What Mother Bickerdyke Did During the Civil War


By Barbara Schock

The Zephyr, Galesburg, Illinois

August 5 & 12, 2010


       On May 26, 1861, Mary Ann Bickerdyke sat in one of the pews at the rear of the Brick Church (Congregational) on South Broad Street in Galesburg. She was probably attired in her best black dress and bonnet. In all likelihood she was accompanied by her two sons, Hiram and James.


       The Reverend Edward Beecher hurried in and began the Sunday morning service. From the pulpit he read a letter written by Dr. Benjamin Woodward who had practiced in Galesburg for the past several years. Dr. Woodward was an assistant surgeon with the 22nd Regiment of Illinois volunteers. He was in charge of several hospitals around Cairo, Illinois. About five hundred young men from Galesburg were stationed there.


       Dr. Woodward wrote that the boys were “dying like flies” from contagious diseases, filthy conditions and poor food. Dr. Beecher asked the congregation if they wished to discuss the letter rather than hear his sermon. Several members spoke up and said they wanted to discuss the situation in Cairo and what could be done for the boys.


       Pledges of food, clothing, medical supplies and money were quickly made. The next question to be decided: Who would take the supplies to Cairo? Most of the men were busy with their farms or businesses. The president of the Ladies Aid Society suggested Mrs. Bickerdyke would be a good person to send as she had nursing experience and wasn't afraid of hard work.


       On June 9, 1861, Mrs. Bickerdyke arrived in Cairo after riding the Illinois Central Railroad and watching over many boxes and crates of supplies. Dr. Woodward  met her in his horse-drawn buggy and took her to one of the army camps. He reminded her that she had a one-day pass and would have to leave the camp by evening.


       The temperature was about ninety degrees and the stench coming from the tents was appalling. Mrs. B. bribed a few of the soldiers with the promise of a chicken dinner. She asked them to find some empty barrels and cut them in half. She started heating a large quantity of water. Then she showed several of the men how to muck out the tents to remove mud and decayed straw. With a dry floor and fresh straw, the tents were much cleaner. She bathed and dressed the sick boys in clean clothes she had brought from Galesburg. Then she prepared food for all of the men.


       In the evening she found a place to stay simply by knocking on doors until she found someone willing to rent a room to her. A kindly widow let her use a summer kitchen for cooking and put a cot in a corner on which Mrs. Bickerdyke could sleep.


       That evening she wrote a long letter to the church members describing the situation and asking for pots and kettles, washboards, chamber pots, etc. She also asked for $10 a week which she could use to buy fresh food for the sick.


       Dr. Woodward took Mrs. Bickerdyke to the other hospitals in his charge. They were even worse than the first one she had seen. Many of the men were suffering from contagious diseases to which they had never been exposed. Others had diarrhea from the coarse, poorly cooked food.


       The Union Army expected soldiers to take care of themselves if they became ill. In other words, the army was interested only in men who were fit for drill. The army employed surgeons only to take care of wounds after  battle.


       A homemaker and mother such as Mrs. Bickerdyke knew about the importance of cleanliness, nourishing food and botanical remedies. She had grown up on the frontier in Ohio during the 1820s and 1830s and was familiar with home remedies made from natural products. Some of the natural or botanic medicines have been in use for hundreds of years. Many of the ingredients are still part of pharmaceuticals used in today's medicine.


       The battle of Fort Donelson in Tennessee took place from February 11 to 16, 1862. The weather had been warm at the beginning of the battle and there had been much rain. The creeks and rivers were over flood-stage. Many of the Union soldiers had abandoned their overcoats and blankets. Then the weather turned very cold. The night before the fort was taken three inches of snow fell and the temperature dropped to 10 or 15 degrees. The wounded froze to the ground or froze to death.


       After the fighting ended, there were almost 2000 Union soldiers who had been wounded. They were treated at field hospitals and taken by steamship to the hospital in Cairo.


