Mary Ann Bickerdyke

Calico Colonel of the Civil War

From a Civil War Era Envelope
From a Civil War Era Envelope. The New York Historical Society/Getty Images

Mary Ann Bickerdyke was known for her nursing service during Civil War, including setting up hospitals, winning confidence of generals. She lived from July 19, 1817 to November 8, 1901. She was known as Mother Bickerdyke or the Calico Colonel, and her full name was Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke.

Mary Ann Bickerdyke Biography

Mary Ann Ball was born in 1817 in Ohio.  Her father, Hiram Ball, and mother, Anne Rodgers Ball, were farmers.

  Anne Ball's mother had been married before and brought children to her marriage to Hiram Ball. Anne died when Mary Ann Ball was only a year old,. Mary Ann was sent with her sister and her mother’s older two children to live with their maternal grandparents, also in Ohio, while her father remarried.  When the grandparents died, an uncle, Henry Rodgers, cared for the children for a time.

We don’t know much about Mary Ann’s early years.  Some sources claim she attended Oberlin College and was part of the Underground Railroad, but there’s no historical evidence for those events.

Marriage

Mary Ann Ball married Robert Bickerdyke in April 1847. The couple lived in Cincinnati, where Mary Ann may have helped with nursing during the 1849 cholera epidemic.  They had two sons.  Robert struggled with ill health as they moved to Iowa and then to Galesburg, Illinois. He died in 1859.  Now widowed, Mary Ann Bickerdyke then had to work to support herself and her children.

She worked in domestic service and did some work as a nurse.

She was part of the Congregational Church in Galesburg where the minister was Edward Beecher, son of the famous minister Lyman Beecher, and a brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Catherine Beecher, half-brother of Isabella Beecher Hooker

Civil War Service

When the Civil War began in 1861, the Rev. Beecher called attention to the sad state of soldiers who were stationed in Cairo, Illinois.  Mary Ann Bickerdyke decided to take action, probably based on her experience in nursing.   She put her sons under the care of others, then went to Cairo with medical supplies that had been donated.  On arrival in Cairo, she took charge of sanitary conditions and nursing at the encampment, though women were not supposed to be there without prior permission.  When a hospital building was finally constructed, she was appointed matron.

After her success in Cairo, though still without any formal permission to do her work, she went with Mary Safford, who had also been at Cairo, to follow the army as it moved south.  She nursed the wounded and sick among the soldiers at the battle of Shiloh.

Elizabeth Porter, representing the Sanitary Commission, was impressed by Bickerdyke’s work, and arranged for an appointment as a “Sanitary field agent.” This position also brought in a monthly fee.

General Ulysses S Grant developed a trust for Bickerdyke, and saw to it that she had a pass to be in the camps.  She followed Grant’s army to Corinth, Memphis, then to Vicksburg, nursing at each battle.

Accompanying Sherman

At Vicksburg, Bickerdyke decided to join the army of William Tecumsah Sherman as it began a march south, first to Chattanooga, then on Sherman’s infamous march through Georgia.  Sherman allowed Elizabeth Porter and Mary Ann Bickerdyke to accompany the army, but when the army reached Atlanta, Sherman sent Bickerdyke back to the north.

Sherman recalled Bickerdyke, who had gone to New York, when his army moved towards Savannah.  He arranged for her passage back to the front.  On her way back to Sherman’s army, Bickerdyke stopped for a while to help with Union prisoners who’d been recently released from the Confederate prisoner of war camp at Andersonville.  She finally connected back with Sherman and his men in North Carolina.

Bickerdyke remained in her volunteer post – though with some recognition from the Sanitary Commission – until the very end of the war, in 1866, staying as long as there were soldiers still stationed.

After the Civil War

Mary Ann Bickerdyke tried several jobs after leaving army service. She ran a hotel with her sons, but when she got sick, they sent her to San Francisco.  There she helped advocate for pensions for the veterans.  She was hired at the mint in San Francisco.  She also attended reunions of the Grand Army of the Republic, where her service was recognized and celebrated.

Bickerdyke died in Kansas in 1901.  In 1906, the town of Galesburg, from which she’d left to go to the war, honored her with a stature.

While some of the nurses in the Civil War were organized by religious orders or under Dorothea Dix’ command, Mary Ann Bickerdyke represents another kind of nurse: a volunteer who was not responsible to any supervisor, and who often interjected themselves into camps where women were forbidden to go.