"One of the Best Generals," during the Civil War


From They Persisted



Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke was born in Knox County, near Mount Vernon, Ohio, on July 19, 1817, to Hiram and Annie Cassady Ball. Her father was a farmer. Her mother died when she was just seventeen months old. Hiram, now a grieving and overwhelmed widower, sent Mary Ann to live with her elderly grandparents, who farmed in Richland County. Upon their deaths, she went to live with her uncle, Henry Rogers, on his farm in Hamilton County, Ohio. She had a very limited, basic education and her childhood was difficult as she was being shifted from relative to relative.


At sixteen, Mary Ann moved to Oberlin, Ohio, where some accounts say she worked in the home of a professor as a domestic. She attended Oberlin College, one of the few institutions of higher education open to a woman in the United States, but did not graduate. She received training as a nurse in Cincinnati where she worked assisting doctors during the cholera epidemics of 1837 and 1849, which took thousands of lives. The 1849 epidemic took Harriet Beecher Stowe’s infant son. Mary Ann was also an early abolition activist who transported escaping slaves in a wagon.


In April 1847, she married Robert Bickerdike, a sign painter and musician. He was a widower with three children. In 1849, she gave birth to their first child, John, who lived for only a few minutes. Later, they had two sons, James and Hiram, and a daughter, Martha, who died when she was two. After only 12 years of marriage, Robert died in 1860, the same year she lost little Martha, leaving Mary Ann to support the remaining family. After Robert’s death, they moved to Galesburg, Illinois, where she was a member of the Congregational Church. She opened a practice in “botanic” medicine and alternative medicines, using herbs and plants which she had studied in Cincinnati before she was married, and now she relied on those skills as her livelihood.


One Sunday in 1861, during a church service at the Galesburg Congregational Church, the Rev. Dr. Edward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, spoke about the horrible neglect of the Illinois volunteers who had become sick with typhoid and dysentery at a Union Army camp in nearby Cairo. She hadn't heard of their plight before. Rev. Beecher read a letter to the congregation that was sent by Dr. Woodward, who was a surgeon with the 22nd Illinois Infantry and a friend of Mary Ann’s. He wrote persuasively, begging for help. The letter described the conditions at the camp and it so moved the congregation that they donated $500 to the cause. Mary Ann organized the relief fund, got supplies, and took them to the camp for disbursement. No one else would go. She left her children, 12 and 13 now, in the care of a neighbor, and headed to Cairo, becoming a nurse in the Union Army. She was 44 years old.


Upon her arrival at the camp, it was horrifying to discover that the situation was even more squalid than Dr. Woodward had described. Conditions were filthy, crowded, unsanitary, and there was little food. Mary Ann set to work immediately, without waiting for permission from anyone, which became her way. She began cleaning, feeding and nursing the sick men, and so began her four-year career helping the sick and wounded of the Civil War, both at the front lines and behind them. She had barrels cut in half for the men to bathe in and clean clothes to put on, sent to them by the congregation back home. They set huge kettles up over a fire where soups simmered, and porridge, tea, and coffee brewed. They baked bread in brick ovens; eggs, milk, and fresh vegetables secured from local farmers and they prepared healthy meals for the recovering soldiers. The injured soldiers deserved the best, and Mary Ann was determined to see that they got it.

It was during this time that she met Mary Livermore, an associate member of the United States Sanitary Commission. The Commission had recognized Mary Ann’s organizational genius and fortitude, which included floating a herd of cows down the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to provide hospitalized soldiers with fresh milk and beef. They appointed her a field agent for the Northwestern branch of the Sanitary Commission, earning $50 a month. Until this time she had been working for the army with no official appointment, rank, renumeration or authority, although authority always seemed to be her trademark. Livermore also helped Mary Ann to find care for her two sons in Beloit, Wisconsin, while she was in the field. She used her salary to settle her sons in a boardinghouse. Her sons were vociferous in their complaints about leaving the neighbor’s care and moving to Beloit, but she was confident that they were old enough to be away from her and would receive good care in their new situation.


Mary Ann searched daily for the wounded and when darkness fell, she listened at the edges of the battlefields for the groans of wounded men that were overlooked. When she heard them, she went out herself through rain and storms and, depending on the time of year, icy conditions, with lanterns and stretchers to bring them back to the field hospital for care. When bandages ran low, she tore up any of her own clothing that would serve the need. She held hands with wounded and dying men and sang songs of home and heaven to them so they would not be alone and afraid. Mary Ann referred to them affectionately as her “boys.” The grateful enlisted men referred to her as “Mother” Bickerdyke.

When a surgeon questioned her authority to take some action or other, she replied, “On the authority of Lord God Almighty, have you anything that outranks that?” Once she had the camp at Cairo squared away, she knew her work had just begun and she moved on to other military field hospitals. Her next stop was Fort Donelson, where she joined a field hospital, working side by side with Mary J. Safford, nurse, physician, educator and humanitarian, who left a teaching position in Illinois to care for the sick and injured during the Civil War. Mary Safford was often called the “Cairo Angel.” It was here at Fort Donelson that Mary Ann witnessed her first battle and the result was that it spurned her to worked even harder for the sick and wounded soldiers.

