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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Mary Ann Bickerdyke

"Cyclone in Calico"

 
 
While [Dorothea] Dix was gathering her forces in Washington, Mary Ann Bickerdyke was taking matters into her own equally dedicated hands in Galesburg, Ill. A 45-year-old juggernaut, Bickerdyke personified Dix’s ideal nurse. Before the war, she had received training in botanic and homeopathic medicine and had been engaged in private-duty nursing. Recently bereaved by the untimely death of both her husband and young daughter, she felt divinely called to spend her remaining life relieving human suffering.
 
 
On a Sunday in June 1861, Bickerdyke listened as her pastor, Edward Beecher, brother of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, told of the need for volunteer help in the military camps in nearby Cairo, Ill. When the congregation asked her to accompany a load of food, clothing and medical supplies to Cairo on behalf of the church, she was ready. Except for short visits, that was the last her two young sons saw of her until the end of the war.
 
 
When Bickerdyke saw the poor condition of the hospital in Cairo, she took a room in town and immediately began a determined cleanup effort that quickly spread to the other five military hospitals in the area. Although he granted her a grudging welcome at first, Dr. J.J. Woodward, a surgeon with the 22nd Illinois Infantry, later praised Bickerdyke as’strong as a man, muscles of iron, nerves of finest steel; sensitive, but self-reliant, kind and tender; seeking all for others, nothing for herself.’
 
 
Throughout the war, ‘Mother’ Bickerdyke moved from one trouble spot to another, acting on her belief that bodies healed best when they were bathed, placed in clean surroundings and fed well. She evinced a special concern for enlisted men and stopped at nothing to get supplies that would bring comfort to her ‘boys.’ She begged food from any viable source, raided government supplies–often without permission–and commandeered boxes of delicacies sent from home to healthy soldiers. Many times, when government rations were waylaid or ran out, she found a way to feed the troops. Her tireless zeal earned her the nickname ‘Cyclone in Calico.’
 
 
 
In the early period of her service, Bickerdyke held no authority other than semiofficial status granted occasionally by Union Army officers. Her manner, however, was so forthright and compelling that she was rarely questioned. When one surgeon dared to ask where she received permission to do what she was doing, Bickerdyke retorted she was given orders by ‘the Lord God Almighty. Have you anything that ranks higher than that?’ Later, she was named a Sanitary Commission agent.
 
 
In spite of her brusque and aggressive behavior, Bickerdyke gained the friendship of a few high-ranking officers, among them Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. Toward the end of the war, when someone complained about Bickerdyke to Sherman, he commented that she was the only person around who outranked him, and he suggested the complainer refer the matter to President Abraham Lincoln.
 
 
On one occasion, when she was besieging Sherman at an inopportune moment, the oft-prickly general asked whether she had ever heard of insubordination. Bickerdyke responded in an equally testy manner: ‘You bet I’ve heard of it….It’s the only way I ever get anything done in this army.’
 
 
She demonstrated that point one day when troops passed one of her hospitals en route to battle at Corinth, Miss. When Bickerdyke invited the captain to halt his exhausted men so that she and her staff could feed them, he refused. As he led the men on, a deep voice cried, ‘Halt!’ The men slowed to a stop, confused. Their bewilderment was replaced with glee when a group of women led by Bickerdyke quickly served them soup and coffee and gave them bread, fruit and fresh water to take along on the march. By the time anyone realized Bickerdyke had given the spurious order to halt, all the men had been served and sent off with the only food they were to see for two days. A formal reprimand brought no firm promise of reform from the unrepentant Bickerdyke.
 
 
Major General John ‘Black Jack’ Logan also crossed paths with Bickerdyke, meeting her for the first time late one night after a battle. While lying in his tent, he observed a lone figure with a lamp crisscrossing the battlefield and sent an orderly to bring the person in for questioning. Bickerdyke explained that she could not rest until she was satisfied that no living man remained on the field. The story was picked up by the press and contributed to her folk-hero status. After that incident, Logan often confided in her, called on her to provide for his men, and ordered her to ride at his side at the Union’s gala victory parade in Washington after the Confederate surrender.
 
 
As matron of many temporary field hospitals, Mother Bickerdyke often crossed swords with surgeons and other staff members. In some cases, her complaints to superior officers brought disciplinary action; other situations she resolved in her own way. She reserved special vengeance for anyone she suspected of snitching supplies or delicacies she had set aside for the sick and wounded. Once, after repeated warnings to kitchen workers, she decided to set a trap. She cooked some peaches, secretly spiked them with a potent but harmless purgative, and left them to cool while she worked elsewhere. Soon, agonized cries from the kitchen attested that she finally had made her point.
 
 
Bickerdyke drafted anyone within reach of her voice to help with the endless labor. Healthy soldiers and camp visitors were either bribed with hot meals or badgered into service. When gentlemen from the Christian Commission came to restore wounded souls, she suggested that they would have a better chance of success if they began with wounded bodies.
Formerly active in the Underground Railroad, Bickerdyke respected blacks and often sought their help. Many contrabands cheerfully worked hard for her, and, in turn, she fought for their fair treatment and taught them skills they could use later in postwar America.
 
 
Bickerdyke was equally effective on her occasional speaking forays for the Sanitary Commission. One day toward the end of the war, she was telling the ladies of Henry Ward Beecher’s church in Brooklyn how she had bound the stumps of new amputees with old cloth bags when she had nothing better. Suddenly, she asked the startled women to rise, lift their dresses, and drop one of their many petticoats to the floor. The collected garments filled three trunks, and within a few weeks, Bickerdyke was using the petticoats to bandage the terrible sores of prisoners released from Andersonville in Georgia.
 
 
When the last Illinois man was discharged, Bickerdyke resigned from the Sanitary Commission to devote the rest of her life to her family and to charitable deeds. She died in 1901, and a sturdy freighter named for her carried on her work in the 20th century by ferrying Spam and sulfa drugs to American servicemen isolated on Pacific islands in World War II.

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