“She Has More Power Than I– She Ranks Me.” W. T. Sherman

Mother Bickerdyke

Mother Mary Bickerdyke

Sherman was very security conscious. He shared his future plans with almost nobody... except for one woman. He revealed his intentions to her so that she would be prepared when the army moved. As his army marched in the Grand Review, Sherman was in front all alone but for a woman who rode at this side. How was it that a forty something year old widow earned that kind of respect from the notoriously demanding Sherman?

When Edmund Ruffin pulled the lanyard that fired the first shot of the Civil War, he also signaled the beginning of the end of the medical dark ages. Today every kindergartner knows more about infection & first aid than any medical doctor in the world in 1860. Who does not wash hands with soap & clean a wound before putting on a bandaid?

Imagine a world without germs. The mist rising from a pond on a summer evening causes malaria [bad air]. In some unimaginable semi magical way disease vectors turn a small scratch into a fatal wound. Midwives & doctors kill mothers & babies with their dirty hands. Green, stinking puss flowing from a wound is seen as a good thing. That was the state of the medical art in 1860. Into this world of magic, mystery, misery & misconception strode a bright shining savior armed with nothing more than an iron will & a magical formula that would revolutionize medical care. Her magic was worked with equal parts soap, soup, sanitation & sympathy.

In 1861, seeking for a way to contribute to the welfare of the wounded & ill soldiers evacuated to Cairo, citizens of Galesburg, Illinois purchased $500 worth of medical supplies. In what was one of those unintended consequences that make history so entertaining, the good citizens of Galesburg entrusted the supplies to a local widowed herb doctor in her 40’s, Mary Anne (Ball) Bickerdyke.

At Cairo, Mary Bickerdyke entered what must have seemed like the inner circle of hell. There was no such thing as an army medic, the nursing profession did not exist, & the army medical corps was in the cold bloodless hands of septuagenarians who clung to their position until death. Almost overnight, there were more casualties than there were soldiers in the army a few months before. A huge medical system had to be created almost overnight, almost all of it with little more than interference coming from the army medical corps.

Mary Livermore:

“The hospital arrangements, in the early part of the war, were as pitiful & inadequate as were the facilities for transportation. Any building was considered fit for a hospital; & the suffering endured by army patients, in the unsuitable buildings into which they were crowded during the first year of the war can never be estimated. Before the war there was no such establishment as a General Hospital in the army... There was no trained, efficient medical staff. There were no well-instructed nurses, no sick-diet kitchens, no prompt supply of proper medicines, & no means of humanely transporting the sick & wounded. Our entire military & medical systems, which seemed well nigh perfect at last, were created in the very midst of the war.”

November 12, 1861 an anonymous member of the 5th Wisconsin:

“As yet we have done little fighting, but have lost a large number of men. They are dying daily in the camps & hospitals, from pneumonia, dysentery, & camp diseases, caused by severe colds, exposure, & lack of proper food when ill... We have about thirty in our regimental hospital who will never again be good for anything.”

The army medical system was modeled on the only thing they knew anything about, a 40 bed post hospital. An army surgeon was assisted by convalescent soldiers, that is the least afflicted among the patients, who did nursing duty to the best of their abilities. It goes without saying that this model was completely inadequate to the needs brought on by the war.

The United States Sanitary Commission was created to fill the yawning chasm between what the Army Medical Corps could do & the needs of tens of thousands of casualties. I am not going to attempt to describe the vast & varied work done by the Sanitarians. If you are not familiar with them, you cannot understand how the medical & personal needs of Civil War soldiers were nurtured. The list of firsts, innovations, president setting inventions attributed to the Sanitary Commission is impossible to exaggerate. Mary Livermore & Mary Bickerdyke are examples of the unnumbered women who made the work of the commission possible.

Mary Ball Bickerdyke was born in Knox County, Ohio, July 19, 1817. Her grandfather served all seven years of the Revolution & crossed the Delaware River with George Washington. She attended Oberlin College. She married a widower with 5 children when she was 25. They had two sons. Her husband died two years before the war.

