Bickerdyke, Mary Ann (1817–1901)

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Bickerdyke, Mary Ann (1817–1901)

American nurse and Sanitary Commission agent in the Civil War, whose strength, tireless devotion, and care for the wounded "boys in blue" earned her the respect and friendship of generals. Name variations: Mary Anne Ball Bickerdyke or Byckerdyke; Mother Bickerdyke; "Calico Colonel." Born Mary Ann Ball on July 19, 1817, in Knox County, Ohio; died in Bunker Hill, Kansas, on November 8, 1901; buried in Galesburg, Illinois; daughter of Hiram Ball (a farmer and businessman) and Anne (Cassady) Ball; may have attended Oberlin College around 1833 (the evidence is vague as some biographers claim that Bickerdyke received only the most "rudimentary" education); married Robert Bickerdyke (a widower, housepainter, and musician), on April 27, 1847 (died 1859); children: John Ball (b. 1849), James Rodgers (1850–1904), Hiram Ball (1854–1909), and Martha M. (1858–1860).

Family moved to Galesburg, Illinois (1858); volunteered as a "nurse" in the Civil War (1861–65); worked with the Chicago Home for the Friendless (1866–67); operated a boarding house for veterans in Salina, Kansas (1867–69); worked for the Protestant Board of City Missions in New York City (1870–74); helped Kansas locust plague victims (1874); worked atthe U.S. Mint in San Francisco, California (1876–87); granted a pension from Congress (1886); returned to Kansas (1887). A monument was erected to her memory in Galesburg, Illinois (1903).

Perhaps the most common story told about Mary Ann Bickerdyke (whether it is apocryphal is difficult to ascertain) begins on a June morning in 1863, around 11 o'clock, when Bickerdyke visited a ward of the Gayoso Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. She discovered that the assistant surgeon had been on a drunken spree the night before, causing him to sleep late, and 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, Bickerdyke 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. Outraged, he went to headquarters and asked to be reinstated, presenting his case to Major General William T. Sherman, who was then in command. After listening to the surgeon's account, Sherman asked who had secured the discharge. The doctor replied, "That woman, that Mrs. Bickerdyke." "Oh!" said Sherman, "well, if it was her, I can do nothing for you. She ranks me." Throughout the Civil War, the hard-working Bickerdyke earned the admiration of several generals who were known to defer to her judgment on issues related to military hospitals.

Mary Ann Bickerdyke's Civil War years are well documented, but not much is known about her early years. Born in Knox County, Ohio, in 1817, she was the second daughter of Anne Cassady and Hiram Ball. When Bickerdyke was 17 months old, her mother died and her father sent her to live with her grandparents on a farm in Richland County, Ohio. Upon the death of her grandparents, Bickerdyke went to live with an uncle until 1833 when she moved to Oberlin, Ohio. Unfortunately, records do not survive which would reveal how she spent her youthful days.

The information about Bickerdyke becomes even murkier after 1833. According to her 1896 biographer and personal acquaintance, Julia A. Houghton Chase , a 16-year-old

Bickerdyke went to Oberlin, Ohio, to attend school and paid for her education by working as a domestic. Subsequent biographers have been unable to verify that she attended Oberlin, and Chase acknowledges, perhaps in an attempt to explain Bickerdyke's absence from official records, that she left the college six weeks before graduation.

Chase's biography contains another "story" which conflicts with other available information but has also become a part of Mother Bickerdyke lore. The biographer records that Bickerdyke moved to Cincinnati, shortly after her stay in Oberlin, and trained as a nurse under Dr. Reuben Dimond Mussey during an 1837 cholera epidemic. Training programs for nurses, however, did not become established until years later. Furthermore, the epidemic in question seems to have been the 1849 outbreak and not 1837 as reported by Chase. It is known that Bickerdyke moved to Hamilton County, near Cincinnati, around 1837 and again stayed with her uncle's family. At this point in her life, it is possible that she studied "botanic" medicine, which stressed the use of native herbs.

On April 27, 1847, in Cincinnati, Ohio, Mary Ann Ball married Robert Bickerdyke, a widower with several children. Mary Bickerdyke's first child was born in 1849 and lived only a few minutes. Over the next eight years, Bickerdyke gave birth to three more children: two sons who lived to middle age and one daughter who died when only two years old. The Bickerdykes did not prosper in Cincinnati, and, in 1858, they moved to Galesburg, Illinois. Robert suffered from poor health, and it was hoped that the change in climate and a "good" physician could help. A few months after the move, however, he died suddenly at the age of 54. Mary, a widow with three children to support, earned her living as a housekeeper and a botanic doctor. The skills needed for both jobs would serve her well when she volunteered to nurse the Union soldiers in the Civil War.

Men of the Army of Cumberland, or of the Tennessee, knew her; they remember that old sun-bonnet and the old white mule she rode, and when she rode into our camp or came into the dreaded field hospital, how the shouts went up, "Hurrah for Mother Bickerdyke!"