Mary Ann realized that very necessary laundry services were lacking in field hospitals. Packing up all the soiled clothes and linens, she added disinfectants to the load and sent the bundle on a steamer to Pittsburgh Landing to be laundered. Along with that bundle was a request for washing machines, portable kettles, and mangles. She organized escaped and former slaves to provide laundry services for her field hospitals. Those hospitals were basic canvas tents, old storehouses, and makeshift sheds, which hid in the woods. From Fort Donelson, Mary Ann went to Gayoso Block Hospital, in Memphis, Tennessee. One morning, she discovered that the assistant surgeon had been on a drunken spree the night before, causing him to sleep late, and he had neglected to make out the special diet list for his ward. As a result, his seriously wounded patients had no breakfast and were faint with hunger. Confronting the negligent surgeon, she reprimanded him in harsh terms. According to many sources, the doctor laughed off her scolding and asked what the problem was. “Matter enough you miserable scoundrel!” She responded, “Here these men, any one of them worth a thousand of you, are suffered to starve and die because you want to be off upon a drunk! Pull off your shoulder straps, for you shall not stay in the army a week longer.” Three days later, the doctor was discharged. Bickerdyke authority!


At each site, she fought constantly for the welfare of her soldiers. Understanding the importance of nutritious food, she acquired cows and hens to provide fresh food at the hospital. She returned one day after running errands to find that the medical doctor on duty had dismissed all of her help. She was furious and went to the man in charge, Brigadier General Stephen Augstus Hurlbut. He gave her written authority to keep all of her employees until Hurlbut himself revoked the order. He also ordered that Presidents Island reserved for exclusive use by Mary Ann for the pasture and care of the cows and chickens that she had procured, to be tended by her “crew.” Mary Ann had opposition, because she was a woman, and I suppose her take charge demeanor rankled many a man. News of this reached General Grant, and he appointed her matron of the hospital, giving her official status when she previously had none. She handled the care of 900 patients, 400 of whom were Native American. Here, as with her other hospitals, “she employed as many escaped and freed slaves as possible.” From battle site to battle site, Mary Ann was there. She was “Mother” to them all; the nurse in a plain, often soiled gray calico uniform, she was 106 there changing dressings, serving a hot meal, offering a cool drink, comforting, cooling a feverish brow, heating bricks for a cold bed, brewing coffee, assisting with amputations and quieting the fears of sick and injured “boys.”


She was the chief of nursing under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant and served at the battle of Vicksburg. Mary Ann, in the interest of best health practice, occasionally blatantly ignored military procedure whenever it was necessary, and was often brutal to officers and physicians that she deemed lax or neglectful. She was adamant about cleanliness, dedicated to improving the level of care, and was unafraid of stepping on anyone’s toes, scrubbing every surface at the site, and reported any drunken physicians. On one occasion, she even ordered a staff member, who had appropriated garments meant for the wounded men, to strip! She was tenacious and had several of the wayward staff dismissed. Mary Ann kept her position through the favor and influence of Grant, Sherman, and others who recognized the great value of her services. Otherwise, she might have been sent packing, too. She was masterful at upsetting the status quo, but only because she wanted the best possible for her soldiers. Her knowledge of botanical medicine stressed the necessity of clean water, wet compresses, herbal teas, healthy soup, inhaling steam for ailments of the lung, fresh fruits and vegetables and, foremost, cleanliness. This led her to be very intolerant of careless practice. They credited her methods with saving more lives than the inept physicians working in those field hospitals under filthy conditions. Over 400,000 of the estimated 620,000 Civil War deaths were not from battle wounds but from of disease caused by unsanitary conditions.

When staff complained about her, and they did, General William T. Sherman reportedly threw up his hands and exclaimed, “She outranks me. I can’t do a thing in the world.” She called “Brigadier Commanding Hospitals.” It was well known and understood that she was “one of the best generals.” Mary Ann earned the title “Cyclone in Calico” because of her indomitable spirit, high energy, sharp focus and disregard for regulations when they were to the detriment of her “boys”. Doctors and officers often bristled and balked at her take charge stance, but she continued her mission in a no-nonsense, pragmatic manner. She followed the western armies, and both Sherman and Grant always sanctioned her efforts, providing her with supplies she couldn’t get without their sway. Friends of high rank who appreciated her were invaluable. Grant moved his troops down the Mississippi, and Mary Ann went with them, setting up hospitals where needed. He gave her a pass for free transportation anywhere in his command.


