History Friday: The Infatigable Mother Bickerdyke

Mary Ann Bickerdyke, who really ought to be at least as well-known as Florence Nightingale for superhumanly heroic efforts on behalf of nursing wounded soldiers, was born in 1817 in Ohio to a family with the surname of Ball. At the time, Ohio was the just-over-the-mountains-western frontier. She was supposed to have been one of the first women to attend Oberlin College, but never graduated. The two post-Civil War biographies that I have read say that she was called home to attend family members during an epidemic. She is supposed to have studied herbal/botanical medicine – which given the parlous state of medical education and practice in the United States at the time – probably put her as being as effective a medic as most. She married Robert Bickerdyke and settled in Galesburg, Illinois, where she bore two sons and established a reputation for being a quietly formidable woman.

When Robert Bickerdyke died in 1859 after a long decline in health, in which he was cared for by his wife, the widow Bickerdyke supported herself and sons as a practitioner of herbal medicine, until the summer of 1861, when the Civil War turned deadly earnest in the West. An Army surgeon friend of the Bickerdyke family wrote a letter describing the desperate and chaotic conditions in the Army camp hospital at Cairo, Illinois. Cairo was in a strategic position at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers – a dagger pointed at the heart of the Confederacy, from which the Army of the West would soon being fighting their way down the Mississippi. The letter was read aloud on a Sunday morning in the Congregational church that the Bickerdyke family attended, and the community immediately rallied. Some reports put the quantity of supplies collected to the value of $500, others say that the goods filled four boxcars. And Mary Bickerdyke placed her sons in the care of friends and went to see that the supplies collected with such enthusiasm and care were delivered to the military camp at Cairo and put to good use when they arrived. Too many shipments of goods and home comforts intended for Army units had gone astray or spoiled en route.
The general level of care for the expanded Army called to the colors with the outbreak of war had quite overwhelmed the regular Army, and it fell to individual volunteers like Mary Bickerdyke, and the combined resources of a newly established national organization, the US Sanitary Commission, to remedy matters. In the case of Mary Bickerdyke and the hospital at Cairo, she hit the ground running. The sick lay on dirty linen, clad in shirt fouled by sickness … and in practically no time to speak of, and with the aid of whomever she could press into service – the hospital was transformed. Reportedly, one of the first things that she demanded of the soldiers was to saw a number of hogshead barrels in half, to make bathtubs to bathe patients in. Clean bedlinen and blankets, clean clothing, remedies and all kinds of delicacies to tempt the appetite of invalids appeared as if by a miracle. Mary Bickerdyke so impressed the western department of the Sanitary Commission that she was designated as one of their agents, and so could call on their almost limitless resources.
More importantly, as she widened her scope of activities in providing care to battlefield casualties she impressed the higher levels of Army command in the west, General Grant, who endorsed her presence and actions as Union forces advanced down the Mississippi. It was the peppery-tempered General Sherman who responded one of his subordinates complaining about her, demanding that he do something about that ‘damned bossy woman’ by saying, “I can’t – she ranks me.” Both Grant and General Sherman appreciated organizational competence and a can-do attitude. Mary Bickerdyke was, for all intents and purposes, the head of the Western Army’s medical command.
She did more than just field nursing – essentially, she was an administrator and organizer, establishing or reorganizing at least 300 hospitals, many in the field as the armies advanced, all the length of the campaigns in the West. She hired escaped slaves to run the hospital laundry, to bake bread in an oven made of numbered bricks, which could be disassembled and moved as the Army advanced, the bread to rise covered in blankets in wagons which she organized. She was responsible also for seeing that some incompetent Army surgeons were sacked. She organized donations from midwestern farms of milk cows and laying hens – all to provide fresh milk and eggs for preparing invalid meals for her patients. At the end of the war, those cows and hens were given to those freed slaves who had worked for her, in hospital kitchens and laundries. It must have been an astonishing sight, Mary Bickerdyke’s mobile hospital on the move, what with wagons of supplies, the portable brick oven, the laundry kettles and mangles, the livestock and all. Eventually she cared for casualties after nineteen battles, including action at Missionary Ridge, outside Chattanooga, where she was the only woman at the field hospital there for nearly a month.
At the end of the war, she rode in the two-day long victory celebration, the Grand Review of the Armies in Washington, DC, with General Sherman’s Army of Tennessee and Army of Georgia. She worked as an advocate for veterans, and other charitable enterprises, was awarded a special government pension, and died in 1901, at the home of her son in Kansas.

8 thoughts on “History Friday: The Infatigable Mother Bickerdyke”

  1. I want a movie version of this. “Hot Lips” Houlihan from the M*A*S*H movie and TV should not define the profession.

  2. Of course, I want a Kate Warne movie, too. Lincoln’s favorite Pinkerton…

    Anybody who thinks women began shaping history only in the 1960s needs to have their slumbers disturbed.

  3. Indeed, Pouncer – anyone who believes that women didn’t exercise enormous social power and influence during the 19th century needs to be thumped around the head and shoulders. Yes, there were women who were pretty much the domestic angel in the house, but there were so many others quietly working in family businesses, as well as managing their own living and property. The biggest and richest pre-Civil War corporation, Colt Armory was owned by Elizabeth Colt, the widow of Samuel Colt, for example.
    I also do wonder why Mary Bickerdyke isn’t at least as widely famous as Florence Nightingale; I can only suppose that was that Florence came first, and went on advocating for women to train formally as nurses, and Mary Bickerdyke just went into advocating for veterans generally.
    And that her story would make a marvelous movie or miniseries! You’d think that any woman who had the enduring respect of General Sherman would make a bigger mark in the history books.

  4. Sgt Mom: “anyone who believes that women didn’t exercise enormous social power and influence during the 19th century needs to be thumped around the head and shoulders.”

    Why restrict this to the 19th Century? What about Boadicea back the 1st Century in Roman times? Or Joan of Arc in 15th Century France? Or Queen Elizabeth I in 16th Century England. Or Catherine the Great in 18th Century Russia? Just to throw out a few of the better-known names.

    It was “feminists” in the second half of the 20th Century who started pushing the obvious lie that women had always been oppressed and powerless.

  5. Might be interesting to compare her with Florence Nightingale.

    Florence was a hot house flower who took to her bed for the rest of her life. She had a wealthy family who were horrified by her ambitions and who thwarted most of them, insisting that she give up her ideas of actual nursing. The incompetence of the British Army Medical establishment provided her with the opportunity and she was a very competent statistician.

    Mother Bickerdyke was more of a rough diamond who walked with Sherman’s army from Illinois to South Carolina. She solved one of his big problems, which was the mass of freed slaves who attached themselves to his army. It was a hindrance and a drain on his resources but she put them to work building kitchens and hospitals. At war’s end, the troops insisted she accompany them on the Grand Review. Her contributions did not end there. She and Sherman worked together to provide some relief for veterans.

  6. The biography of the USAF’s missile general Bernard Schriever mentions that a 1957 TIME cover story about Schriever refers to the general and his crew as “tomorrow’s men.” In retrospect, this was true only if one defined “tomorrow” as the interval between the appearance of the article and, aY, July 1969.

    It is interesting that the moon landing roughly coincided with the end of the era in which the US could do big things quickly. It could be argued that Schriever was a man of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, the era of the Panama Canal and the Hoover Dam and the Empire State Building. In our current era, the execution of such projects has become difficult almost to the point of impossibility. Schreiver faced down General LeMay and Secretary Talbott..would a modern-day Schriever be able to prevail against the lilliputian army of lawyers, “community activists,” and “public interest” nonprofits who obstruct every single project of any size?

    My review of the bio:

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