Feisty Females: Mary Ann Bickerdyke (Part Two)

MaryAnnBickerdyke_picAfter arriving in Cairo, Illinois to deliver and administer the medical supplies donated by the citizens of Galesburg, Mary Ann Bickerdyke saw an even greater challenge – sanitation.  The conditions she encountered were more dire than the description given by the young Galesburg doctor – ten men to a tent, many lying on straw pallets and human excrement everywhere.  (In case you missed Part One of this story, you might want to read it here before continuing.)

The first order of business was to clean the place up, starting with baths for those who could manage to rise from their cots or straw pallets.  While they bathed, clean linens were placed on the cots or laid over clean straw.  A hearty meal was prepared with the food donated by Galesburg, and by the first day’s end the camp, with the help of volunteers, was looking better in Mary’s eyes.

Given only a day pass, she would return again the next day and the next …. the task was too great for Mary Ann to merely deliver supplies and return home.  She decided to remain for an extended time and appealed to her hometown for a weekly stipend to cover room and board.  The committee agreed to send her ten dollars a week.

Mary Ann would soon discover that one of the problems plaguing troops was digestive in nature due to poor food preparation, or a soldier’s lack of basic cooking skills.  The Army had no allowances for cooks, so each man was given a ration of food supplies consisting of such things as salt pork or beef, hardtack bread, beans, flour or corn meal and green coffee.  The official list of rations was long, but the supplies were more often short.

So, in addition to her nursing skills, she gave cooking lessons, teaching the men to prepare more palatable meals and hopefully receive more nutritional value.  After settling in, Mary discovered that a young woman named Mary Safford of Cairo had been dropping by the camp at times with jelly and soup, although not allowed inside the gates.  She taught Mary how to tend to the sick while she handled the job of cooking and cleaning.  By the end of the summer the men were calling Mary Safford “Angel of Cairo” and Mary Ann was “Mother Bickerdyke” to men aged fifteen to sixty.

Another Mary (Livermore) of Chicago founded the Soldiers’ Aid Society which regularly sent appropriate non-perishable items.  Livermore later helped organize the Chicago chapter of the United States Sanitary Commission, forerunner to the American Red Cross.  While the Commission had no real governing authority they managed to wield considerably influence as advisors in regards to camp locations, water supplies and so on.   The only dealings Mary Ann had with the Commission was their regular delivery of much-needed supplies.

After General Ulysses S. Grant took command of forces in Illinois, he would have his first encounter with the “cyclone in calico”.  Following a battle in early November with 485 Union soldiers killed, wounded or missing, the two Mary’s were waiting to receive the wounded, ready to take them to the hospital and whatever spare rooms they could find in Cairo.  Mary Ann commandeered the operation and amazingly was told by surgeons her help was not wanted.

Not so fast.  Mary Ann went directly to General Grant and came away with a personal note from him addressed to the surgeon who didn’t need her services.  The general was reluctant to interfere in medical operations, but he thought it would be a good idea to install Mary Ann Bickerdyke as hospital matron and overseer.  With restrictions, the surgeon grudgingly agreed to make the appointment.  She was to handle receipt and delivery of supplies and be the laundress, but was told to stay out of the hospital wards.

If you think that didn’t go over very well with Mary Ann, then you’d be exactly correct.  When she found out that liquor was being brought in for purposes other than medical and supplies were being sold on the black market, she confronted the senior surgeon.  His response was to dismiss her from her duties altogether – women have no business at a military camp, pack your bags and go home.

Mary Livermore would later record Mary Ann Bickerdyke’s exact words in reply:

Doctor, I’m here to stay as long as the men need me.  If you put me out of one door I’ll come in at another.  If you bar all the doors against me, I’ll come in at the window, and the patients will help me in.  If anybody goes from here it’ll be you.  I’m going straight to General Grant.  We’ll see who gets put out of here.

Needless to say, the doctor backed down and allowed her to continue, but only as the hospital matron.

So disturbed was she about learning supplies were being confiscated and sold, she set a trap of sorts in the kitchen.   Some dried peaches had arrived and she put them on the stove, added water to hydrate them and added brown sugar and spices.  The smell of the peaches stewing wafted throughout the camp.  When they were done she ladled them in platters, placed them in a window and instructed the cook that the peaches were for the patients.

Tom the cook swore no one else would touch them and Mary Ann went on about her work.  Later she began to hear moans coming from the kitchen.  Upon entering she saw grown mean writhing on the floor and retching, cursing, and as the author of Cyclone in Calico put it, “calling upon their Maker.”  The peaches hadn’t agreed with these non-patients because she had added tartar emetic, an expectorant meant to induce vomiting.

Mary Livermore wanted to meet Mary Ann but had little time as she was darting about the country overseeing the Aid Societies.  Dorothea Dix, another advocate for cleanliness in hospitals, who yielded considerable influence in Washington, D.C.  She also thought that soldiers would benefit from a woman’s care and was organizing the Female Nurse Corps as part of the Army’s medical department.