Mary Livermore:

I have heard her tell married men, in a sort of warning way, & very seriously, that she really believed her husband might have lived twenty years longer, if he had not worn himself into the grave trying to boss her.

“He wanted me to do everything in his way, & just as he did; but his way was too slow, I couldn’t stand it.”

After the Battle of Belmont, Mary Bickerdyke was assigned to a hospital in Cairo commanded by a drunkard. Mrs. Livermore states that, “He had filled all positions in the hospitals with surgeons & officers of his sort, & bacchanalian carousals in the “doctor’s room” were of frequent occurrence. It took about 24 hours for him to order Mary Bickerdyke out of his hospital.

Bickerdyke stood her ground:

‘I will stay as long as the men need me — if you put me out of one door I will come in another; & if you bar all the doors against me, I will come in at the windows, & that the patients would help me in. When anybody leaves it will be you & not me! I have already lodged complaints against you at headquarters.”

He left her alone, but the supplies that were being sent to the hospital were still being filched wholesale. Spying a hospital ward-master dressed head to toe in garments intended for his patients, Bickerdyke gobbled him up & stripped him naked but for his pantaloons in front of the patients.

“Now, you rascal, let’s see what you’ll steal next!”

Looting of food required a more nuanced approach. She mixed an emetic with some stewed peaches. She told Tom, the cook, that she was going to let them cool overnight. In short order, cooks, table-waiters, ward-masters, in fact, all the staff except for some of the surgeons were in a howling agony, believing that they had been poisoned. In stalked Bickerdyke, every inch the avenging angel:

“Peaches don’t seem to agree with you, eh?” (insert retching & copious ejection of gas) “Well, let me tell you that you will have a worse time than this if keep on stealing! You may eat something with ratsbane (poison) one of these nights.”

More practical than terrorizing the staff was a huge ‘refrigerator’ equipped with a stout hasp & lock.

“You have stolen the last morsel from me that you ever will for I intend always to carry the key of the refrigerator in my pocket.”

Tom, the cook, was a man who couldn’t take a hint. The very next morning the hasp was forced & all the delicacies looted. She had him arrested & hauled off to the guardhouse with such alacrity that with the exception of a couple of patients, nobody knew what had happened to Tom. Bickerdyke took over the management of the hospital kitchen.

Stumbling onto Tom at the guardhouse, the surgeon attempted to have him released. It was too late, the provost-marshal had already placed the results of his investigation before the commander of the post, Colonel U. S. Grant. The surgeon was dismissed, the other officers sent packing & a competent surgeon named Dr. Taggart took charge.

Like lightening, the story of the woman that the men began to call Mother Bickerdyke spread through the army. A collective shudder ran through the jobbers & incompetents who had flocked to the medical service at the start of the war. An unbreakable bond with the common soldier & their commander had been forged by Mother Bickerdyke.

Recognizing that they were in a river war, Mother Bickerdyke was put in charge of a riverboat. When wounded were brought aboard, after suffering the agonies of their evacuation from the battlefield, they were met by made up beds, tea, coffee, soup, gruel, milk punch & ice water. A volunteer surgeon aboard her river boat wrote:

“I never saw anybody like her. There was really nothing for us surgeons to do but dress wounds & administer medicines. She drew out clean shirts or drawers from some corner, whenever they were needed. Nourishment was ready for every man as soon as he was brought on board. Every one was sponged from blood & the frozen mire of the battle-field, as far as his condition allowed. His blood-stiffened, & sometimes horribly filthy uniform, was exchanged for soft & clean hospital garments. Incessant cries of “Mother! Mother! Mother!” rang through the boat, in every sort of beseeching & anguish, & to every man she turned with a heavenly tenderness, as if he were indeed her son. She moved about with a decisive air, & gave directions in such decided, clarion tones as to ensure prompt obedience. We all had an impression that she held a commission from the Secretary of War, or at least the Governor of Illinois. To every surgeon who was superior, she held herself subordinate, & was as good at obeying as at commanding.”

