Amidst the terrifying brutality of a Civil War battlefield, respite was rare. It was truly long periods of boredom punctuated with moments of sheer horror.
Far away from home, often for the first time, scared and injured soldiers often sought relief and solace from an adopted “mother.”
One of the most notable of these was Mother Bickerdyke.
Born in Ohio in 1817, Mary Ann Bickerdyke moved to Galesburg, Illinois (Knox County) with her husband in 1859.
When the Civil War began, news of the war gained a massive following back at home. For the Bickerdykes, their source was a family friend, Dr. Woodward. Woodward was the surgeon attached to the 22nd Illinois Volunteer Infantry. He told stories about the deplorable conditions in camps and field hospitals in Cairo (Alexander County).
Dr. Woodward’s letters were read aloud from church pulpits in Galesburg and $500 worth of supplies was gathered. Mary Bickerdyke volunteered to deliver the supplies to Cairo. When she arrived, a scene of horror greeted her.
The sanitary conditions were appalling, especially for the wounded. Bickerdyke stayed on in Cairo as a nurse and started to organize teams to start field hospitals. She traveled with Ulysses S. Grant and assisted the wounded and dying after the battles at Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee.
She was appointed as an agent of the U.S. Sanitary Commission and served with Grant during the withering Siege of Vicksburg. Both Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman bore a particular fondness for her. Sherman, responding to Grant’s staff’s complaints about her flouting of procedure, supposedly said: “She outranks me! There’s not a thing I can do about it!”
By war’s end, she had helped to start over 300 battlefield hospitals. Mother Bickerdyke received plaudits wherever she appeared. Gen. Sherman requested that she ride at the head of the XV Army Corps during the Grand Review of the Armies in 1865.
Her desire to serve extended beyond the battlefield. She founded a home for destitute veterans in Salina, Kansas and became an attorney to help veterans pursue their pension claims. She worked at the U.S. Mint in San Francisco and was a charter member of the Women’s Relief Corps in Oakland, California.
She was voted a special pension of $25/month by Congress in 1886. He old comrades in arms Sherman and Grant testified on her behalf.
She lived the rest of her life in Kansas with her son, dying in 1901. She’s buried in Galesburg.
Grand monuments may be impressive, but more impressive still were the lives that she saved, the men whom she comforted in their time of need. At the most terrifying times in their lives, Mother Bickerdyke was there, even if their own mothers weren’t.
Mother Bickerdyke’s story is truly one of care wedded to heroism, a bright spot amidst the dark horror of war.
Chase, Julia A. Houghton (1896). Mary A. Bickerdyke, “Mother”. The Life Story of One Who, As Wife, Mother, Army Nurse, Pension Agent and City Missionary, Has Touched the Heights and Depths of Human Life. Lawrence, Kansas: Journal Publishing House.
Baker, Nina Brown. Cyclone in Calico: The Story of Mary Ann Bickerdyke. Boston: Little, Brown, 1952.
Massey, Mary Elizabeth (1994). Women in the Civil War. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.