Mary Ann Bickerdyke, Civil War Nursing Powerhouse

Profiles in Nursing

Mary Ann Bickerdyke, Civil War Nursing Powerhouse

A fierce advocate for the soldiers in her care

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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Mary Ann Bickerdyke (1817-1901) was what is commonly known as a force of nature. She was, in short, a character, albeit an effective and efficient one. Her exploits as a nurse during the Civil War made her beloved by the common soldier and respected by the likes of Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, both of whom allowed her free rein to do whatever she deemed necessary to secure adequate care for Union soldiers.

Bickerdyke was born in Ohio and orphaned at a very early age. She was raised by her grandparents and, after their deaths, by an uncle. Her early education was spotty, but she did briefly attend Oberlin College, one of the few institutions of higher learning in those days that admitted women. Early on, she had an interest in health, and after her husband’s death, she supported herself and her two sons by working as a “botanical physician.” She assisted in caring for victims of the Cincinnati cholera outbreak in 1837.

Taking Charge
Shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War, Bickerdyke’s minister, the Rev. Edward Beecher (a brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe), received a letter from a volunteer physician deploring the state of Union hospitals. The town collected $500 to help their local boys in uniform and chose Bickerdyke to deliver the money. What she encountered horrified her, and she set about immediately — without authorization from anyone — to make things right.

When asked upon whose authority she took a certain action, she would reply, “By God’s, and have you anyone who outranks that?"

This hands-on, no-holds-barred approach became her signature. She thought nothing of antagonizing senior officers, and would report anyone she felt was not looking after his men. Several officers and surgeons were brutally dismissed on her say-so. She was allowed in hospitals because she demanded to be. A typical anecdote, related in Robert Denny’s 2006 book The Distaff Civil War, concerned a surgeon who informed Bickerdyke, “There is no room for you in this hospital.” She firmly replied, “I am staying and if you put me out one door I shall come in another. If you bar the door, I will come in a window. In fact, if anyone leaves, it will be you.”

Advocate for the Troops
Not only did Bickerdyke care for the men who were brought to her, after dark she would take a lantern and go out onto the battlefield, seeking the wounded and bringing them back for care. Her study of botanical medicine helped in her efforts, and she became known for wards that were clean and facilities where drinkable water, healthy food (including the juices of fruits and vegetables) and herbal teas did much to ease the suffering of the men. In a very short time, she became known to Union soldiers as Mother Bickerdyke. She was ruthless towards those who stole supplies intended for the patients, and once threatened to use rat poison to trap the culprits.

Suffering the same hardships as the soldiers, she traveled with Grant as he fought down the length of the Mississippi. She was present at the Battle of Shiloh, at Vicksburg and with General Sherman on his march towards Atlanta. In all, she was present at and nursed the wounded of 19 battles, setting up a total of 300 field hospitals. By the end of the war, she was the organizer and chief of nursing, hospital and welfare services for the western armies. She was reportedly the only woman Sherman would allow in his camps, and after the war he invited her to lead the XV Corps in the Grand March in Washington.

Crusader to the End

After the war, Bickerdyke continued to labor for the weak and down and out. She worked for the Salvation Army in San Francisco, became an attorney and devoted her remaining years to helping veterans secure pensions and land. Over 300 female nurses also received pensions thanks to her efforts. She herself did not receive a pension until several years later, and then only in the amount of $25 a month.  

Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN, is a Working Nurse staff writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

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