Historian discovers bravery, tenderness of former slave

7:36 AM, Feb 20, 2012   |    comments
  • Share
  • Print
  • - A A A +
  • Artist Ernest Varner painted this study of Emma Stephenson after hearing her history at the Marietta National Cemetery.
  • The headstone of Emma Stephenson, a former slave who joined the Union Army as a nurse during the Civil War.
    

MARIETTA, Ga. -- Volunteer historian Brad Quinlin knows the stories behind thousands of headstones at the Marietta National Cemetery, but there is one that has captivated him.

"We're down in the USCT section of the cemetery," Quinlin said during a tour of the cemetery last week. "You see there, she died on July 16, 1864, while here in the hospital in Marietta, Georgia."

PHOTO GALLERY | Former slave fights for freedom with gentle hands 

Quinlin points to the gravesite of Emma Stephenson, which sits among the African-American soldiers who fought in the Union army during the Civil War. She was a former slave who became a nurse.

"Whenever I come out to the national cemetery and talk about Emma, I always bring a rose and place it by her headstone," he said.

Quinlin has traced her history back to Tennessee, where she was freed by Union soldiers. She then decided to join their fight.

"She could have gone to safety. She didn't have to come on and become a nurse, put herself in peril and in danger," Quinlin said. "But she chose. For the first time in her life, maybe, she had an opportunity to choose what she was going to do, and she chose to become a nurse."

Quinlin wanted to know more, so he traveled to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. last summer.

That's where he found a letter from William Walls.

"It was just a gem," he said.

Walls was a wounded soldier who wrote a letter to his mother from the 17th Army Corps Hospital in Marietta on July 9, 1864.

"Do not worry for me, because we have this slave nurse," Walls wrote. "She is taking care of us, and she takes care of us with the same tender hands that you would." 

There are no known photos of Emma, but now there is an image in the form of an artist's study.

"I know what I want the painting to feel like," said artist Ernest Varner of Acworth. "I want a bunch of love to come from her and the soldiers."

Varner is a retired Army officer-turned-artist who was visiting the Marietta National Cemetery last year when he met Quinlin and learned about Emma.

He's still working on his study, like a rough draft. The final painting will come next.

"It's such a wonderful story that back at that period of time, people could rise above whatever their station they had in life," Varner said. 

"Can you imagine what she saw in that time period as being a nurse?" Quinlin said. "Wounded men coming in, sick men, all sorts of diseases."

It was one of those diseases that took Emma's life. She was originally buried in the hospital cemetery then moved to the Marietta National Cemetery three years later.

"The men she took care of are right here," Quinlin said. "And she's on this hill even today looking after them and sharing that compassion. Her story should be told."

Most Watched Videos