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.