As Grant moved his troops down the Mississippi River, Mary Ann came along as Chief of Nursing, efficiently and properly setting up hospitals as they were needed.  As you might imagine, she continued defying male authorities, whether they be soldier or doctor.  She had little patience for drunken doctors either, frequently reporting their misdeeds – whiskey as medicine was acceptable, but not for pleasure.

CivilWarHospitalsGeneral William Tecumseh Sherman was so fond of her that she was the only woman allowed in his camps.  When she broke regulations and Sherman received complaints, he could only shrug and say little but “she outranks me.”  She also worked on the first hospital boat, helped build some three hundred hospitals and was on hand at some of the bloodiest battles and campaigns of the war, including Shiloh, Vicksburg and Sherman’s March to the Sea.

Before the war ended, she had plenty of opportunities to both confront generals and hospital staff — and took those opportunities liberally.  The Army had never been too generous in supplying needed medicines and as the war wound down, supplies became increasingly hard to find.  Mary Ann stepped in with her botanic skills and made medicines from herbs, weeds and berries, and she still believed hot baths, clean linens and adequate nourishment were the key to treating the sick and making them well.

As Sherman moved through the South and she tagged along, Mary Ann was known to forage not only for food but barter for such things as laundry soap.  She was present at the fall of Atlanta, and with so many casualties, Sherman ordered several large revival tents to house them.  The soldiers called it “Mother Bickerdyke’s Circus”.  One patient thought a circus should have pink lemonade and she agreed.  She made some, colored it with raspberry juice and served it to the fevered men – it turned out to be good medicine and became part of hospital diet.

In the aftermath of Atlanta’s fall, Mary Ann wanted to establish more hospitals but Sherman wanted to ship casualties North to be treated.  She argued with him, and for once lost – he had finally outranked her.  She still argued for her plan but it was futile.  After carrying out his orders and assisting with patient transports, she left Atlanta just before the depot was set afire.

After returning to Illinois and finding she needed to find new boarding homes for her sons, Mary Ann took some time to make those arrangements and continued traveling on behalf of her causes.  She lectured audiences around the country in graphic detail about the conditions she had encountered – amputated limbs piled high, gangrene, inadequate supplies of bandages and more.  During one New York lecture she paused and admitted that she had used pretty graphic descriptions, but was determined to tell the truth.

She decided to continue on that track, asking the Brooklyn ladies in the audience how many were wearing at least one muslin petticoat – how about those wearing two?  Three?  Four?  Five?  Apparently in that day it was fashionable to wear as many as five to make one’s dress stand out.  As related in Cyclone in Calico, Mary Ann continued:

All right ladies.  Every one of you is sitting there in five muslin petticoats – and I had to tie up a dying boy’s stump in a piece of gunnysack.  I don’t know whose boy he was.  One of you might be his mother.  Does that make you feel good, in all them yards of clean muslin?  Ladies, I speak to you now as a mother, and I speak from my heart.  Four petticoats is enough for any decent modest Congregational woman.  Stand up, all of you.  Lift your dresses.  They’s no one but us women here.  Ladies of Brooklyn, in the name of my boys, drop that fifth petticoat!

And you know what, they did just that in the midst of giggles and tears.  She gathered three trunk loads of muslin petticoats for medical purposes from that one speech.  The petticoats would eventually make their way to the Andersonville Prison survivors.  Her next stop was Philadelphia where she received a personal summons from Sherman to join him in Savannah where he had ended his March to the Sea.  She made it only as far as Wilmington, North Carolina before disembarking.  Freed Andersonville prisoners were streaming into the city and Mary Ann saw a greater need there.

At least she didn’t have the task of identifying the Andersonville dead.  That onerous task fell to Clara Barton, later founder of the American Red Cross.  Since Clara served as a nurse on the eastern front, it’s unlikely she and Mary Ann ever crossed paths.

When the war officially ended, Mary Ann Bickerdyke, at the personal request of General Sherman, rode at the head of the XV Corps for the Grand Review in Washington.  Mary Ann worked tirelessly until the war’s end, and then she did even more amazing things, always for the soldiers she loved.

MaryAnnBickerdyke_2She worked for the Salvation Army in San Francisco, became a lawyer and assisted Union veterans with legal issues – I would imagine she might have done a little “doctoring” too.  In 1886 Congress granted her a special pension of twenty-five dollars a month.  She later moved to Kansas and ran a hotel in Salina for a time and then retired to Bunker Hill, Kansas.

On November 8, 1901, Mary Ann died of complications from a stroke.  She was transported back to Galesburg, Illinois for burial next to her husband.  She was a heroine to so many and the town erected a statue in her honor.  Years later two ships, one a hospital boat and the other a World War II liberty ship, would be named in her honor.

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.


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