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.
I’ve been going deep in the weeds in research for the current work in progress, the long-put-aside Civil War novel, concerning the experiences of a spinster of independent means, who is active as an abolitionist lecturer in the 1840-1850 time frame, and a battlefield nurse during the war years. Frankly, the research is fascinating in and of itself; the matter of the existence of slavery in the United States was a contentious and hard-fought-over issue in the antebellum years. It’s been quite the antidote to the current 1619 historical fantasy, reading through memoirs and accounts of and by notable abolitionist crusaders of the time. Not only did the existence of the ‘peculiar institution’ in the pre-war South retard economic progress there (as industry and immigration favored the North) but the fight against it was sustained and uncompromising. The first half of the book is just about complete – it’s the second half, concerning the war and most particularly the operation of field hospitals that has me deep in another field of weeds now, discovering some extraordinary stories and some extraordinary women.
One of the reasons that I love writing historical fiction – I very rarely need to create anything of whole cloth and imagination; generally, the honest-n-truth version of events often surpasses anything I could possibly make up. So it is with the epic of a little-recalled national volunteer relief organization called, most prosaically, the United States Sanitary Commission, which mobilized women for the war effort to an extraordinary degree – as nurses, administrators, counselors and organizers of countless benefits to raise funds for military support, the care and healing of the wounded, and later, for the welfare of veterans.
Wherever I sat, there I might live, and the landscape radiated from me accordingly. What is a house but a sedes, a seat?—better if a country seat. I discovered many a site for a house not likely to be soon improved, which some might have thought too far from the village, but to my eyes the village was too far from it. Well, there I might live, I said; and there I did live
Henry David Thoreau – Walden
Alton died last week. At 85, the last of John Jerry and Lydia Machann’s family: six boys and two girls surviving to adulthood. He had remained on the family farm, making it yield enough (cattle, cotton, oil) to buy another plot and support him and his brother, AC, for their long lives. When a third brother, Robert, took early retirement from his factory job and returned to the farm, he, too, bought another plot, left to Alton. A child when his family moved in, Alton died in the house they built to anchor that land.
The Machans were stubbornly individualistic: half Machans; the other half Machanns. However, with all those sons, the name died out quickly. Half the sons were not the marrying kind, another was childless, another had a son and daughter but that son died far too young, and the third was my husband’s father – an only child, whose children are all girls. The three brothers led quiet if demanding lives. In his last bedridden years, farm life went by his window – he worried about whether a cow ambling by needed deworming, he’d consult the weather reports to see what was coming and his bird books as he watched his feeder.
Before we married, my husband returned to Austin one Sunday, having signed away all but oil royalty rights to the land left by his grandparents. All the siblings (or siblings’ representatives) had. There were many rational reasons – for one, broken up it would not even support a lonely farmer. Then, Alton wanted to farm. He told his oldest friend about going to Waco, working in the factory for a week. He returned ready to beg to stay on the farm; I can’t imagine his parents didn’t need another set of hands – farms generally do. This signing was after his parents’ deaths.
This post was inspired by a terse note next to a picture of the gentleman in question, on a page in one of my reference books – a note that the Confederate commander, one Major General Earl Van Dorn was murdered in mid-campaign, in his HQ in Spring Hill, Tennessee by an outraged husband. A personal thing, not an arranged assassination … or was it? Intrigued, for such is my butterfly interest in such matters, I went snorkeling around in the various sources, searching for more details.
I had reason to visit Fort Sam Houston today – to pick up a set of prescriptions, at the new and vastly expanded BX mall, going through that one back gate where Harry Wurzbach dead-ends, after wandering past the military cemetery, the golf course and the Towers at Park Lane. It’s been a familiar haunt to me for years, even if I was never assigned there, or had reason to go to any offices when I was active duty. It was an open post back then – so wide-open that it was only embarrassment that kept the Fort Sam EM/NCO club from being listed as off-limits to Air Force personnel. (There was, according to scuttlebutt, a dissolute and faintly dangerous element which used to hang out at that club.) I used to take a short-cut through the post on North New Braunfels to circumvent traffic jams on the Pan-Am Highway, when I had to drive through to Lackland AFB from where I lived on the north-east side of town. I was basically familiar with the older part; the stately red-brick Victorian senior officer-housing mansions along the northern and western side of the monumental, L-shaped parade ground, and the series of enormous three-story neo-Spanish Colonial style tile-roofed administration buildings and barracks which lined the opposite side. The mansions along “colonel’s row” always looked well kept, but in the few years after I retired, some of the older buildings began looking pretty ragged, decrepit even. I sometimes wondered if the Army had given up on painting them altogether, trimming shrubbery and pulling up weeds in the lawns around. Part of the peace dividend, I guessed.