July 19, 1817–November 8, 1901
Born on July 19, 1817 near Mount Vernon, in Knox County, Ohio, Mary Ann (Ball) Bickerdyke experienced a difficult childhood. Her parents were Hiram and Mary Ann Ball. Hiram Ball was a farmer. Mary Ann Ball died when Bickerdyke was just seventeen-months old.
Born on July 19, 1817 near Mount Vernon, in Knox County, Ohio, Mary Ann (Ball) Bickerdyke experienced a difficult childhood. Her parents were Hiram and Mary Ann Ball. Hiram Ball was a farmer. Mary Ann Ball died when Bickerdyke was just seventeen-months old. Upon her mother's death, Hiram Ball sent Bickerdyke to live with her grandparents. Upon their deaths, Bickerdyke went to live her uncle, Henry Rodgers, on his farm in Hamilton County, Ohio. She eventually enrolled in Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, but she did not graduate. Returning to her uncle's farm, Bickerdyke found employment as a nurse. She helped Cincinnati, Ohio doctors treat ill citizens during a cholera epidemic in 1837 and another in 1849.
On April 27, 1847, Bickerdyke married Robert Bickerdyke, a mechanic, a sign painter, and a bass viola player. He was a widower with three children. The couple had three or four children of their own, including two sons, Hiram and James, who lived to adulthood, and a daughter, Martha, who died at two-years of age. In 1856, the Bickerdykes moved to Galesburg, Illinois. Robert Bickerdyke died in 1859. To support her family, Mary Ann Bickerdyke found employment as a laundress, housekeeper, and nurse. She also was active in her church, the Central Congregational Church. Edward Beecher, the congregation's pastor, was a committed abolitionist and opposed the South's secession with the American Civil War's outbreak. Most congregants concurred with the minister's sentiments, including Bickerdyke.
With the beginning of the Civil War, many men from Galesburg enlisted in the Union military, including Dr. Benjamin Woodward, who became a surgeon with the 22nd Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Woodward had sent numerous patients to Bickerdyke for nursing care. Initially stationed in Cairo, Illinois, Woodward became dismayed with the unsanitary conditions that sick and wounded soldiers faced, as well as with the lack of skilled medical personnel to care for these men. Edward Beecher encouraged his church members to donate funds to purchase needed supplies for Dr. Woodward, and Bickerdyke agreed to accompany the nearly five hundred dollars in goods to the doctor in Cairo. She left her children in the care of a neighbor, embarked to Cairo, and became a nurse in the Union military.
Like Woodward, Bickerdyke became dismayed at the difficulties that sick and wounded soldiers faced. She once stated, "I have a commission from the Lord God Almighty to do all I can for every miserable creature who comes in my way; he is always sure of two friends, God and me." Over the war's course, Bickerdyke traveled throughout the Western Theater, accompanying armies led by Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and others, establishing more than three hundred field hospitals. She assisted sick and Union soldiers at the Battles of Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, during the Atlanta Campaign, and in innumerable other engagements. She routinely risked her own life, entering the disputed area of battlefields between the two competing armies to help retrieve wounded soldiers. In 1862, she became an employee of the United States Sanitary Commission, earning fifty dollars per month to assist the soldiers. The troopers came to call Bickerdyke "Mother," due to her great concern for the men's wellbeing. Bickerdyke also traveled across the North, making speeches about the awful conditions that sick and wounded soldiers faced, raising money to assist them. Because of Bickerdyke's dedication to the soldiers, General Sherman asked her to participate in the Grand Review in Washington, DC at the Civil War's conclusion. She marched at the head of an entire army corps, and Sherman provided her with a seat on the reviewing stand. Bickerdyke refused the seat, preferring to hand water to the soldiers along the parade route.
Bickerdyke remained in the military until March 21, 1866. She returned to Galesburg only briefly, before accepting a position with the Chicago (Illinois) Home for the Friendless. She also spent her free time assisting veterans, both soldiers and nurses, in applying for pensions from the federal government. In 1867, she acquired a ten thousand dollar gift from banker Jonathan Burr. Her goal for the money was to use the funds to acquire land, tools, and other supplies for veterans in the American West, especially in Kansas. Bickerdyke also secured free transportation to Kansas for veterans on the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy Railroad. Upon arriving in Kansas, Bickerdyke arranged through General Sherman for the veterans to have access to government teams and wagons to bring their belongings from the railroad to their new homes. Bickerdyke also became the operator of a boardinghouse in Salina, Kansas in 1867. The Kansas and Pacific Railroad owned the hotel and dismissed Bickerdyke in 1869 due to her willingness to provide free housing to people who could not afford to pay.
In 1870, Bickerdyke moved to New York City, New York, accepting a position with the Protestant Board of City Missions. In this position, she assisted the organization in cleaning up the city's slum neighborhoods. In 1874, Bickerdyke returned to Kansas, settling on her sons' farm near Great Bend. That same year, locusts descended upon Kansas, destroying many of the farmers' crops. Bickerdyke traveled across the North, educating people of the farmers' plight. She returned to Kansas with more than two hundred boxcars of supplies to assist the farmers.
Bickerdyke's health soon began to fail, and her sons sent their mother to San Francisco, California in 1876, hoping that the change in climate would return Bickerdyke to good health. She became an employee of the United States Mint in San Francisco and also continued to volunteer her time assisting veterans in securing pensions and with various charitable organizations, including with the Salvation Army. In 1886, she secured her own pension for her actions during the Civil War. She received twenty-five dollars per month for the remainder of her life.
In 1887, Bickerdyke returned to Kansas, settling in Bunker Hill and living with her son, James, the principal of the local high school. She remained in Kansas the remainder of her life, dying on November 8, 1901. She is buried in Galesburg, Illinois.
Forty years after Bickerdyke's death, Galesburg residents erected a special tombstone and statue to honor the community's most famous resident. Postmaster F.A. Freer stated that Bickerdyke, "saw that some one was needed to make order out of this confusion. Her love was like that of a mother, her touch was like that of a mother, and so she became known to all the soldiers, and finally she was known to everyone as Mother Bickerdyke."
After Freer's comments, Former Governor Yates gave a speech, commemorating Bickerdyke's accomplishments.
She bound up the wounds of the afflicted and when she did so she administered a soothing balm to the lacerated hearts at home.
Cairo and Paducah, Fort Donelson and Shiloh, Corinth and Iuka, Vicksburg and Memphis, Chattanooga and Atlanta, Altoona and Marietta, Huntsville and Beaufort, Washington and Camp Butler are a few of the places where she fought, in hospitals, a gigantic winning battle against death and for human lives.
With her hot foods and soups and her stimulating drinks and restoratives she fought among the wounded ranks upon the battlefield too.
She tore up, and used to bandage wounds, all her clothing which was capable of such use, although it was made, with care and patience by loving ones back home in Illinois, who were full of the feeling that she needed such things more than anybody. She listened at night, on edges of battlefields, for groans of wounded men overlooked, and when she heard them went out herself, through rain and storm, with lanterns and stretchers, and found such men and brought them in.
She sang songs of home and heaven to dying men, while shot and shell fell in the midst of her field hospital.
She not only lessened the pain of thousands; but she contributed by her contagious example and leadership to the comfort of untold thousands more.