C Is For Calico Colonel

Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke (July 19, 1871-November 8, 1901) was born to Hiram and Annie Rodgers Ball near Mount Vernon, Ohio in Knox County. Her mother died when she was just seventeen months old and was sent to live with her grandparents. When they passed, her Uncle Henry Rodgers took her in to live on his farm near Cincinnati. At sixteen, she moved to Oberlin, and it’s believed she worked for a professor there. Although she’s cited to be one of the first women to attend Oberlin College in Ohio, there is no official registration. She later returned to her uncle’s farm again and then worked as a nurse assisting doctors in Cincinnati during the cholera epidemic in 1837.

She married widower Robert Bickerdyke in 1847. They had two sons and then a daughter who died in infancy. Robert died in 1859.

Mary Ann moved to Galesburg, Illinois where she helped support her family as a botanic physician specializing in alternative medicines using herbs and plants. It’s believed she pushed herself to study medicine due to the death of her daughter. Shortly after she was widowed, she joined the Congregational Church in Illinois which would have an influence on the course of her life. A friend of hers, Dr. Woodward who was a surgeon with the 22nd Illinois Infantry, wrote home about the disordered and filthy conditions in Cairo. Visiting pastor Reverend Beecher read the letter aloud in a sermon. Galesburg citizens gathered over $500 of supplies and, since no one else would go, they nominated Bickerdyke to carry the donations.

After meeting Mary Livermore with the Sanitary Commission, she received an appointment as a field agent for the Northwestern Branch of the operation. This also allowed for a small stipend. There was a big problem, however. Bickerdyke still had two young sons. Livermore helped her find someone in Beloit, Wisconsin to care for the boys when she was in the field during the war. Her boys hated Beloit and being away from their mother, but she was dedicated to her service, and they would have to make do.

When she arrived in Cairo, she immediately went to work improving the sanitary conditions and nursing at the camp, though she’d been given no authority to do so, and women were not allowed. She found the men sleeping in the mud covered in filth, vomit, urine, and blood. She immediately commandeered some soldiers to help her and hauled the wounded out of the squalor and had them bathed. They were suited in some of the clean clothes she’d brought with her. While men were being bathed, she mucked filth out of the tents and covered the floor with clean straw for them. With them clean and settled back in relatively clean beds, she set about cooking the food she’d brought for hot meals, likely the first they’d had in over a week. It would be a prediction of her methods throughout the war. Get to work first and ask permission later. When a permanent hospital was finally built, she was named matron.

Her tireless dedication to the men earned Grant’s appreciation who gave her a generous pass to travel to any battle or hospital she deemed her presence necessary. Grant fully endorsed her and assigned soldiers to her hospital train.

Bickerdyke later joined a field hospital at Fort Donelson. The battle lasted from February 11-16, but Bickerdyke only saw two days of fighting on the 15th and 16th. It was the first battle she had witnessed. Wounded men unable to move froze to the ground in their own blood. Although she’d been assured all the wounded were brought in, she couldn’t sleep after that long first day of work. Unable to sleep and thinking there might still be wounded left on the battlefield, she dressed, grabbed a lantern, and went out searching through mangled bodies for more wounded.

She quickly realized there was a desperate need for laundry services in the field hospitals and treated the soiled clothes and bedding used by the wounded men with disinfectant, then put them on a steamer bound for Pittsburg Landing to be cleaned by the Chicago Sanitary Commission. This served short-term, but it wasn’t practical. She requested easily portable laundry kettles, washing machines, and mangles from the Chicago Sanitary Commission. The camps filled with escaped and freed slaves, so Bickerdyke put them to work in a laundry service for the wounded in the field and other work in the hospital.

After serving at Fort Donelson, Bickerdyke traveled with Grant’s army to Memphis. She had not asked permission, she simply attached herself to Grant and the action. There, she became matron at Gayoso Block Hospital with its 900 patients. She once again employed former slaves at Gayoso. One day she returned from running errands to find the medical director had dismissed her black staff who provided care for the hospital’s patients and auxiliary services. Although words were probably said, she left the director thinking he’d won and went to dinner. Uncharacteristically, she didn’t return soon from her meal. She was taking her case directly to General Hurlbut at his headquarters. He gave her a written order to keep her employees until he alone rescinded it. With one battle won, she set about buying cows and hens for dairy products for her hospital. The general gave her President’s Island to pasture her livestock and more former slaves were employed to tend the animals.                           

Bickerdyke also collaborated closely with Eliza Chappell Porter, of the Northwestern branch of the United States Sanitary Commission in Chicago. The support from the Sanitary Commission was vital to her success.

In 1857 the sidewheeler Red Rover was built in Louisville, Kentucky. She was intended to provide passenger service along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Nashville. Four years later, the Confederacy purchased her for accommodation for soldiers and sailors guarding the river system that was vital to the Southern states.