In 1864, Eliza Porter joined Mary Ann, and the two worked together for about nine months in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Huntsville, Alabama. Eliza was a school teacher from Chicago, the first public school teacher to arrive at Fort Dearborn. She left teaching to assist the Sanitary Commission to set up hospitals. Mary Ann later accompanied the forces of General William Tecumseh Sherman on their march through Georgia to the sea. She provided for frequent medical examinations and transport for men who could no longer walk. Sherman was especially fond of this colorful nurse volunteer who followed the western armies, and it is said that she was the only woman he would allow in his camp.

On October 14, 1863, she reported to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and witnessed the battle of Lookout Mountain, named “the battle above the clouds.” “I watched the dreadful combat until the clouds hid all from view.” Mary Ann set up a field hospital for the Fifteenth Army Corps, who fought the Battle of Missionary Ridge. Some of her work during this period was collecting personal items of the soldiers who died in battle and return them to families, or at least to the soldiers homes. A grim job that she felt was an important one. There were many things she collected, including photos of loved ones and letters that would never find the mail pouch. For four weeks, she was the only female attendant at this site. Forty years after her death, former Governor Yates of Kansas noted that “she bound up the wounds of the afflicted and when she did so, she administered a soothing balm to the lacerated hearts at home.”


In 1865, when this brutal war ended, “Mother” had built over 300 hospitals and aided the wounded on 19 battlefields, including Shiloh and Sherman’s March to the Sea. She was so treasured by the men that they always cheered when she appeared. General Sherman invited her to lead the XV Corps in the Grand Review of the Armies down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, and he arranged a seat in the reviewing stand for her. While she marched at the head of an entire army corps, she refused the seat in the stand, saying she preferred to set up a latrine and a refreshment center, handing out water to the soldiers along the parade route. Mary Ann was now a civilian again.


In 1866, she worked for a while at the Home for the Friendless in Chicago, Illinois. Colonel Charles Hammond, president of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, funded her to help 50 veterans’ families move to Salina, Kansas as homesteaders. Jan Hodge, wife of a Presbyterian Minister, and Mary A. Livermore, her old friend from the Sanitary Commission, after months of relentless persuasion, convinced her to take part in a lecture tour to raise funds and supplies for the injured, disabled and returning soldiers. Since she much preferred caring for soldiers to fundraising, and she was often very curt with her audiences when appealing for their financial support. She had been at the front. There was no way she could convey, in mere words, the terrible horror, the great pain then or the enormous need that existed now. For example, when in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, her “thank you” to the Chamber of Commerce for a donation sounded brusque and maybe less than sincere; “I am glad you are going to give twelve hundred dollars a month for the poor fellows in the hospitals; for it’s no more than you ought to do, and it isn’t half as much as the soldiers in the hospital have given you.” She continued comparing the Chamber’s monetary contribution to the limbs and lives of the soldiers in the field and secured a ten thousand dollar donation from Jonathan Burr, a banker, to help the veterans get land, tools, and supplies. She had not lost her touch for gaining support for the soldiers, her “boys.”

But, her hard work was not over. When locusts destroyed the crops in the Kansas settlement during the summer of 1874, Mary Ann came to the rescue again. She made many trips and gave hundreds of speeches asking for help from the farmers, and returned with 200 carloads of grain, food, and clothing that helped sustain them. With the help of General Sherman, Mary Ann ran a hotel that was known as the Salina Dining Hall, but they changed the name to Bickerdyke House. Since she just could not charge those who were hungry or in need or could not afford it, she lost backing for the hotel and lost the hotel. She worked at the San Francisco Mint and the Salvation Army in California.


She was the voted the first president of Lyon Women’s Relief Corps of Oakland. In 1870 she went to New York for a while at the request of the Protestant Board of City Missions, and her friend, Mary Jane Safford, who had begged her help in cleaning up some of the worst slums. While she was in New York, her sons had begun a farm on land she had claimed for them, in Great Bend, Kansas. In 1874, they asked her to come home to the farm and live with them, a request she eventually honored.


They passed a bill on May 9, 1886, to grant “Mother” Bickerdyke a special pension of $25 a month. Representative Long of Massachusetts, introduced the bill. Generals Grant, Sherman, and Pope, all of whom testified on her behalf, supported it. Mary Ann Bickerdyke taught the world a very important lesson: it only takes one person to bring about massive change. Despite many and insurmountable obstacles, she elevated the value and importance of the nursing profession and fought for what was right.


Mary Ann’s sons forgave her for sending them away during the war years. In 1887, she went to live with her son James, in Bunker Hill, Kansas, where he was principal of the high school. Kansas Historical Society honored Mrs. Bickerdyke in 1895 for her contributions to preserving the state’s past. On July 9th of that year, there was a statewide celebration, and that day set aside in honor of Mary Ann. They dubbed it “Mother” Bickerdyk Day. Eighty-year-old Mary Ann enjoyed it tremendously!



Suggestions for further reading:

Cyclone in Calico: The Story of Mary Ann Bickerdyke by Nina Brown Baker

Civil War nurse, Mary Ann Bickerdyke, by Adele De Leeuw