In fact, Mother Bickerdyke held no commission beyond her own determination & dedication to her patients. Late at night, a surgeon observed a light bobbing & weaving across the battlefield. He dispatched a patrol that discovered Mother Bickerdyke moving among scattered bodies looking for signs of life among those left for dead.

Recognizing the waste inherent in the standard procedure of burning the clothes of wounded men, Mother Bickerdyke ordered up a portable laundry. Assigned a squad of contrabands & convalescent soldiers, she recycled a tremendous amount of clothing. Each item saved was folded, deposited in boxes & deposited in a safe place ready to be drawn on at need.

After Shiloh, at Savannah, Tennessee she went to work with her customary energy. An army surgeon who accompanied wounded to the rear found her wearing a Confederate officer’s greatcoat, her habitual shaker bonnet replaced by a wide brimmed slouch hat. She was tending large kettles (hog scalding kettles) from which she dispensed hot soup, along with crackers, tea, panado, whiskey, & water.

“Where did you get these articles? ... under whose authority are you at work? Madam, you seem to combine in yourself a sick-diet kitchen & a medical staff. May I inquire under whose authority you are working?”

She answered him:

“I have received my authority from the Lord God Almighty; have you anything that ranks higher than that?”

From that point on, Mother Bickerdyke had the full support of the Sanitary Commission. Her accomplishments include a small pox hospital was lashed into shape, officers dispatched to far flung backwaters & replaced better men, a laundry supporting the ten thousand men in the hospitals in Memphis, everywhere she went order & cleanliness followed in her wake. Mother Bickerdyke was a force of nature.

Not only did she have the full backing of the Sanitary Commission, she had full backing of the one man in the army who mattered most. Knowing her worth from his earliest days in command, General Grant gave her a pass to go anywhere within his command & the authority to draw supplies from any quartermaster. Army wagons were hers for the asking. She held that unprecedented commission until the end of the war.

Mary Livermore recounts an encounter with a surgeon who showed up hung over & late for rounds. Taking matters into her own hands, Mother Bickerdyke ordered Mary Livermore to help her feed & attend to the men in the ward:

‘While we were all busy, the surgeon of the ward came in, looking as if he had just risen from sleeping off a night’s debauch.’

“You miserable, drunken, heartless scalawag!” shaking her finger & head at him threateningly, “What do you mean by leaving these fainting, suffering men to go until noon with nothing to eat, & no attention? Not a word, sir!” as he undertook to make an explanation. “Off with your shoulder-straps, & get out of this hospital! I’ll have them off in three days, sir! This is your fourth spree in a month, & you shall go where you belong. Off with your shoulder-straps, I tell you, for they’ve got to go.” She was as good as her threat, for in less than a week she had made such charges against him that he was dismissed from the service... The dismissed surgeon went to General Sherman to complain of the injustice done him.

“Who was your accuser?” asked General Sherman; “who made the charges?”

“Why– why– I suppose it was that spiteful old woman, Mrs. Bickerdyke.”

“Oh, well, then,” said Sherman, “if it was she, I can’t help you. She has more power than I — she ranks me.”

After a heated confrontation with the officer in charge of providing eggs & milk to the hospitals in Memphis, Mary Bickerdyke went upriver to Illinois. She gathered a herd of milk cows from local farmers.The Sanitary Commission headquarters in Chicago became a giant henhouse, with predictable effects on the people trying to work there. Before 30 days were out, Mother Bickerdyke returned to Memphis at the head of an improbable procession of over one hundred cows & a thousand hens. General Hurlburt gave her President’s Island, a short distance from Memphis. Contrabands were detailed to tend her menagerie. Milk & eggs there were in abundance at the hospitals from that point on.

Mary Livermore attempted to describe the special relationship that existed between General Sherman & Mother Bickerdyke.

