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Mother Bickerdyke
Heroine of the Civil War

Sarah Wieland
Mt. Morris High School, Mt. Morris

During the Civil War, Illinois provided one of the most capable and devoted members of the Corps of Union Nurses. Her name was Mary Ann Bickerdyke.

On July 19, 1817, Mary Ann Bickerdyke was born in Knox County, Ohio. Bickerdyke prepared for nursing while attending Oberlin College in Cincinnati. In 1856, she, her husband, Robert, and their two sons moved to Galesburg, Illinois. Her husband died two years later. In the summer of 1861, in Knox County, Illinois, she started her career in the army.

Around that time a powerful Union army was gathering at Cairo and preparing to invade the South. These men, many from Galesburg, were poorly housed, ill-fed, and barely equipped. Sanitary and medical conditions were crude. Typhoid, dysentery, pneumonia, measles, and malaria were abundant. Hundreds of men were dying without ever having fought in any battles.

"Mother" Bickerdyke, as she came to be affectionately called, worked tirelessly to improve conditions at numerous military hospitals.
The people of Galesburg agreed that they should do whatever they could to improve conditions in the camp for the men from Galesburg. They sent medical supplies and someone to see that they were properly distributed and used.

Mary Ann Bickerdyke was the only one suggested for the job. She went to Cairo where she became the dedicated trooper of ailing and wounded soldiers. She fought endlessly against old army regulations and incompetent medical help. Her patients loved her because of her strict standards and untiring zeal. Many of the less devoted and incompetent doctors often disliked her for just the same reasons.

In time the Cairo hospital became known far and wide for its cleanliness and efficiency. Because most people preferred to be treated at home, there were very few general hospitals. There were even fewer military hospitals. Mothers were worried and thought the worst about their sons

lying in unclean hospital wards. Whenever they could, they came to see for themselves. Bickerdyke showed the anxious relatives around and proved to them that the hospital was clean and efficient.

During the four years of the war, Bickerdyke was present at nineteen battles, tending the wounded on the field or in hospitals, directing diet kitchens, managing army laundries (which she introduced), and, in general, displaying extraordinary administrative ability and stamina. Zealous in fighting for the enlisted man, she was the curse of incompetent officers, but generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman held her in the highest esteem. She came to be affectionately known as "Mother Bickerdyke."

In November 1901 she suffered a stroke. Several days later she passed peacefully away at the age of eighty-four.

Mother Bickerdyke was honored and beloved by the entire nation, both North and South. In 1903 the state of Illinois raised a monument in Galesburg to the memory of this remarkable woman. The monument shows a compassionate Mother Bickerdyke kneeling beside a wounded soldier and holding a cup to his lips.[From Arthur Charles Cole, The Era of the Civil War, 1848-1870; Victor Hicken, Illinois in the Civil War; Robert P. Howard, Illinois: A History of the Prairie State.]


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