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Last Civil War Nurse – Alice Cary Farmer Risley (1847-1931)

In January 1873, the weather in West Plains was probably cloudy and cold. A bit of sunshine and warmth, however, came riding down from the north that month in a one-horse buggy. Alice Cary Risley had just arrived from St. Louis to join her husband, Sam A. Risley. Howell County had just gained a first-class citizen.

Alice Cary Farmer was born in Washington, Ohio, to Massachusetts parents on November 1, 1847. Her mother, Phoebe Farmer, was a cousin of Alice and Phoebe Cary, noted Ohio poets.

When Alice was three years old, her parents moved to New Iberia, Louisiana, where her father ran a cooperage, manufacturing sugar barrels. It must have been there, during the days of her extreme youth, that Alice learned from gentle and loving parents the importance of being a good and loyal citizen. Alice was a carefree girl of fourteen when the storm clouds of war broke out on Bayou Le Teche in 1862. Alice’s father was opposed to slavery and was forced to abandon his family secretly in order to join Union forces in the north.

After Mr. Farmer’s flight, while Confederate soldiers were camped near the Farmer home, orders were issued that no one was to pass through Confederate lines. Southerners were questioning Mrs. Farmer’s loyalty to the south because Mr. Farmer had left “in a hurry,” leaving his family and possessions behind. It became clear the Farmer women too, would have to leave. 

Mrs. Farmer and Alice made two attempts to board a transport. But both times a mob gathered, threatening to hang the “Yankee Spy” if she tried to board the boat. Alice’s mother, realizing the danger of being caught in an unfriendly environment, had little choice but to embark on a dangerous path eastward, traveling mostly by watering a small rowboat. Paddling by night, they sought refuge under overhanging trees during the day. For four nights and three days, they were without food, except for one sweet potato each, given to them by a negro woman on a French plantation.

After encountering danger everywhere and during moments of hair-raising terror, Mrs. Farmer and Alice finally reached occupied New Orleans, “almost more dead than alive.” In New Orleans, they researched the hospitals for someone from Mrs. Farmer’s hometown, Townsend, Massachusetts. Mrs. Farmer at last found soldiers from the 26th Massachusetts Regiment. Among them were the sons of her old schoolmates. Day after day, month after month, from September 1862 to September 1865, Alice and her mother stayed in New Orleans caring for sick and wounded Union Solders. The Framer’s house was used to shelter sick and injured soldiers and refugees on numerous occasions and their work was voluntary and they never received one cent for their years of work.

It was there on New Orleans at the St. James Infirmary that Alice met Samuel A. Risley. He had been wounded in the Battle of Vicksburg and she nursed him back to good health. Sam never forgot the young nurse who cared for him while he was recovering. 

Alice and her mother continued to tend to the needs of the wounded for five months after the close of the War. In September 1856, after 36 months of dedicated service, Alice and her mother retired as volunteer nurses. 

In 1869 the Farmer family moved to Illinois. Sam Risley had kept in touch with Alice through the years. Their love for one another grew steadily, and they were married near St. Louis in 1870.

Alice remained in St. Louis while Sam came to West Plains to establish a newspaper. He published the old South Missouri Journal with the help of B.F. Olden, a pioneer attorney. The paper was a successor to the Type of the Times, West Plains’ short-lived first newspaper founded by captain E.F. Hines. Risley’s paper later became the West Plains Journal.

As soon as possible, Sam made the necessary preparations for Alice’s arrival in West Plains. She left from St. Louis by rail after New Year’s day in 1873, stopping at Rolla, the railroad station nearest to West Plains.  At Rolla, she hired a one-horse buggy and headed for West Plains, over 100 miles to the south. 

In a few days, Alice arrived at her new home, bringing with her the spark of energy that would enrich the lives of those around her and win the love, respect and admiration of all who knew them, not only in our area but across the nation.

Sam and Alice Risley were very civic-minded and were soon honored by Sam’s appointment as postmaster of West Plains. Alice was appointed assistant postmistress.

Sam Risley was elected mayor of West Plains and so, in effect, Alice became The First Lady of our city. Both Risleys were very active in civic, social, and religious circles and were among the most respected citizens of Howell County.

Alice Cary Risley wrote the first history of Howell County in 1876, for the United States Centennial celebration. Alice, on many occasions, shared her sketch of early life in Howell County. Her well-loved stories were filled with touches of humor and human interest. Her historical articles are still used today for reference.

Sam and Alice Risley were the parents of four children. After the death of one of her daughters, Alice took in a granddaughter and proceeded to raise one more child. Sam Risley died in 1894 and was buried n Oak Lawn Cemetery. A few years after his death, Alice moved her family to Jefferson City. Later, Mrs. Risley was hostess for a number of years in a sorority house in Columbia.

In 1937, Alice was honored by the West Plains Chamber of Commerce at a reception in recognition of her importance as an outstanding pioneer of our town and country.

Alice was very active in the Woman’s Relief Corps, and especially in the National Association of Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic., whose annual conventions she attended for 40 years without missing a meeting. Alice Cary Risley was also the last surviving member of the National Association of Civil War Nurses.

When the Ladies of G.A.R. Circle #76 in West Plains was organized in 1937, the ladies voted to name the circle Alice, who treasured her years spent as the most precious in her life. When Alice attended the National meetings of the GAR, she was always recognized. Her pictures were carried across out country by the Associated Press and other news agencies.  At the age of 92, Alice Cary Risley died at the home of her son, Guy Risley in Alexandria, Louisiana. Her body was brought to West Plains. Her funeral was held in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, and she was laid to rest beside her husband in Oak Lawn Cemetery.

The story of Alice Cary Risley does not end at this point, however. Her friends across the nation, after mourning their loss, began to search for a lasting memorial that was suitable to honor this dear friend, neighbor, nurse, historian, civic leader, and patriot. The highest tribunal was paid to Mrs. Risley when, on May 19, 1940, at Oak Lawn Cemetery, state officials of the ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic dedicated a memorial in recognition of her services during the Civil War. A rose granite grave marker was unveiled. It read:

Alice Cary Risley


Civil War Nurse


Ladies from Kansas City, St. Joseph, Republic, and Springfield took part in the dedication ceremony. West Plains Mayor James P. Harlin and City Clerk A.F. Day accepted the memorial on behalf of the city and acknowledged the “priceless service” of Mrs. Risley as a young girl ministering to the wounded and sick. A handsome marble bench failed to arrive in time for the ceremony, but in a few days, it was placed at the corner of the Risley family plot. On decoration Day, 1940, hundreds of people walked by the grave to view the memorial. Today, this unusual monument still says, to all who pass by, that here is the resting place of a great lady.