Civil War Nurses of Mount Auburn Cemetery: Emily Elizabeth Parsons

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Emily Elizabeth Parsons

By Bill McEvoy

In honor of National Nurses Week, local historian Bill McEvoy has compiled histories of some of the Civil War nurses who are buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery. This is part two of seven.

Emily was the daughter of Professor Theophilus Parsons of the Harvard Law School. She was described as indomitable, heroic, and warm-hearted. 

At the beginning of the Civil War, she trained to be a Nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital. Her intent was to go to the War and care for sick and wounded Union Soldiers.

She began her nursing studies having, as a younger person, incurred three major health injuries.  She had impaired vision from an injury. At age five, she accidentally ran a pointed pair of scissors into her right eye, causing blindness. Her left eye strained to compensate, such that she never had a normal vision after that. 

At age 7 Emily contracted scarlet fever. Initially, it left her totally deaf. She slowly recovered to partial hearing. That allowed her to understand when someone looked at her directly and talked to her. At age 25, she severely injured her ankle, causing almost constant pain. After long hours of standing and walking, she was obliged to sit for some time to recover.  

Emily did enter the nurses’ program at Massachusetts General Hospital. After 18 months of training the hospital gave her a two-year furlough to begin ministering to wounded soldiers. In October 1862, she was given a ward and attended to 50 wounded soldiers at Fort Schuyler Military Hospital on Long Island, New York.

Later, Emily wrote to Dorothea Dix, offering her services wherever they might be needed. She was sent to St. Louis. The sick and wounded were brought from Vicksburg, Arkansas Post, and Helena up the river. They were cared for at St. Louis and other military posts. 

Later Emily was made head nurse of the hospital steamer, The City of Alton. That was during the Vicksburg Mississippi campaign. At Vicksburg, the ship was loaded with four hundred invalid soldiers, many sick with fever, and others past recovery. They returned as far as Memphis. 

During this trip, Emily’s strength and endurance were tried, having given her utmost in caring for the helpless and suffering men. Emily performed such duties for many more months. After serving six months in the capacity, having several recurrences of malaria, Emily went back home to Massachusetts.

After a short rest, she went back to Saint Louis and resumed his same position at the Benton Barracks Hospital. She stayed there until August 1864, when poor health caused her to go home again.

By the time she recovered the war was over. She then spent her time aiding the freed slaves and refugees, by collecting clothing and other necessary items. 

At home, in Cambridge, Emily attempted to address the town’s lack of adequate health care for its citizens by raising money to establish a small charity hospital for women and children.  That opened in 1867 at Cambridgeport. She served as the matron and nurse, however, after a year, the hospital was forced to close.

In December 1869, Emily opened a new hospital in East Cambridge, at the corners of Prospect in Hampshire Streets. That hospital closed after two years.

When Emily died from a stroke, on May 19th, 1880, her father published her correspondence entitled, Memoir of Emily Elizabeth Parsons. That free 159-page book can be downloaded from Google Books.

Emily’s hospital fundraising efforts continued in her memory. In 1883, there were sufficient funds to purchase a nine-acre plot overlooking the Charles River near Gerry’s Landing. The building of Mount Auburn Hospital began. The first structure, completed in 1886, was named the Parsons Building in Emily’s honor. 

Find the gravesites of the Civil War Nurses by entering their name here: Bill McEvoy can be reached at

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