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Notable Women of Columbus: Mary Ann Bickerdyke

Credit: Ohio History Connection

Columbus Neighborhoods history intern Yi Guo interviews Jane Schultz – professor of English, history and medical humanities at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis – about the life and legacy of Mary Ann Bickerdyke. Schultz is also co-editor of the Nursing History and Humanities book series.

Talk about Mary Ann Bickerdyke and her connection to Ohio.

She spent the early part of her life in Ohio, and she was born in Knox County, Ohio. She had a very unfortunate childhood, which helps us understand the adult that she became. The misfortune was that when she was a year and a half old, her mother passed away.

And, you know, this is always terrible for any child to lose particularly their mother when they were an infant still, and she went to live with her grandparents, who lived in another Ohio County. And she got passed back and forth several times to various relatives during her growing up years. And this was really hard on her, and it may well explain why she left her own two sons in 1861 to go nurse soldiers during the Civil War.

So did her unfortunate childhood build up her personality to overcome barriers?

Yes, she understood what it was like to overcome adversity. I think there’s no question about that. She’s a very strong person, and she was raised primarily on farms. So, you know, she was a working-class person who had a fairly – what we would refer to as a – hardscrabble life.

She’s a woman with courage, I think.

She’s very courageous, that’s right. And of course, because she herself did not receive the love and attention and care as a child that she hoped she might have received – because of all of the being passed around to various relatives – maybe this is why she felt obligated to go take care of soldiers, other people’s sons, you know.

How did her education at Oberlin College set her on her path?

She did not have much formal education, and part of the reason for that is that children who were, who belonged to farm families were usually very busy helping, you know, with the agricultural duties of the farm.

What we do know about her is that she was very interested in the healing powers of plants and herbs. So she referred to herself as a bit of a botanical physician, even though she had no formal medical degree. This may be part of the reason that she became interested in nursing soldiers during the Civil War.

What were her contributions to the Civil War?

As soon as June of 1861, two months after the Civil War began, she was in Missouri, caring for soldiers after a small battle in Belmont, Missouri. And then also a bit later on, in early 1862, she was at Fort Donaldson, which was in Tennessee.

And then in the next couple of months, there were a number of short battles. And these sort of culminated in the April 1862 Battle of Shiloh, which was perhaps one of the first really great battles of the war that took place on what we’d consider Confederate soil. And after that battle, she established a major hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, called the Gayoso Hospital, which was a hotel that had been converted into a hospital for the use of Union troops during the Civil War.

People loved what she had been able to do – to bring all kinds of supplies to make sure that the hospital was following certain sanitary practices and that the cooking was adequate for patients who were suffering from gunshot wounds or typhoid or other kinds of illnesses that they might have had from their exposure to the weather.

It was common for her to walk the battlefield after a battle was over and make sure anyone who was still alive was brought into the hospital and taken care of.


She’d take a lantern and walk the battlefield to see who might still be able to be helped. And while she didn’t think that was a very big deal, there were many who thought that was incredibly courageous of her.

The possibility of soldiers still hanging onto life, lying next to dead soldiers just struck fear into her heart. She thought that had to be the worst way for somebody who was still alive to end their life. So that’s why she wanted to get those soldiers removed as quickly as possible.

As far as who supported and authorized her, there was a branch of the United States Sanitary Commission that was
organized in New York City to help the army medical department supply soldiers in hospitals with linens and medicines and all kinds of things that surgeons would need to keep soldiers comfortable, whether they were sick or wounded.

And there was a branch of the U.S. Sanitary Commission in Chicago that was run by another famous nurse. Mary Livermore became aware of Mary Ann Bickerdyke early in the war, and she became a great advocate of Bickerdyke’s. She was in charge of the northwest branch of the Sanitary Commission, and she gave Mary Ann Bickerdyke the freedom for the rest of the war to go where she wanted to take care of soldiers because she had done such brilliant work setting up hospitals and making sure that that very bad conditions in many hospitals were improved.

Mary Ann Bickerdyke was not afraid to argue with surgeons whom she believed were negligent in their duties. She often went to a general to complain about a surgeon. And while military men tended to be very loyal to one another, when Bickerdyke made a complaint everyone listened to her. So she just had an unusual amount of authority because of the integrity that people understood she had.

So soldiers listened to her and believed in her because she was Mary Ann Bickerdyke?

Right, because the soldiers whom she took care of loved her. And there’s all kinds of evidence of that in her lifetime, including one interesting story where one soldier she had taken care of during the war continued to correspond with her for 40 years after the Civil War.

Oh, really?

That’s what kind of close bond she had developed with some of the soldiers, and this was really true when women took care of men during the Civil War. They often developed these very long-term, maternal relationships with the men they had cared for.

That’s really powerful, to be able to acquire the soldiers’ friendship.

