionally, under remarks, the roll notes that Christian is due pay from January 1865. Despite the notation, however, we cannot be sure Christian ever received that pay. Many Black soldiers did not see the money owed them until years into their service, and money owed the Contrabands, or self-emancipators, was often put into a communal fund to provide food and clothes to these people. They rarely received their pay in cash that could be used to independently sustain themselves.
So Lucy Christian’s story is one with many unanswered questions. We will continue to search for evidence regarding her experiences and her life before and after her time with the 1st U.S. Colored Cavalry. Her story, regardless, holds significance. She provided much-needed help in nursing Black soldiers, possibly with no compensation accept their gratitude. Her story, as written here, also illustrates for modern day researchers and genealogists the challenges associated with doing history constrained by an institutional framework which prioritizes people of one race and disregards those of another. Despite the challenges, however, it is important work that needs to be done to the best of our ability. If you have more to add regarding her story, please consider reaching out! We would love to learn from you.
Fort Monroe Authority. “Lucy Christian.” Illuminating Shadows, April 28, 2023. [access date]. [URL].