Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke
Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke 1817-1901
When his staff complained about the outspoken, insubordinate female nurse who consistently disregarded the army’s red tape and military procedures, Union Gen. William T. Sherman threw up his hands and exclaimed, “She outranks me, I can’t do a thing in the world.” They were discussing Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke, a nurse who ran roughshod over anyone who stood in the way of her self appointed duties. She was known affectionately to her “boys,” the grateful enlisted men in Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s and then Sherman’s army, as Mother Bickerdyke. When a surgeon questioned her authority to take some action, she replied, “on the authority of Lord God Almighty, have you anything that outranks that?”
Born in Knox County Ohio, Mother Bickerdyke became the best known, most colorful, and probably the most resourceful Civil War nurse. Widowed two years before the war began, she supported herself and her two half-grown sons by practicing as a “botanic physician” on Galesburg IL. When a young Union volunteer physician wrote home about the filthy, chaotic military hospitals at Cairo Il, Galesburg citizens collected $500 worth of supplies and selected Bickerdyke to deliver them.
She stayed in Cairo as an unofficial nurse, and through her unbridled energy and dedication, she organized the hospitals and gained Grant’s appreciation. Grant sanctioned her efforts, and when his army moved down the Mississippi, Bickerdyke went too, setting up hospitals where they were needed. Sherman was especially fond of his volunteer nurse who followed the western armies, and supposedly she was the only woman he would allow in his camp. By the end of the war, with the help of the US Sanitary Commission, Mother Bickerdyke had built 300 hospitals and aided the wounded on 19 battlefields.