       About midnight Mrs. Bickerdyke went out on the battlefield with a shawl wrapped around her shoulders and carrying a lantern. General John A. Logan saw the light flickering in the dark and sent his orderly to find out what such a ghoulish person might be doing. Mrs. B. and the orderly returned several hours later. She reported to the general she had determined there were no living souls left on the field. She and the general became good friends for rest of the war.


       The story of the episode was picked up by the newspapers and Mary Ann Bickerdyke's name became known across the North.


       Mrs. Bickerdyke learned from experience that the field hospitals had to be made more efficient. She also observed that much in the way of soiled clothing and blankets was later burned. She determined to salvage as much of it as she could for use in the next battle. She wrote to the U.S. Sanitary Commission for laundry equipment, but didn't receive it.


       Through barter and cajolery Mrs. B. succeeded in getting enough equipment locally to launder and pack the goods for the next battle. Men from a local contraband camp helped with the heavy work of providing wood for the fires heating the water in which the pieces were boiled. She hung the cloth on bushes to dry. After such treatment, the fabric was surely free of vermin and infectious germs.


       One of the bloodiest battles of the West occurred at Shiloh, Tennessee, on April 6 and 7, 1862. Mrs. B. was there with her pots and pans, botanical remedies, bandages, clean clothing and blankets and food. She spent several months caring for  the wounded in the field hospitals.


       On October 3 and 4, 1862, the battle at Corinth, Mississippi took place. There were 8400 wounded men to be cared for afterward. Mrs. Bickerdyke took whatever she needed from military stores and supplies from the Sanitary Commission. The Commission made her an agent at $50 a month in order to legitimize her work. She escorted shiploads of the wounded back to the general hospital at Cairo several times.


       In November 1862, Mrs. Bickerdyke took time off to go back to Galesburg to see her sons. She had been gone for eighteen months. She was wearing the same calico dress. She went to Chicago to visit Mary Livermore, head of the Chicago office of the Sanitary Commission, to ask again for the laundry equipment which was so urgently needed at the hospitals in Tennessee.


       Mrs. Livermore sent Mrs. Bickerdyke out on a fundraising campaign in Illinois and Wisconsin. She raised more money than any previous speaker had done. She required the husbands of the local Ladies Aid Societies to be present for her speeches. They were the persons who controlled the family money. Mrs Bickerdyke insisted on using some of the money for the purchase of laundry equipment and to ship it south.


       At the battle of Iuka, Mississippi, a stray horse was captured. He had sores on his legs and was malnourished. Mrs. B. treated the animal in the same way as the wounded soldiers. Later she rode sidesaddle using a regulation army saddle. She didn't approve riding a-straddle—that was unseemly for a lady in those days.


       Mrs. Bickerdyke visited Galesburg again at Christmastime. She took her sons to live with the Nichols family near Chicago. Then she wrote to General U.S. Grant asking where he might need her. He suggested she go to Memphis. It was an important concentration point for the Union armies.


       At Memphis, the medical director had no use for Mrs. B. He appointed her matron at the hospital at Fort Pickering. It was the place where smallpox cases were sent. In her usual way, she figured out how to solve the problem of caring for contagious patients. Negro contrabands who had survived smallpox were hired to bury the dead, clean up the hospital, whitewash the walls and dig a new latrine. Afterward, the army doctors began to appreciate Mrs. Bickerdyke's hard work and to brag about the cleanliness of their hospitals.


       As the war progressed it became more difficult to buy fresh food locally for the medical patients. Mrs. Bickerdyke went on another tour of Illinois and Wisconsin to secure cows and chickens for the Memphis hospitals. She acquired 100 cows and 1000 chickens which were shipped by train to Memphis. They were domiciled on President's Island in the Mississippi River. Contrabands took care of the livestock and received some of the benefit. When the army moved on the chickens became stew and the cows marched with the army. The soldiers called the milk “Bickerdyke whiskey.”


