This letter was written by Usher Parsons (1788-1868) who was born and raised in Alfred, Maine, the son of William and Abigail Parsons. After studying under physicians in Maine and in Boston, he secured a commission as naval surgeon’s mate at the outset of the war of 1812. He was later assigned to a small fleet under the command of Oliver Hazard Perry, and his performance as the only surgeon at the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10 1813 has become legendary in the annals of military surgery.¹ He remained under Perry’s command after the conclusion of the war on the frigate Java, which sailed to Algiers and other Mediterranean ports, returning in March of 1817. He then obtained a medical degree at Harvard and returned to naval service on the frigate Guerriere through 1820.
In 1822, Parsons settled permanently in Providence, Rhode Island. He soon married Mary Jackson Holmes (1802-1825), the sister of famed poet Oliver Wendell Holmes. They had one child, Charles W. Parsons (1823-1893). Usher Parsons was a professor of anatomy and surgery at Brown University from 1823 to 1828; president of the Rhode Island Medical Society from 1837 to 1839, served briefly as acting president of the American Medical Association in 1853, and was the first president of the Rhode Island Natural History Society in 1837. He was also active in the early years of the Rhode Island Historical Society, and was the author of “A Brief Account of the Early Physicians and of the Medical Society of Rhode Island” (American Quarterly Register, February 1840) as well as numerous other medical and historical articles and addresses.
Usher Parsons wrote the letter to his nephew, Edwin Parsons — the son of William and Mary Parsons of Alfred, Maine. In the 1840’s with his younger brother George, Edwin Parsons entered the office of Carhart & Scott, cotton merchants in Savannah, Georgia. In 1846 the firm name changed to Edwin Parsons & Co. and in 1856 the brothers opened an office in New York. Edwin Parsons took charge of this office and the Savannah company became George Parsons & Co. The brothers were also the principal owners of the Bank of Middle Georgia in Macon. With the coming of the Civil War, the brothers invested funds largely in cotton, which was shipped to Liverpool. The Savannah office was closed in 1861 and did not reopen; the New York office remained open during the war. The funds of the bank were forwarded to London at the beginning of the war, which enabled it to redeem its bills and obligations and pay its shareholders a profit when the war was over.
After the Civil War, George and Edwin Parsons made their headquarters in New York City and turned their business interests toward railroads and mining. Edwin Parsons died in 1895. In the 1880’s, George Parsons entered the street railway business in the Savannah area, purchasing the City & Suburban Railway Company. In 1892 the Savannah, Thunderbolt & Isle of Hope Railway Company was established with George Parsons as president. He also had interests in several coal companies around Birmingham, Alabama, as well as in the Sloss Sheffield Steel & Iron Company.
Addressed to Edwin Parsons, Esq., Merchant, Savannah, Georgia
February 19, 1854
I received your very acceptable letter and thank you for the very judicious advice you gave me in respect to investments, and so highly do I esteem it that I shall follow it very closely.
Being a little tired of a monotonous life in Providence, I left there three days since to pass a few days in this city, among old professional acquaintances and shall return home his week. I like your suggestion to retire from practice and to spend much of my time in excursions. A long one is before me for the latter half of April and first of May when I shall travel to St. Louis through Philadelphia and Cincinnati, and thence proceed north to Minnesota and homeward through the Lakes and Saratoga.
We are very pleasantly settled down now and in better condition than for a great many years, and have a spare chamber at your service in July when we will have some pleasant excursions down the bay, and clambakes, and perhaps we can go to the White Mountains together and return through Portland and Kennebunk and Alfred.
I have heard very little news from Alfred for some months. The Life of Sir William Pepperell will go to press next summer. I thank you for the offer of a liberal subscription to the work. I shall need all the help I can muster among friends for although it has been complimented by readers of the press, it is not a work that will be extensively saleable. If I can get off with a loss of 200, I shall be satisfied as I have the vanity to think it will do me some little credit for industry at least.
Give my kind remembrances to George and tell him I should be pleased to receive a letter from him. And I hope you will write me again soon.
Yours affectionately, — Usher Parsons
¹ Dr. Usher Parsons at the start of the War of 1812, served as Surgeon’s Mate aboard the flagship on Lake Erie of Oliver Hazard Perry. On September 10, 1813, Perry’s small fleet engaged a British squadron in a heavy exchange of cannon fire. With his flagship reduced to a wreck, Perry rowed under fire to another warship, hoisted his flag, sailed back into battle and defeated the astonished enemy within 15 minutes. During the battle, while four-fifths of Perry’s crew were killed or wounded and both Perry’s fleet surgeons were incapacitated, the 25 year-old Parsons, with no medical degree and no previous battle experience, treated, single-handed, all the wounded men who laid bleeding on the hot, crowded wardroom floor, amputating six limbs and dressing the wounds of scores of seamen as cannon balls crashed into the room. Of 96 wounded seamen, only 3 died.