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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!


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