—Dr. Benjamin Woodward

Shortly after the war started, Dr. Benjamin Woodward, a young Galesburg doctor who joined the army after the fall of Fort Sumter, wrote a plea for supplies to Reverend Edward Beecher of the Brick Congregational Church. When the reverend read the letter to members of his congregation, they were deeply moved by the doctor's words and immediately raised $500. Bickerdyke, inspired by love for her country (feelings shared by many of the women who became Civil War nurses), volunteered to take the supplies to Fort Defiance in Cairo, Illinois. Leaving her two sons with friends and neighbors, she arrived in Cairo on the morning of June 9, 1861.

There, she found the conditions of the sick much worse than Woodward's letters had indicated. Three tents, standing apart from the others in the camp, comprised the hospital. When Woodward escorted Bickerdyke through the tents, she saw one or two soldiers on cots and the rest lying on straw covered with filthy blankets or coats. There was excrement mixed with the mud on the floor, flies buzzing around patients, and patients lying in their own vomit. Before distributing any of her supplies, including a rather lavish dinner, Bickerdyke insisted on cleaning up the tents and soldiers. After the scrubbing was accomplished and the meal eaten, one young soldier called out to the departing Bickerdyke, "Good night, Mother." By the end of the summer, the title Mother became fixed, and all the young men of Fort Defiance addressed her accordingly.

Thus began Bickerdyke's sojourn which would last until the end of the war. She was present at 19 battles and, at several, tended the wounded on the field as well as in the hospitals. She directed the management of diet kitchens and had a knack for rounding up supplies when others could not. Her insistence on the importance of cleanliness and her determination to minimize waste led her to introduce, then manage, army laundries. As she fought for the best possible care for the ailing, Bickerdyke earned a reputation as a "terror," especially when confronted with incompetent doctors or officers. The soldiers in the ranks, however, adored her.

Bickerdyke remained in Cairo for about nine months, during which time she was instrumental in moving wounded and sick soldiers from the hospital tents into the new military hospital building. For some reason, the surgeon in charge of the hospital complained to Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant, who took over command at Cairo in the fall of 1861, that he wanted nurses from the Army Nurse Corps, which was then being organized by Dorothea Dix in Washington, D.C., and that he wanted to get rid of Mother Bickerdyke. Grant turned down the surgeon's request and appointed Bickerdyke the matron of the new hospital. Though she had no official connection, one of her duties included accepting and distributing the supplies sent from the recently established U.S. Sanitary Commission. Relying on private donations, the commission's main job was to keep military hospitals supplied.

When Grant and his troops left Cairo, Bickerdyke accompanied them. She was present at the battle of Fort Donelson, cared for the wounded in the field in makeshift sheds, and carted supplies from the Sanitary Commission's supply boat to the fields. After Shiloh, Bickerdyke was appointed a Sanitary Commission field agent and paid $50 a month, until this time she had been working for the army with no official appointment, rank, or authority. She used her salary to settle her sons in a boardinghouse near Chicago.

The Sanitary Commission recognized Bickerdyke's growing fame and, after several attempts, two Commission managers, Jane Hoge and Mary A. Livermore , finally convinced her to participate in a speaking tour to raise funds and supplies for the soldiers. Bickerdyke preferred caring for the soldiers to fundraising and was often quite abrupt to her audiences when appealing for funds. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, her "thank-you" to the Chamber of Commerce for their contribution sounded less than sincere. "I am much obliged to you gentlemen for the kind things you have said," she began. "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 then went on to compare the Chamber of Commerce's monetary contribution to the limbs and lives of the soldiers in the field.

After her tour, in early 1863, she arrived at the Gayoso military hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, and prepared to take charge of it. But it was not long before she again moved on. Bickerdyke joined up with Grant's army as it besieged Vicksburg. September 1863 found her traveling with Sherman and his soldiers on their way to Chattanooga. When the troops arrived at their destination in November, Bickerdyke immediately set up her field hospital, using tents and old storehouses. She was often the only woman present at the battles and in the hospitals, but this never seemed to faze her. She worked in adverse conditions near Chattanooga. Mud and freezing rain made it difficult to care for the wounded, but somehow she managed to find food, prepare warm drinks, and comfort the sufferers. As the new year, 1864, dawned, Bickerdyke was joined by Eliza Porter , and the two women worked together for the next nine months at Chattanooga and Huntsville, Alabama. They then accompanied Sherman on his march from the mountains through Georgia to the sea, their task made more difficult by the lack of supplies.

On May 23, 1865, General Sherman's army completed its "Victory March" into Washington, D.C., to join the Grand Review of Union forces. Bickerdyke was given a place of honor in the victory parade, but, characteristically, she also set up a latrine and refreshment center for those convalescents who insisted on marching down Pennsylvania Avenue. On the day the last Illinois volunteer received a discharge, she resigned as a Sanitary Commission agent and returned to Illinois and her sons.

