Blind Nurse – Emily Parsons

Did you know… Emily Elizabeth Parsons(March 28, 1824-May 19, 1880)?
First in a series on Civil War Women
Emily was a Civil War nurse who was blind in one eye, partially deaf, and had an ankle injury that pained her when standing for long hours. She served in many hospitals, was at the battle of Vicksburg, and eventually founded Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Ma.

Emily was born in Taunton, Ma., to Theopolis and Catherine Parsons. Her father was a Harvard professor of law, a supporter of Lincoln, and unusually progressive in his ideas about the education of women. She was the eldest of seven children. At age five, she accidentally ran a pointed pair of scissors into her right eye, causing it to be blind. Her left eye strained to compensate, such that she never had normal vision after that.


Scarlet fever at seven years old left her initially totally deaf. She slowly recovered partial hearing, so that she could understand when someone looked at her directly and talked to her.

At age twenty five, she severely injured her ankle, causing almost constant pain. After long hours standing and walking, she was obliged to sit for some time to recover. Her father records that she rarely mentioned the pain.

Emily attended Cambridge High School, and for many years, she attended to domestic womanly pursuits of the time, her disabilities making her an unlikely candidate for marriage. At age thirty-seven, when the Civil War broke out, Emily’s sympathies were stirred by observing the injuries of returning soldiers, and she wanted to volunteer as a nurse. Her father attempted to dissuade her, thinking that with her handicaps she would be of little use. Emily was determined, and trained at Mass General Hospital. She was then assigned to Fort Schuyler on Long Island in October, 1862 where for “two months she performed the duties of hospital nurse, in the most faithful and satisfactory manner”. She writes, “I am matron of ward six. I have at present forty five children, besides my orderlies, who require a tight hand to be kept over them.”

The conditions at Schuyler were primitive. “You speak of pasting up cracks,—that would involve lining the whole building. It is composed of one layer of planking, not perfectly joined anywhere, and the ventilators in the roof so imperfect that we were deluged and snowed on; the water literally ran in the wards. Last week, I think on Friday night, I was obliged to get up in the night, put on my wrapper and call my night-watch to help move my bed round because I was being rained on,”

Emily wanted to be at the front with the soldiers and wrote to Dorothea Dix, but Dix turned her down. Using other connections, she then went to Lawson Hospital in St. Louis, where she records: “I told some of my men to-night, when I was giving them their supper, that I had more children than the old woman in the shoe, and they were diverted at the idea. My life here is unlike anything I ever thought of. The head surgeon keeps asking me how I like it.”

After a brief stay at Lawson, she was formally commissioned into the Western Sanitary Commission, and assigned to the steamship hospital, City of Alton.

Interior of hospital steamship

“From the steamship, Parsons again sent letters home, writing of the clouds of exploding shells being fired back and forth between the Union and Confederate armies. In one anecdote, she tells of a freed slave walking past with creaking boots, and how another freedman calls out to her, “Ah Jane, your boots cry out for freedom!”.[5] Many of the wounded soldiers died on the passage up the river.” – Wikipedia

At Vicksburg she writes: “We are in full sight of Vicksburg, and have been watching the firing between the enemy and one of our gunboats. Our men are cutting a canal to get at the enemy by land, and the object of the enemy is to stop the proceeding; so they keep firing shells at our men, who are obliged to stop work and run under cover; and then, when the shell has exploded, our boat fires back and occupies the enemy for a little while, so that our men get some work done. “

Four hundred wounded were in her charge, steaming up past Memphis, from the battle at Vicksburg, as well as some escaped slaves. The strain was great, and Emily contracted malaria, forcing her to return to St. Louis to recover.

On finding herself in better health, she was made head nurse at the Bentonville Hospital, presiding over two thousand beds. Emily was subject to bouts of returning malaria for most of her remaining years. She often would direct other nurses from her sick bed.

Emily was a champion of civil rights in St. Louis. She heard stories from African American women that “would make your blood boil”. She did not hesitate to tend black soldiers or train black nurses.

Every day, she tirelessly comforted the sick and dying, treating them when she could, ministering to them when their wounds were beyond hope. She read Psalms to them, talked with them, held their hands as they died. She marveled at how some of the most wounded were willing to give up care and scarce medicine to treat others more likely to live. “You do not know how much you are passing through at such times, till it is all over and you feel the reaction. I am glad of this two or three days’ rest. I am struck with the immediate peace that repeating the Word [Bible] brings to the men when in trouble; it is almost unfailing, especially when they are dying. I am getting sadly familiar with death”.

After the war, for six years, Emily went about speaking, trying to raise funds for a new hospital. She met with moderate success, opening Cambridge Hospital in 1869. The hospital was forced to close in 1872 for lack of funds, but later re-opened after Emily’s death as Mount Auburn Hospital.

In 1880, Emily suffered a stroke, and died.

Source: Parsons, Emily Elizabeth (2014-03-04T22:58:59). Fearless Purpose: A Blind Nurse in the Civil War (Abridged, Annotated) (Kindle Locations 116-117). BIG BYTE BOOKS. Kindle Edition.

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