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In spring 1861, members of the Brick Congregational Church in Gales-burg, Illinois, listened as a visiting pastor, the Rev. Dr. Edward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe), read a letter from a volunteer doctor stationed with the Union Army in Cairo, Illinois. The doctor, a Galesburg native, complained about the deplorable condition of the camp and hospitals.

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The congregation responded with pledges of money and supplies to be used for "their boys." A trustworthy, efficient volunteer, who would be acceptable to the military, was needed to deliver supplies. Mary Ann Bickerdyke, a forty-four-year old botanical physician, a widow with two young sons, volunteered.


Born in Knox County, Ohio, in 1817, Mary Ann was raised by her grandparents from infancy after her mother's death. At sixteen she studied briefly with a doctor of botanic medicine, learning the healing qualities of herbs and fruits, and the benefits of fresh air and cleanliness. She met and married Robert Bickerdyke in 1847, and they settled in Galesburg.


The townsfolk of Galesburg promised to care for her children so Bickerdyke could deliver the supplies to Cairo. Seeing the horrific conditions, Bickerdyke stormed through camp like a whirlwind, cleaning and sanitizing tents, setting up field kitchens and introducing army laundries. Where she found sick and wounded men bedded on filthy straw in fetid tents, she had fresh straw spread and provided clean water and air. She had barrels cut in half so the men could bathe and dress in the clean clothes sent by the congregation.


Bickerdyke set up huge kettles over raging fires, where she brewed hot soups, porridge, tea and coffee. She baked bread in brick ovens. She bought and bartered for eggs, milk and fresh vegetables from the local farmers, using them to prepare nutritious meals in field kitchens.


After transforming the camp at Cairo, Bickerdyke felt compelled to remain. She realized that the work had just begun. She was needed to maintain standards in Cairo, as well as at other camps and hospitals where poor conditions existed. With this decision, she began years of military service, improving sanitation and living conditions while nursing countless sick and wounded soldiers, both Union and Confederate.


Bickerdyke became instantly popular with the men. A matronly woman with a friendly face, she moved among the soldiers offering a comforting word with a caring smile. Wearing her gray calico dress and Shaker bonnet as she doted over each soldier, she probably looked like the mother many had left behind. When one loyal helper dubbed her "Mother," the name stuck, and she became known to generals and soldiers alike as Mother Bickerdyke.


Although "Mother" was loved by many, a few considered her a nuisance. Fiercely devoted to her boys, she ran roughshod over officers, surgeons and medical staff, spewing orders that few failed to obey. She often helped herself to supplies to which she was not officially entitled. More than once her authority was questioned. On one occasion a surgeon boldly asked, "Madam, you seem to combine in yourself a sick-diet kitchen and a medical staff. May I inquire under whose authority you are working?"


Mother simply replied, "I have received my authority from the Lord God Almighty. Have you anything that ranks higher than that?"1 The surgeon was speechless.


For the next four years, Mother Bickerdyke continued her untiring efforts, following the armies of the western theater led by Generals John "Black Jack" Logan, William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant. She set up cooking and laundry operations at all established hospitals and camps. A traveling version, including washing machines, stoves, tubs and kettles, went with her from camp to camp.


From battle to battle, Mother fought constantly for the personal welfare of her boys. The nurse in gray calico was always there, changing a bloody dressing, serving a hot meal, cooling a feverish brow, carrying heated bricks to a bed and quieting a soldier's fears.


Once when Mother Bickerdyke extended her usual care and kindness to a man that most considered miserable and worthless, she was questioned about why she wasted her time on a lowly individual. Her convictions became clear in her blunt reply, "Because when there's any creature around here so low down and miserable that there's nobody to care for him, he's still got two friends in this army. One's God, and the other is me."2


At the close of the war, Mother Bickerdyke was rewarded for her service and friendship as she rode beside General Sherman and his sixty-five thousand men in the Grand Review Parade through Washington, DC. She was nearly forty-nine years old when she retired, after helping with the final mustering out of the army. For four years Mother Bickerdyke had given every thought and all her energy to "her boys."


The U.S. Sanitary Commission

Established in 1861, a few months after Mother Bickerdyke set out for Cairo, the United States Sanitary Commission initially had two missions:


1. To systemically collect and distribute donations such as food, wine and spirits, clothing, bedding and funds to buy drugs and medical supplies.


2. To improve the daily life of the Union soldier, through the new science of sanitation as outlined in England by Florence Nightingale six years earlier. These new methods provided fresh air, sunlight, central heating, convenient plumbing and laundry facilities under one roof, dubbed "pavilion hospitals."



When inspectors from the Sanitary Commission visited, they found that Mother Bickerdyke was already employing much of the new science. They urged her to join the Commission and become an agent.


At first, she was reluctant to accept the offer of fifty dollars a month. She was offended at the notion of being paid for doing something she wanted to do. When she realized the money could be used to buy extras for her boys and gain easy access to military stores, she finally agreed and became an official agent of the United States Sanitary Commission.


1 Robin McKown, Heroic Nurses (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1966), 89. [Context Link]


2 Marjorie Barstow Greenbie, Lincoln's Daughters of Mercy (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1944), 192. [Context Link]