A Fearless Purpose – Meet Emily E. Parsons

On May 14, 1863, Massachusetts native and high-spirited nurse Emily E. Parsons sat down in her living quarters to pen her friend Carrie a letter about her daily experiences as the head nurse of the largest military hospital in the Western Theater: Benton Barracks Post and Convalescent Hospital in St. Louis.

Emily E Parsons - St. Louis Nurse.jpg

Head nurse at Benton Barracks Hospital, Emily E. Parsons. Courtesy of Fearless Purpose.

“It is a life of hard work, and uncertain work: you never know one week where you may be sent the next. I have gone wherever I was asked since I came here, and nearly killed myself — though I do not mind that, — and now if I get my strength back, I shall keep where I can use it, and not, by getting sick, become of no use or comfort to anybody. We must have our bodies in good order, if we want to do for others.”[1]

Parsons’ story was a unique one. Born in 1824 in southern Massachusetts, she was the oldest daughter of seven of Harvard professor and lawyer Theophilus Parsons. Though living a privileged life in Cambridge, Parsons was quite frail and susceptible to injury and illness. As a child, she was blinded by a pair of scissors in her right eye, leaving her “disfigured” with the “iris and the lenses . . . badly torn.”[2] Just two years after that incident, she was “extremely ill with scarlet fever,” which left her “totally deaf” temporarily, but “in adult life was able to hear whatever was distinctly addressed to her.”[3] Parsons was unable to have a normal conversation.

In 1861, she was 37 and eager to support the Union cause by becoming a nurse. According to her father, “she knew the difficulties under which she labored, but earnestly desired to make the effort and do as much as she could.”[4] She worked at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston until October of 1862, when she was transferred to Fort Schuyler, New York. In January 1863, she was sent to St. Louis’ Lawson Hospital to work as a nurse, then quickly sent to work on a hospital boat along the Mississippi River. Though stricken with malaria, Parsons recovered in St. Louis, then was assigned head nurse of the Benton Barracks Post and Convalescent Hospital. Working as the head nurse of the largest military hospital in Western Theater, she experienced the war’s horrific effect on soldiers, civilians, and slaves alike.

Benton Barracks - St. Louis Nurse

A woodcut of Benton Barracks in St. Louis. Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.

Below, check out some stories from her personal letters.

“Side by side with the heroism in the field that we read of, there is another heroism, grander, more courageous, working for eternity. The men want to be told these things; they care for them, ask for them . . . They are dear, good souls, some of them. One very sick man has been very low-spirited lately. Two days ago his wife came to see him, bringing a beautiful little daughter he had never before seen. Oh, he was so happy! He is very week: I am afraid he will never be much stronger. He sits on the side of his bed, holding his baby’s little hands in his, and the wife sits and looks at them both. He told me that his oldest child told the mother not to come home without papa. They want comforting in many ways.” – May 14, 1863

“I found a German Doctor who did not understand neatness, and who was going away; I waited till he went, then a skillful Doctor possessed of Yankee neatness joined forces with we and in we went. We revolutionized the place. We got in an army of whitewashers, for lime is a disinfectant; while the new Doctor superintended whitewashers, I went to the head surgeon, and asked for clean furniture: he kept his word and said I should have it. So, going from one place to another, I got in iron bedsteads, new mattresses, pillows, bed furniture, mosquito nettings; had the tables and cupboards washed . . . everything is now as clean and nice as any other ward.” – June 7, 1863


Founder of the Colored Ladies’ Union Aid Society and abolitionist Mary Meachum. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

“This afternoon, of the leading members [of the Colored Ladies’ Union Aid Society] came to see me. She is a well educated and intelligent woman; her occupation that of a hair-dresser; she is married, and she and her husband are respectable honest people. Her name is Lee. She and her friends are trying to do all they can for their brethren. They visit them, teach them to read, read to them, and comfort them in many ways . . . You have hardly an idea in Massachusetts of the work there is to be done. I used to think the statements of abolitionists extreme, and that their views were sometime irrational; now I wonder that people acquainted with the facts can keep any bounds at all. I heard things to-day that would make your blood run cold.” – April 9, 1864

1. Emily E. Parsons, Fearless Purpose: Memoir of Emily Elizabeth Parsons (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1880), 95.
2. Ibid., 2.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid., 4.

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