William T. Sherman was a fierce and bold Union general who gave no quarter when it came to facing the enemy; his vengeful march through Georgia was designed to make the Confederate Rebels pay for seceding from the Union in 1861 and setting loose the dogs of war. He was not a man given to sentiment or coddling. But Sherman knew his limits, and recognized that sometimes, it was necessary to defer to a superior officer who didn’t sport stripes.
When the triumphant Union Army made its victory march through Washington D.C. after the South surrendered, General Sherman was at the head of the XV Corps during the Grand Review of the Armies as it paraded before the cheering audience. Riding at his side and sharing with him the adulation of the grateful citizens was a woman who was known to the soldiers as Mother Bickerdyke. Mary Ann Bickerdyke was not unfamiliar with cheers; she had heard the appreciative shouts of the soldiers when she showed up in her calico dress and Shaker bonnet to bring them food, tend to their wounds, read letters and care for them. As one officer described it, she meant more to the soldiers “than the Madonna to a Catholic.”
Who was this woman who had earned the respect of a man like Sherman? Just another one of the remarkable ladies, many of them unsung and unknown, who came to their country’s aid at a time when women, regarded as the gentler sex, were generally seen as too sensitive and frail to deal with the harsh reality of war.
The Civil War was a tragedy for the nation but at the same time, it opened up opportunities for women to prove that some of the toughest people in the war were wearing crinolines and petticoats. Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke, who was a middle-aged widow when the war broke out between the North and the South, had attended Oberlin College in Ohio and received nursing training at a Cincinnati hospital before marrying Robert Bickerdyke.
She learned firsthand about the deplorable conditions in the military hospitals when a letter from a surgeon with the 22nd Illinois Infantry was read in the church that Mary Ann Bickerdyke attended. Feeling herself called to duty and responding when no one else did, she delivered needed supplies to the Cairo, Illinois hospital. She ended up serving as a nurse, where she met General Ulysses Grant, who recognized her talents in cleaning up the filthy hospitals. When Grant was sent down the Mississippi, Mother Bickerdyke went too, setting up hospitals along the way.
Military red tape infuriated her and she did not falter at the prospect of cutting through it when the care of the soldiers demanded immediate attention rather than protocol. When there was a problem, she handled it herself.
When she caught a ward master stealing from her supplies, she grabbed him by his collar and stripped him down to his trousers in front of the ward. When she wanted to find out who was stealing the food she had designated for the soldiers, she mixed an emetic with stewed peaches that she had cooked and left out in the kitchen; she said she was leaving them out to cool, but the canny nurse had a scheme. Hearing the noises that told her that the emetic was doing its work, she discovered the culprits in great distress. She threatened to season food with rat poison the next time if she ever caught them pilfering from the pantry again.
The Battle of Shiloh found her busy with the wounded. She had built a fire and her kettles were filled with soup to nourish the wounded when a surgeon, impressed by her efficiency, asked under whose authority she worked. Mother Bickerdyke never paused in her labors as she answered, “I have received my authority from the Lord God Almighty; have you anything that ranks higher than that?”
She had no tolerance for slackers. Upon learning that soldiers in a hospital had gone without food, she immediately set to work preparing nourishment for them. As she and the others were working, the surgeon of the ward, suffering from a hangover, had the misfortune to appear. She, the volunteer nurse, ordered him from the hospital. She had been keeping count of his drinking binges and this one, the fourth, was too much. When his dismissal was made official, he went to General Sherman to tell his tale of woe and injustice at the hands of Mrs. Bickerdyke. “Oh, well, then,” said Sherman, “if it was she, I can’t help you. She has more power than I —she ranks me. You’ll have to see President Lincoln.”
By the end of the war, she had been present at nineteen battles and had helped to establish 300 hospitals to tend to the wounded. The war ended in 1865, but Mother Bickerdyke’s commitment to the soldiers who needed her continued. The gratitude of the nation, which had been so strong after the war, faded as the years went by, and many veterans experienced bureaucratic red tape in obtaining their pensions. She became an attorney so that she could assist the veterans who, after the war, were in need of legal aid. General Sherman regarded her as a general. The soldiers viewed her as a mother. History sees her as a heroine of the highest caliber.