Bickerdyke's work in the Civil War and her impatience with the oft-present government or military "red tape" earned her a reputation that she was not always comfortable with. Her contemporaries and her biographers have characterized Bickerdyke as "brusque," possessing "turbulent energy," a "demon," "at war with the army," "stern and vindictive" toward negligence, "a woman rough, uncultivated, even ignorant, but a diamond in the rough." It has been suggested that she tried to refute these impressions with the stories, perhaps not always true, she told her early biographers. Bickerdyke's behavior and physical appearance directly contrasted with the popular notions of "true womanhood" then prevalent among the 19th-century middle class, and this may explain, in part, the unflattering assessments and characterizations.

Bickerdyke continued to work on behalf of the veterans of the Civil War. For the remainder of her life, she acted, intermittently, as a pension attorney and made several trips to Washington, D.C., to secure pensions for army nurses and veterans. Immediately after the war, she assisted at Chicago's Home for the Friendless, a home for indigent women and children, though she did not stay in Chicago long. She decided to follow the numerous ex-soldiers moving west to Kansas who were taking advantage of the government's project to settle unemployed veterans.

With financial support from the Kansas Pacific Railroad Company, she opened a boardinghouse-hotel in Salina. The town of Salina, Kansas, lay on the Santa Fe route and several trains and wagon trains passed through it daily. Bickerdyke's hotel became a popular stopover for railroad passengers and served as a social center for relocated veterans. Despite the setting and the customers, she was unable to make her boardinghouse a financial success, and, within two years, the railroad company foreclosed on her mortgage. Upset by the turn her fortunes had taken, Bickerdyke chose not to remain in Kansas and moved to New York. With the help of Mary Jane Safford , a friend and co-worker at Cairo, Bickerdyke secured a position as a missionary for the Protestant Board of City Missions of New York City in 1870.

In 1874, Bickerdyke's sons, James and Hiram, asked their mother to come back to Kansas and manage their farm, which was located near Great Bend. Since Kansas seemed to be "on the high road to prosperity," Bickerdyke returned to the state. Not long after, Kansas was decimated by a plague of locusts. Bickerdyke, not one to sit idly by if others needed help, quickly became involved in finding relief for the destitute. She sent an appeal to the people of Illinois who responded with "twenty car-loads of goods and a large sum of money." She not only traveled east many times to obtain aid for the devastated Kansas counties, but she also over-saw the distribution of many of the supplies. When the strenuous work of aiding the locust-plague victims drew to a close, Bickerdyke was exhausted and in poor health.

In 1876, at the urging of friends, Bickerdyke moved to California, where she allowed herself a brief period of rest and relaxation. In need of remunerative employment, she applied for a position in the U.S. mint in San Francisco. Two wartime friends, General Logan, now a senator from Illinois, and General Miller, a senator from California, endorsed her application and secured the appointment. She remained at the mint until 1887. While in California, Bickerdyke continued to work on behalf of the Union soldiers. In her role of pension agent, she made several trips across the country as the representative of veterans seeking pensions. She also helped to organize the California branch of the Woman's Relief Corps, an auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic. In 1886, Congress gave her a pension of $25 a month.

Returning to Kansas in 1887, Bickerdyke lived with her son James in Salina and Bunker Hill. Although she was sickly in her last years, she was still able to write letters and articles about issues she was interested in, such as temperance. On November 8, 1901, at the age of 84, Mary Ann Bickerdyke died at the home of her son in Bunker Hill. Her sons brought her back to Galesburg, Illinois, and buried her next to her husband and daughter. Two years later, a monument, which portrays Bickerdyke cradling a wounded soldier, was erected in her memory.


Brockett, Linus Pierpont and Mary C. Vaughan. Woman's Work in the Civil War. Philadelphia, PA: Zeigler, McCurdy, 1867.

Chase, Julia A. Houghton. Mary A. Bickerdyke, "Mother." Lawrence, KA: Journal Publishing House, 1896.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1971.

Litvin, Martin. The Young Mary, 1817–1861. Galesburg, IL: Log City Books, 1977.

Robbins, Peggy. "General Grant's 'Calico Colonel,'" in American History Illustrated. Vol. 14, April 1979, pp. 4–6, 43–48.

suggested reading:

Baker, Nina Brown. Cyclone in Calico: The Story of Mary Ann Bickerdyke. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1952.

Henshaw, Sarah Edwards. Our Branch and Its Tributaries. Chicago, IL: Alfred L. Sewell, 1868.

Hoge, Mrs. A.H. [Jane]. The Boys in Blue. Chicago, IL: E.B. Treat, 1867.


Correspondence, papers, newspaper clippings, and other printed matter located at the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Washington, D.C.

Gayle Veronica Fischer , historian and author of several articles on dress reform movements in the United States