“General Sherman... fully appreciated Mother Bickerdyke; she had entree to his headquarters, & obtained any favor she chose to ask. There was something in her character akin to his own. Both were restless, imperious, fiery, hard working & indomitable.”

Sent to Chattanooga via Chicago, Mother Bickerdyke arrived just after Grant’s victory. She established a hospital at the base of Missionary Ridge. The El Niño current inflicted a winter of cataclysmic proportions onto the men shivering in the hospital tents.

She had several hundred tents filled with wounded men under her care. On an indescribably cold night, great piles of wood were placed around the tents & ignited in an effort to keep the men warm. Before midnight, the fires burnt down. The officer in charge declared that nothing could be done until daylight & went to bed.

Mother Bickerdyke appealed to the Pioneer Corps camped near by. It would have been folly to attempt to go into the woods & fell trees. Mother Bickerdyke asked them to take their mules, axes, hooks & chains to the breastworks near the hospital. Needless to say, only a general officer could authorize the destruction of a fort. Mother Bickerdyke’s moral authority was all that was needed to set the men & mules to work. She refreshed the Pioneers with hot panado (hot water, sugar, crackers & whisky) as they dismantled the fortifications & fed the fires thorough the night. Each of the 1,500 men in the hospital was surrounded by piles of heated bricks taken from buildings dismantled at her command.

In the midst of this great commotion, a train of thirteen ambulances bearing wounded from the hospital at Ringgold, Georgia arrived. The drivers & mules were all but dead from the cold, imagine the state of the men in the ambulances. Many of them lost limbs that were frozen solid.

The next morning the flabbergasted commander of the hospital had no choice but to say:

“Madam, consider yourself under arrest!”

“All right, Major! I’m arrested! Only don’t meddle with me till the weather moderates; for my men will freeze to death, if you do!”

When finally called before a board of officers to answer for the official hubbub she had caused, she lectured them:

“It’s lucky for you, old fellows, that I did what I did. For if I hadn’t, hundreds of men in the hospital tents would have frozen to death. No one at the North would have blamed me, but there would have been such a hullabaloo about your heads for allowing it to happen, that you would have lost, whether or no”

The men took to hurrahing three cheers whenever she came into view. She answered

‘for Heaven’s sake stop your nonsense, & shut up!’

All the way from Chattanooga to Atlanta, Mother Bickerdyke ministered to the sick & wounded. Often, she was within range as the battles raged. After packing up her hospital supplies, she was at the tail of the column that went north as Sherman headed for the sea. She rejoined the army in Wilmington with a shipload of supplies ready to sucor the prisoners from Andersonville.

After the war, Mother Mary Bickerdyke went west to carry on her good works. Eventually, she was given a position at the mint in San Francisco. A $25 per month pension was eventually awarded to her. To the end of her life, she was the celebrated guest at soldier’s reunions across the country.

Mary Bickerdyke is a character beloved of living historians. My wife Anne has portrayed her as I act as her straight man in the person of Dr. A. N. Reed of the Sanitary Commission. Mary Livermore’s book is available online in it’s entirety. I have done little more than paraphrased her work in the blog post. I encourage you to research the Sanitary Commission & the remarkable people who worked so hard to support soldiers during the war.

So... what do you think? Please leave me a comment.


  • Vale: Silly question probably, but was that his wife? If so, what happened to her during the war, did she stay at camp when they were fighting?
  • Rhea Cole: No, it is not Mrs Sherman. Did come to W. T.’s H.Q. They lost a child to disease while she was with him. Julia Grant ran the Vicksburg batteries. They were remarkable woman in their own right. However, they were not in Mother Mary’s league.
  • dustyjoe: Great blog Rhea, I really enjoyed it. Jim
  • Vale: Thanks for updating that blog, it was a great read! She sounds like she was an amazing woman
  • Yvonne N T Makita: Fantastic ‘ Matron following in her Own Modesty..Loved reading about this extraordinary Passionate & Practical Nightingale..Thanks.!
  • Madison_Anders:

    she sound amazing. thanks !!!

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