She was "Mother" to them All
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 widower, was overwhelmed and grieving. He sent
Bickerdyke to live with her elderly grandparents who farmed in Richland
County. Upon their deaths, she went to live with her uncle, Henry Rodgers,
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 the age of 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 at that time 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 of 1847, she married Robert Bickerdyke, 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 suddenly in 1860, the same
year she lost little Martha, leaving Mary Ann to support the remaining
family. Shortly after Robert’s death, she 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.
On a 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. This was the first she had heard of their plight. 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, obtained supplies,
and took them to the camp for disbursement. No one else was willing
to go. She left her children, who were 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, she was horrified to discover that it was even
more squalid than Dr. Woodward had described. It was filthy, crowded,
completely unsanitary and there was barely any food. She set to work
immediately, without waiting for permission from anyone, which became her way. She commenced 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. Huge kettles were set up over a fire where hot soups were brewed along with porridge, tea, and coffee. Bread was baked in brick ovens; eggs, milk, and fresh vegetables were secured from local farmers and healthy meals were prepared for the recovering soldiers. They 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. She
was appointed 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 be well cared for in their new situation.
Mary Ann searched daily for the wounded. When darkness fell, she listened at the edges of the battlefields for the groans of wounded men that had been 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 men who were wounded and dying and
sang songs of home and heaven to them so they would not be alone and
afraid. She was known affectionately to her “boys,” the grateful enlisted
men, 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 she worked even harder for the sick
and wounded soldiers. Mary Ann realized quickly 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 were hidden 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 badly wounded patients had no breakfast and were faint with
hunger. Confronting the negligent surgeon, she reprimanded
him in harsh terms. According to numerous sources, the doctor laughed
off her scolding and asked what the problem was. “Matter enough you miserable scoundrel!” she is reported to have 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. 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 immediately to the man in charge,
Brigadier General Stephen Augstus Hurlbut. He gave her written authority
to keep all of her employees until such time as Hurlbut himself revoked
the order. He also ordered that Presidents Island be set aside to be used
exclusively for the pasture and care of the cows and chickens that she had
procured, to be tended by her “crew.”
Mary Ann did have opposition, mainly because she was a woman. News of
this reached General Grant and he appointed her matron of the hospital,
thereby giving her official status when she previously had none. She was
responsible for 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
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. She 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. She scrubbed 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 succeeded in having several of the wayward staff
Mary Ann retained her position largely through the 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, first and foremost, cleanliness.
This led her to be very intolerant of careless practice. Her methods were
credited with saving more lives than the inept physicians working in those
field hospitals under filthy conditions. More than 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 was referred to as “Brigadier
Commanding Hospitals” and it was generally recognized 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, frequently providing her with supplies she couldn’t
obtain without their sway. Friends of high rank, who appreciated her, were
Grant moved his troops down the Mississippi, and Mary Ann went with
them setting up hospitals where needed. She had been given a pass for free
transportation anywhere in his command. In 1864 Mary Ann was joined
by Eliza Porter 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 were no longer able to 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. It was 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 to collect 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 be mailed. 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 finally ended, “Mother” had built more
than 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. She was invited by
General Sherman 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 did march 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. She had been pursued by Jan Hodge, wife of a Presbyterian Minister, and Mary A. Livermore, her old friend from the Sanitary Commission, who after months of relentless persuasion finally convinced her to participate
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 and there was no way she could convey, in mere words, the terrible horror, the great pain then or the enormous need 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. She did secure a ten thousand dollar donation from Jonathan Burr, a banker, to help the veterans obtain 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 for 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 originally
known as the Salina Dining Hall, but the name was eventually changed
to Bickerdyke House. Since she could not see her way clear to charge those
who were hungry or in need or simply could not afford it, she lost backing
for the hotel and eventually lost the hotel. She went on to work 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 honored.
A bill was passed on May 9, 1886, to grant “Mother” Bickerdyke a special
pension of $25 a month. The bill was introduced by Representative Long
of Massachusetts and supported by Generals, Grant, Sherman, Pope, all
of whom testified on her behalf.
Mary Ann Bickerdyke taught the world a very important lesson: it only
takes one person to bring about massive change. Despite many and
seemingly insurmountable obstacles she elevated the value and importance
of the nursing profession and fought tirelessly for what was right .
Mary Ann’s sons did forgive 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 was set aside in honor of Mary Ann. It was dubbed “Mother”
Bickerdyke Day. Eighty-year-old Mary Ann enjoyed it tremendously!