She participated in an effort to halt a Union naval squadron coming downriver from Cairo, Illinois on March 15, 1862, near New Madrid, Missouri.

The Red Rover took a serious, but not fatal, hit going through all her floors on Island 10 and was subsequently captured by the Union. They promptly repaired her and turned her into a veritable palace compared to the previous hospital ships.

Captain Wise wrote of the Red Rover:

“She has decided to be the most complete thing of the kind that ever floated,” he continued, “and is in every way a … success.”

The Western Sanitary Commission contributed $3,500 toward outfitting the hospital ship and offered advice about what was needed for a well-run hospital. Captain Wise took their advice to heart and provided as well for the sick and wounded as possible. The Red Rover had he wrote: “bathrooms, laundry, elevator for the sick from the lower to the upper deck, amputating rooms, nine different water closets, gauze blinds to the windows to keep the cinders and smoke from annoying the sick, two separate kitchens for the sick and well, a regular corps of nurses, and two water closets on every deck.”

Though most nurses were male, Wise gratefully accepted an offer of assistance from Sister Angela of the Sisters of the Holy Cross. Bickerdyke also served on the ship for a time as she followed Grant’s army. Officers and doctors frequently complained about her domineering ways. She insisted on cleanliness and got more than one surgeon removed from her presence. Doctors were needed, but Bickerdyke reigned when it came to the favor of Grant and Sherman.

 Under Grant’s command, she was named Chief of Nursing.

After the Battle of Vicksburg, Sherman and Grant gave many of the soldiers time off to be with their families or allowed families to visit. One colonel’s young wife brought their nine-year-old son who promptly contracted measles. Knowing of Bickerdyke’s medical reputation, she ran to her for help.

“Measles? You’re bothering me with a case of measles when I have hundreds of wounded soldiers to care for?” Bickerdyke yelled at the shocked mother. “These men have bullet wounds, amputated arms and legs! I don’t have time for measles. Any decent mother should know how to care for measles. Now get out of my way so I can get back to work!”

Devastated, the mother ran back to her husband and collapsed in his arms weeping. Infuriated, he stormed off to Sherman to complain about that nasty old woman. Sherman only laughed when he learned it was Bickerdyke “I’m afraid I can’t help you there,” General Sherman told the colonel. “Unfortunately, you’ve found the one person around here who outranks me. If you want to lodge a complaint against her, you’ll have to take it to President Lincoln.”

Bickerdyke had no use for helpless women.

She also witnessed the Battle of Lookout Mountain which she named the “battle above the clouds.” She set up a hospital following the Battle of Missionary Ridge and was the only female in service there for four weeks.

At some point, she attached herself to Sherman on his march through Georgia, setting up hospitals as they went. His orders to his soldiers, “do all the damage you can against [the enemy’s] war resource,” which meant destroying anything that might be of use to the Confederacy. Civilians were put out of their homes in the dead of winter and burned out. Livestock killed. Crops burned. Bickerdyke, to her credit, worked to build hospitals for Confederate soldiers also during the march to the sea.

 With the help of the Sanitary Commission and endless appeals to the charity of the north, Bickerdyke had seen 300 hospitals built for the wounded on nineteen battlefields. At Sherman’s request, she rode at the head of the XV Corps in the Grand Review of the Armies in Washington at the end of the war. Sherman offered Bickerdyke a seat on the reviewing stand as the parade passed by, but Bickerdyke refused. She preferred to pass out water to the soldiers after the parade.

Bickerdyke worked at the Home for the Friendless after the war in 1866 and helped veterans and their families move to Kansas as homesteaders. She ran a hotel known as the Salina Dining Hall in Salina, Kansas with General Sherman’s aid. Later she became an attorney and helped veterans fighting to obtain pensions and other legal problems. General Logan helped her get a job with the San Francisco Mint. A special bill was introduced by Representative Long of Massachusetts to grant her a $ 25-a-month pension. Generals Grant, Sherman, Pope, and Long testified on it. The bill passed on May 9, 1886.

Mary Ann enjoyed California, but she was getting older, and her son James persuaded her to come and live with him in Bunker Hill, Kansas where he was the principal of the high school. She returned to Kansas in 1887. A year later, on July 9, 1897, Mother Bickerdyke Day was celebrated across the state. Though never much for notoriety, eighty-year-old Mary Ann enjoyed the festivities.

During the holidays in 1899, she visited relatives during a large family reunion on Thanksgiving Day. She went home around Christmastime, but had caught a cold that she couldn’t shake. Mary Ann had a slight stroke the following year and passed away peacefully at home on November 8, 1901. The Calico Colonel had fought her last battle.

Her remains were transported back to Galesburg, Illinois, where she was buried next to her husband.

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