Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke Biography (1817-1901)


Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke was a woman of great prestige during the Civil War.She set up army hospitals for the Union forces and traveled with the army improving conditions wherever she went. Both General Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman were impressed by her devotion and talent, and the entireUnion army benefited from her efforts.

Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke was born on July 19, 1817, in Knox County, Ohio. Hermother passed away in 1818 when Bickerdyke was only one year old. After thatshe and her siblings were sent to live on their grandparents' farm in Richland County, Ohio.

Little is known about the rest of Bickerdyke's young life. She may have goneto nursing school at Oberlin College, and she may have helped care for the victims of the cholera epidemics that ravaged Cincinnati in both 1837 and 1849.

In 1847 Mary Ann Ball married Robert Bickerdyke who was mechanic, sign painter, and a bass viol player. Together they had two children and lived in Cincinnati. Upon her husbands death in 1859 Bickerdyke was left a poor widow.

Working a laundress, housekeeper, and nurse Bickerdyke managed to support hertwo children. When the Civil War broke out she soon found a cause that was worthy of her attention. She heard about the dismal living conditions of the Union soldiers, and she quickly acted to help them.

Leaving her children in the care of another family she set off alone to helpthe soldiers that were stationed in Cairo, Illinois. She brought with her more than a hundred dollars worth of donated food and medical supplies.

When Bickerdyke arrived in Cairo, she had to fight the authorities. Women atthat time were not allowed into army encampments without permission. No one wanted to give her the required permission, but when she saw how terrible theliving conditions were she persisted and eventually overcame the opposition.

At the time of the Civil War, doctors for the army were more worried about amputations and ways of reducing pain than they were about basic needs such asclean water, fresh air, good meals, and good sanitation. Bickerdyke began making changes that would help the soldiers recover more quickly and help prevent illness. The value of Bickerdyke's work quickly became evident, and when amilitary hospital was finally opened in Cairo she was named its matron.

Bickerdyke continued to make improvements in the field hospitals. As the Union Army moved from one battle to another, she followed and assisted wherever help was needed most. She began to get more help from officials in the army and in 1862 was officially given a job paying 50 dollars a month as a sanitaryfield agent. This meant that she was allowed to draw from the Sanitary Commission's stores so she did not have to rely as much on donations and her own ingenuity to obtain supplies. General Grant trusted and valued her work so muchthat he gave Bickerdyke a pass that allowed her to travel freely through thetroops.

Following Grant's army, Bickerdyke traveled to the battle of Shiloh, then toCorinth where she opened another army hospital, to Memphis, and then to the battle of Vicksburg. At Vicksburg Bickerdyke decided to join William TecumsehSherman's army for their march to Chattanooga. Along the way she helped to cook and clean and care for the ill soldiers. Once the army reached Chattanooga, Bickerdyke and Sherman argued about whether she would be allowed to travelwith the army on their march to Atlanta and then to Savannah. She prevailed and accompanied the army on the first leg of the march, but Sherman would notlet her stay with the army past Atlanta.

Throughout the remainder of the war Bickerdyke traveled with different sections of the Union Army helping to set up hospitals and caring for injured soldiers. Even after the war, she stayed on as an army nurse until she was no longer needed. She resigned from her army duty on March 21, 1866.

Eventually Bickerdyke's health began to fail, so she was sent west to San Francisco by her sons in the hope that the climate might improve her health. While there she helped veterans of the war. She received a patronage job with the San Francisco mint. Through her job she could help veterans all over the country receive their pensions. She was always considered an important part ofthe Union army and was often invited to reunions. She died November 8, 1901 at Bunker Hill, Kansas.

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