Yes, the officers could see that the men in the ranks loved Bickerdyke and that she had saved a number of people, made them feel better, and made it possible for those who were suffering from illness to return to their units. The officers realized how important a job she was doing, so they tended to think she had a great deal of credibility. And that was not always the case when the officers of a particular army were dealing with the surgeons in that area.

And she was also known as Mother Bickerdyke. Is that correct?

Yes, yes. That was actually language that was used for a number of nurses, and she’s probably the most famous nurse who won that title of Mother. Partly it was a sentimental usage of that era of the mid-19th century in the United States with soldiers at war, because they saw so few women and, of course, when they were sick, which happened far more often than being wounded, right.

We know that of the roughly 0.75 million soldiers who died during the Civil War, from both the Union and the Confederacy, that about two-thirds of that number died of disease. So there are all kinds of diseases that would run rampant.

Mary Ann Bickerdyke was in her 40s when the war began, and I think that she reminded them of their own mothers. And she also used maternal language to speak to officers about her work. And when maybe she was in some kind of conflict with a surgeon, she made sure that the officers to whom she was complaining about a negligent surgeon understood that she was taking care of soldiers as if she were their mother. So that kind of language and that sort of family relationship was very persuasive.

What is something else she did during the Civil War that really sticks out to you?

When she provided her service in the Ohio River Valley, one of the things she felt about getting those hospitals properly supplied is that there was not enough proper food in the area, because the hospitals were located in Confederate territory and Confederate households were not happy to donate their supplies to Union hospitals.

So Mary Ann Bickerdyke arranged for farmers in Illinois, where she had lived, to donate cows and hens – cows so that there could be a supply of beef and of milk and hens so there could be chicken and eggs. She moved something like 2,000 cows and an equal number of hens down the Mississippi River on barges to the hospitals that were in Tennessee and in the Ohio River Valley during the war. And I’ve always been quite struck by that.

I believe she’s also known in that same series of deliveries to have brought washing machines with her so that proper laundry could be done in military hospitals, which was, of course, extremely important. So that, for me, is one of the things that really stands out.

So how did her involvement help shape Civil War history?

Well, the most obvious thing we can say is that she was one of the most important of the more than 20,000 women who provided hospital and relief work services during the Civil War, and that was in the Union alone. This enormous group of women finally led to the professionalization of nursing. And in the post-Civil War period, we start seeing nurse-training schools crop up in the United States in 1869.

And the Civil War ended in 1865, so there was a lot of discussion as a kind of post-mortem to the war about medical services and what could have been better. And many people said it would have been great to have trained nurses. So this was the impetus that started nurse-training schools in the United States.

Of course, it was also quite important that Florence Nightingale in Britain had done her work in the Crimea in the 1850s. And in the year 1860, just before the Civil War began, Florence Nightingale opened the first hospital-training school for nurses in London. And so that was very influential to when and who decided to volunteer for Civil War service in the United States.

Ultimately, this kind of work that Bickerdyke and others did led to a new profession. People realized that the medical profession was not just one role. It wasn’t just a role of physicians, but there needed to be well-trained people to assist doctors to do the kinds of domestic tasks that doctors themselves weren’t planning on doing, and that was just as important to soldiers and sick people’s recovery.

What did Mary Ann Bickerdyke do after the Civil War ended?

Right after the war, she went to Chicago and she established a home for indigent women and their children, primarily women who had been left widows by the war and had no real means to support themselves. So she did this kind of charitable work. She established this Chicago home, and then I think they had a great deal of trouble earning money to support that home. And so the mortgage was taken back by the bank, and the home had to close.

And then the next thing she did was, she moved to Kansas, where her two sons were both farmers. She tried to establish employment for veterans who could not find work, and she basically brought these veterans out to Kansas and tried to get them to farm but this too didn’t last for very long. It wasn’t that successful.

Ultimately, in the 1870s, she moved to San Francisco and, because she had a number of connections in the government, she was able to get a job at the San Francisco Mint, the place where they made money.

She also during that time worked for the Salvation Army. And then in the 1880s, she was able to win a military pension, and this was legislated by a Special Act of Congress. She got $25 a month, which was approximately twice as much as most of the other nurses of the Civil War who were successful in gaining pensions were able to earn. This certainly helped, but the post-Civil War period was not really a terrific time for her.

The high water mark of her achievements as an adult certainly happened during the Civil War, and there were a number of biographies written about her by 1900. So she has this legendary status. But she sure didn’t have enough money to live on, and this is the irony of her life.

Oh, that’s not fair to her.

This happened to a lot of women, and it wasn’t until the 1890s that women nurses of the Civil War from the Union were successful in establishing a pension for those women who had done nursing and relief service for at least six months during the war. And Mary Ann Bickerdyke worked for all four years, so she was a workhorse. And she was an incredibly hard worker, and people saw that in her during the war.

Thank you.

You’re very welcome.

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