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Mary Ann Bickerdyke endeared herself to sick and wounded soldiers, and to their commanders, by devoting herself to improving their medical care during the war. After the war she worked hard to secure pensions for Civil War veterans.
Mary Ann Ball was born in Knox County, Ohio, on July 19, 1817, but grew up in the homes of various relatives. She attended Oberlin College and later studied nursing. She married Robert Bickerdyke in 1847. After his death in 1859 she made her home in Galesburg, Illinois, where she supported herself by practicing "botanic medicine."
Upon outbreak of the Civil War, Bickerdyke volunteered to accompany and distribute a collection of supplies taken up for the relief of wounded soldiers at a makeshift army hospital in Cairo, Illinois. Finding the conditions there to be extremely unsanitary, she immediately set to work cleaning the facility; she also did a lot of the cooking, in addition to handling nursing duties. She then became matron when a general hospital was organized there in November 1861.
Following the fall of Fort Donelson in February 1862, Bickerdyke made a number of forays onto the battlefield to search for wounded. Her alliance with the U.S. Sanitary Commission began about this time.
Bickerdyke soon attached herself to the staff of General Ulysses S. Grant, from whom she received a pass for free transportation anywhere in his command. She followed Grant's army down the Mississippi River, setting up hospitals where they were needed. She later accompanied General William Tecumseh Sherman on his march through Georgia. It was largely due to her efforts that provisions were made for frequent medical examinations and for transporting men who could no longer walk. Under her supervision, about 300 field hospitals were built with the help of U.S. Sanitary Commission agents.
Bickerdyke endeared herself to the sick and wounded soldiers, among whom she became known as "Mother Bickerdyke." But she was equally brutal towards incompetent officers and physicians, many of whom she succeeded in getting dismissed. Although she frequently violated established procedures, she had support from Generals Grant, Sherman, and others who recognized the value of her services.
Following the war Bickerdyke worked with the Chicago Home for the Friendless (1866-1867). In 1867, in connection with a plan to settle veterans on Kansas farmland, she opened a boarding house in Salina, with backing from the Kansas Pacific Railroad. The venture failed in 1869, and in 1870 she went to New York City to work for the Protestant Board of City Missions. Returning to Kansas in 1874, she helped provide relief to victims of a locust plague. In 1876, she moved to San Francisco, where she secured a position at the U.S. Mint. She also devoted her time and energy to the Salvation Army and other organizations. In her "free time," she worked on behalf of veterans, making frequent trips to Washington to press pension claims; she herself was granted a pension of $25 a month by Congress in 1886. She returned to Kansas in 1887, and died in Bunker Hill on November 8, 1901.
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This page was last updated on July 19, 2018.