General William Tecumseh Sherman declared at one point during the Civil War that she outranked him. She was not a push-over and wasn’t about to be pushed aside by Army regulations either. The Union soldiers she tended called her “Mother Bickerdyke” and they cheered her presence as they would their commanding generals.
She was born Mary Ann Ball on July 19, 1817 in Knox County, Ohio to parents Hiram and Annie Rodgers Ball. Annie died when Mary Ann was about seventeen months old, so Mary Ann was sent to live with her mother’s parents until Hiram remarried a few years later. Mary Ann, however, decided she preferred to live with her Rodgers grandparents.
According to Cyclone in Calico by Nina Brown Baker, Mary Ann knew John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed, who had planted an orchard on her grandfather’s farm. When her grandparents passed away, Mary Ann lived with one of her uncles. In 1833 at the age of sixteen, Mary Ann left for Oberlin, Ohio, the same year Oberlin College opened.
While it appears she never registered, some speculate that perhaps she found work at the home of a faculty member and was allowed to audit classes, where she might have studied herbal medicine. Baker speculates that perhaps Mary Ann “heard [Johnny Appleseed’s] impassioned harangues on the medicinal values of horehound, wintergreen and dog fennel, the herbs whose seeds he scattered with such zeal” and that piqued her interest in the field. In that day there were also schools which taught homeopathic medicine, but no one seems to know for sure where she acquired her knowledge of the field of herbal medicine.
She later moved to Cincinnati to live with an uncle and there met her husband. In 1847, Mary Ann married a widower named Robert Bickerdyke and they moved to Galesburg, Illinois. She and Robert had children of their own, James, Hiram and Martha. However, in 1859 Robert died suddenly and unexpectedly, living her with no income.
As Baker points out, somewhere along the way she must have garnered enough skills, and perhaps some sort of certificate which allowed her to be considered a doctor of sorts. She may have, in fact, practiced during the ten year period before she married Robert. Galesburg was a college town, cultured enough that she would require some sort of credentials to be accepted as a physician.
Not long after Robert’s death, Mary Ann “put out her shingle” – M.A. Bickerdyke, Botanic Physician. She already had a reputation in town of being “good with sickness” – neighbors asked her advice for all kinds of ailments, which she freely dispensed. After Robert passed away she began to charge for those “consultations”.
Sadly, just a year after Robert’s death her daughter Martha passed away. That same year she joined the local Congregational church, led by Dr. Edward Beecher, brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Like Harriet, Mary Ann was a staunch abolitionist, “a woman of unshakable religious faith” who plunged herself into the activities of the Ladies’ Aid group. The group marveled at how skilled she was at “fund-raising” which would help feed and clothe the heathen. As Baker put it, “no one could stretch a dime or a yard of calico so far as Sister Bickerdyke” – and Dr. Beecher agreed.
Her skills, as not only a botanic physician and a leader, would become even more valuable in the early days of the Civil War. One Sunday morning in June of 1861, Dr. Beecher, known for his flair for the dramatic, decided to take the text of his sermon from a letter rather than the Bible. As he read the letter written by Dr. Benjamin Woodward, a Galesburg physician who had volunteered to serve, the audience was moved to tears.
Woodward wrote passionately about his concerns for soldiers who were dying, not on the battlefield, but in the field hospitals where conditions were so abhorrent – typhoid and dysentery, among other diseases, were common. The wounded lay on dirty straw and were often exposed to the elements, and the Army was indifferent apparently. As related in Cyclone in Calico:
The army did not distinguish between a sick soldier and a well one, except that a man too sick to stand was excused from drill. Sick or well, he drew his eleven dollars a month and his ration of uncooked beans and bacon. What he did with them was his own concern. The army doctors were expressly classified as surgeons, not physicians. Their business was the care of the wounded men after battle. Soldiers were not supposed to be sick. Succumbing to civilian disease in camp carried a strong suspicion of malingering to the army mind. . . The only nurses were convalescent patients, often too weak themselves to turn a sick man on his straw pallet.
The situation had left Dr. Woodward indignant, he being quite unprepared for what he was facing at his Cairo, Illinois post. To emphasize his point, as examples he named young men from Galesburg. Now the women, wives and mothers of those soldiers, knew exactly what horrible conditions their men were enduring.
Dr. Beecher left it up to the congregation to decide how the rest of the service would proceed: “If you choose, we will now proceed with our regular Sabbath service. Or if you prefer, we will suspend everything and discuss what can be done to improve the situation at Cairo. What is your wish?” One of the deacons stood and declared, “Brother Beecher, the Master said that when your ox falls into the pit, you dig him out first and pray afterwards. I vote we get our ox out of the pit!”
It didn’t take long to receive pledges for medicines, food and clean linens – about five hundred dollars worth — in just a half hour. That was great and generous, but who would accompany the donations and administer the medicine, hand out the food and change bed linens? One woman thought what the soldiers needed was their “mammies”. Her suggestion was immediately dismissed as foolishness – the government wasn’t about to let a bunch of women move onto an army post.
Still the decision needed to be made, and after a lengthy prayer the president of the Ladies’ Aid Circle rose and boldly proposed that the congregation send her nominee, adding:
The person of whom I speak has medical knowledge, and wide experience with illness. No one in Galesburg has a better reputation for moral character, Christian charity and neighborly goodwill. In addition, this person is known to all of you as skillful, economical and sensible. I have never known my candidate to flinch from any task, however distasteful, nor to fail to complete any undertaking, however difficult. I do not believe we could place our mission in better hands. (Cyclone in Calico)
Dr. Beecher agreed her nominee was the ideal candidate and asked, “May we have his name?” The answer: Mary Ann Bickerdyke. The old deacon guffawed, but Dr. Beecher smiled. Mary Ann Bickerdyke fit the exact description he had in mind. When no more names were forthcoming, Mary Ann was unanimously elected to take the supplies to Cairo. She rose to say a few words to the congregation, and knowing the challenges she faced, saying: “When I’m doing the Lord’s work, they ain’t nobody big enough to stop me.”
Look out Army, here comes Mary Ann Bickerdyke! Tune in next week for Part Two of Mary Ann’s story. Not only did she make a difference during the Civil War (and ruffle more than a few military feathers), she became an attorney and advocated on behalf of Union veterans and their legal issues.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.