Mother Bickerdyke

Last November, we looked at women in the Civil War who served as laundresses for the armies. Today, we are Mewsing about nurses, who cared for the wounded as though the men were their own family. Women who served as nurses had to be brave—and not only if they went on the field during battle. It took spunk and gumption to serve in hospitals, far from the firing line but alongside surgeons who might not like to have women helping, since women were not supposed to work like men. In honor of Mother’s Day, we look at just one nurse, Mary Ann Bickerdyke, who cared so much for her wounded men that she was known, quite fittingly, as “Mother Bickerdyke.”

Mother Bickerdyke

Mother Bickerdyke was a fiery lady who made sure she had things her way. She worked at the hospital in Cairo, Illinois, but when a new one was built, the surgeon in charge told her that she should leave. She went to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and complained. When she returned, she carried a note from Grant suggesting that she be made matron of the hospital.

As matron, Mother Bickerdyke was in charge of supplies and laundry, but she was told to stay out of the kitchen. At one point, she learned that supplies were being stolen. After trying various ways to stop the thievery, she finally baked some pies with unripe peaches. She hid and kept an eye on the pies. Before long, the culprits lay on the floor with stomachaches. When they didn’t learn from their lesson and kept stealing food, Mother Bickerdyke complained to Grant again. He had the hospital staff transferred and allowed her to pick a new staff.

Mother Bickerdyke did what she had to to help the wounded soldiers, ignoring rules and regulations. Once, when asked if she had ever heard of insubordination, Mother Bickerdyke replied, “You bet I’ve heard of it….It’s the only way I ever get anything done in this army.” Another time, when asked under whose authority she worked, she retorted, “I have received my authority from the Lord God Almighty; have you anything that ranks higher than that?”

Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman would have agreed with her on that point. Once, Mother Bickerdyke learned that a surgeon was arriving late at the hospital, leaving his patients without breakfast. She promised to have him removed from the hospital.

The angry surgeon stormed over to Sherman, ranting that false charges had been made against him. Asked who was accusing him, the man replied, “It was that spiteful old woman, Mrs. Bickerdyke.”

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

Another time, as some men marched past one of her hospitals on their way to the front, Mother Bickerdyke asked the captain to stop so she and her staff could give the soldiers something to eat. He refused. As the men marched on, someone shouted, “Halt!” Confused, the men slowed to a halt. Immediately Mother Bickerdyke and her staff served soup and coffee and gave the men more food to take with them. By the time anyone realized that Mother Bickerdyke had given the order to halt, the men had all been served.

Mother Bickerdyke served through the entire war, earning the respect of Grant and Sherman—who gave her anything she asked—and winning the hearts of the soldiers she served. Nevertheless, she continually butted heads with surgeons. Once, she served at a field hospital where the temperature was so cold during the night that the wounded began freezing. The surgeon was not allowed to send men out for more wood until dawn, but the fires died down. Mother Bickerdyke ordered that the breastworks nearby be torn down. The surgeon came over and told her she was under arrest. She replied, “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 Mother Bickerdyke died in 1901, she was given a full military burial. In 1943, during World War II, a hospital ship was launched in California to take supplies to the American soldiers fighting in the Pacific. It was named the S. S. Mary A. Bickerdyke.

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