Mother Bickerdyke: Civil War Nurse
By Christina Lewis
On a hot day in June of 1861 Mary Ann Bickerdyke was at church when the pastor, Dr. Edward Beecher, read a letter to his congregation from Dr. Woodward. The letter spoke of the poor conditions of the military hospitals in Cairo, Illinois. The congregation was moved by the letter and gathered money and supplies to send to Dr. Woodward, but they needed someone to deliver them. Another church member elected Mary Ann, and she proudly accepted. Mary Ann was appalled at the hospital conditions and went to work cleaning up with the help of a young soldier named Andy Somerville. She told the men how to keep it clean and promised to check on them. As she was leaving, Andy called after her “Goodnight, Mother.” The name stuck, and Mary Ann became known all over as Mother Bickerdyke.
Mary Ann was born on July 19, 1817 on a farm in Knox County, Ohio. Her father, Hiram Ball, was a farmer and her mother, Annie, died when Mary Ann was just seventeen months old. She was sent to live with her grandparents. When they died she went to live with her Uncle Henry Rodgers. At the age of sixteen she moved to Oberlin, Ohio. She later returned to live with her uncle on his farm inHamilton County, near Cincinnati.
Throughout her childhood Mary Ann received only a very basic education. Although some people have guessed, no one really knows for sure what Mary Ann did during the years of 1837 to 1847. On April 27, 1847 Mary Ann married Robert Bickerdyke, a widower with three children. They had two boys of their own, Hiram and James. In 1856 the Bickerdyke’s moved to Galesburg, Illinois and three years later Robert died. Their third child, Martha, died at the age of two a year after Robert’ s death. Mary Ann was now a widower and needed to find a way to support her sons.
Growing up on a farm Mary Ann had learned about herbs and how to use them to make medicine. She now began using her “botanic medicines” to care for the sick. When Mary Ann began working for the army the patients all loved her, but the doctors did not want her coming into their hospitals and changing the way they were run. But Mary Ann did not care; she was only concerned about doing what was best for the soldiers. She always made sure her “boys” had what they needed. Mary Ann worked hard cleaning and making sure the hospital ran smoothly.
In November of 1862 she went on a fund raising tour for the Sanitary Commission. She visited several towns and told stories of her experiences in the war. Her talks were a success and her audiences made generous contributions. General Grant sent Mary Ann to Memphis where she was put in charge of the Gayoso Block Hospital. It soon became known as Mother Bickerdyke’s Hospital. Mary Ann got along well with General Sherman and became a special part of his corps. While traveling with the troops Mary Ann suffered the same hardships and struggles as the soldiers did. The extreme cold weather, poor conditions and lack of good food and supplies was hard on everyone. When Atlanta was captured by the Union on September 2nd Mary Ann helped evacuate the wounded from the hospitals. On Sunday, April 9, 1865 General Lee surrendered at Appomattox; the war was finally over. She stayed with the army for another month helping to get the patients ready to go home.
On March 21, 1866 Mary Ann felt that her work for the army was done and resigned. She now needed to find other work. She had been hearing from the veterans about the possibility of settling in Kansas, but they didn’t have the money and were having trouble getting their pensions from the government. Mary Ann went to Kansas to see for herself and was delighted with the open spaces, fresh air and sense of freedom. She received money from a wealthy banker and arranged for fifty families to move to Kansas. She also convinced the president of a railroad company to giving her money to start a boarding house, The Salina Dining Hall.
Mary Ann enjoyed the two years she spent in Kansas. During the hard times of food shortages she gathered her strength again and helped the settlers by getting donations of food and clothing. She had a lot of visitors to her hotel but could not bring herself to charge those who were unable to pay, and the railroad foreclosed on her mortgage. Mary Ann was upset about this and decided to leave Kansas for New York. She had been asked to help clean up the slums. Mary Ann never seemed to tire of doing what she loved most – helping others. She cooked, cleaned, washed, bathed, scrubbed, combed and taught the people how to take care of themselves.
While Mary Ann was in New York her sons had started a farm on the land she claimed for them in Great Bend, Kansas. They now wanted her to come and live with them. She decided it was time to give up her work in New York and move back to Kansas. But more work was ahead for her when locusts destroyed all of the crops that summer. Mary Ann made many trips and gave hundreds of speeches asking for help for the settlers. She came back with 200 carloads of grain, food and clothing.
All of this took its toll on Mary Ann’s health and she soon became tired. But Kansas did not forget what she had done for them. A portrait of Mary Ann was painted for the state capitol. Topeka planned a great banquet in her honor and soldiers came from all over. It was a wonderful occasion for her but she became ill that winter and could not get her strength back. The doctor said a warm place to live would be the best thing for her, so she decided to move to California.
While there Mary Ann found another cause to work for, trying to get pensions for the soldiers. She spent many hours filling out forms and tracking down information that required a lot of travel. She did not charge for her services. If a veteran could pay her he did, but if he couldn’t she paid from her own pocket. While Mary Ann spent her time fighting to get pensions for the soldiers her old friends Mary Livermore and General Logan were fighting to get a pension for her.
Thirty years after Mary Ann’s service in the war the Pension Committee finally agreed to award her $25.00 a month for life. Mary Ann enjoyed living in California but her son James persuaded her to come and live with him in Bunker Hill, Kansas, where he was principal of the high school. On July 9, 1897 a statewide celebration for Mother Bickerdyke Day was held in Kansas. Eighty-year old Mary Ann enjoyed it immensely. During the holidays in 1899 she went visiting relatives and on Thanksgiving Day there was a large family reunion. She went home around Christmas time but had caught a cold she could not get rid of. The following year she was sick again and in early November had a slight stroke. Mary Ann passed away peacefully on November 8, 1901.
In 1904 a statue was made of Mary Ann kneeling beside a wounded soldier holding a cup to his lips. It now stands in the courthouse square in Galesburg, Illinois. Mary Ann devoted many years of her life taking care of people who could not care for themselves. Mother Bickerdyke may not be remembered by many people today, but she lived to help the people of her own time, and she did.
Christina Lewis is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and two daughters in Kansas. She has had several parenting articles published and writes fiction and non-fiction for children. She has written three eBooks for children, “100 Cool Sites For Kids,” “Halloween Tales and Treats” and “Christmas Tales and Treats” and can be found at www.KidsBookshelf.com.