       After the siege of Vicksburg General W.T. Sherman asked that Mrs. Bickerdyke be assigned to his Fifteenth Corps. During the Chattanooga campaign of October and November, 1863, the soldiers experienced sore feet and blisters  because of the shoddy boots provided by the army. Mrs. B. treated the men and showed them how to make moccasins from bark and army blankets. Chiggers were a problem for the men too. She told them to wash with brown soap and  to use their willpower not to scratch the  bites. Germs weren't known yet, but Mrs. B. understood that dirty fingers could cause insect bites to become infected.


       At the battle of Lookout Mountain, November 2 4, 1863, there were 2000 wounded soldiers and no facilities. Mrs. Bickerdyke's sovereign remedy was panado. It consisted of crushed hardtack, hot water, brown sugar and whiskey. The porridge provided energy, warmth and stimulation.


       The weather was cold and windy. Mrs. Bickerdyke had huge fires built between the tents sheltering the wounded. She heated bricks and put them around the men to keep them warm. At one point, the wood for the fires ran out and Mrs. B. told soldiers to tear apart an old breastwork and put the logs on the fire. Afterward an official inquiry was held as breastworks weren't supposed to be destroyed, according to army regulations. By the end of the hearing, the officials commended Mrs. Bickerdyke for keeping the wounded soldiers warm.


       One of the men who thought he was dying improved in health with some good food and rest. He was a professional baker and Mrs. B. had yeast from the Sanitary Commission. Flour from an abandoned mill and bricks from a demolished chimney, were used to create an oven to bake bread for the soldiers. As many as 500 loaves a day were produced. A thirty-foot-long trough was made from a tree. It was used to hold the bread during its rising. When the yeast ran out, salt-rising bread was baked. Mrs. B. could make cookies from crushed crackers, water, brown sugar and black walnuts. They were a treat for the soldiers. One Christmas she made taffy for the soldiers in the field hospital. They sang Christmas carols and enjoyed a good time around the campfire.


       Mrs. Bickerdyke went to Chicago for fundraising duties in March of 1864. She convinced the Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce to donate $1200 a month for the rest of the year to the Sanitary Commission. Mrs. B. spoke in a down-to-earth way and described her experiences while serving the Union soldiers. She was very clear about what was needed to help the sick and wounded men. She called them her boys. From the beginning the boys reciprocated by calling her “Mother.”


       On May 6, 1864, General Sherman began his Atlanta campaign. Mrs. Bickerdyke followed with enormous kettles on wheels for making soup and moving from tent to tent feeding the wounded.


While Mrs. Bickerdyke was in the North soliciting for the Sanitary Commission, there had been a shakeup in the Union Army command. President Abraham Lincoln had appointed General U.S. Grant to be in charge of all Union armies. General W.T. Sherman became the leader in the Western theater of the war. A pincers movement was being planned to envelope the Confederate forces.


       On March 24, 1864, General Sherman issued an order forbidding any civilian use of the railroad from Nashville to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Every railroad car was needed for military supplies for the forthcoming battles. Even the Sanitary Commission was unable to ships its goods to the front. Mrs. Bickerdyke went to see General Sherman. She came away with an order for two carloads of Commission supplies to be shipped each day if they were addressed to her personally.


       On May 6, 1864, General Sherman had 98,000 men, 254 cannons and hundreds of wagons ready for the Atlanta campaign. Mrs. Bickerdyke and Mrs. Eliza Porter rode in an ambulance full of  bandages, tea, brown sugar, condensed milk, beef extract and whiskey. Old Whitey, the horse Mrs. B. had nursed back to health, walked along side the wagon. He was ridden by Andrew Somerville of the Seventh Iowa Regiment. Mrs. Bickerdyke had met him at Cairo on the first day of her enlistment in the Civil War as a nurse. Mrs. Porter was a school teacher before the war. She worked for the Sanitary Commission in Chicago and then decided to work in the army hospitals. Her husband, Jeremiah, was clergyman and served in an Illinois light artillery unit. The two women became very good friends.


       Enormous copper kettles on wheels had been crafted for making soup for the wounded. They were stuffed with crutches whittled by convalescing soldiers in the regimental hospitals. The carving gave the men something worthwhile to do. The army didn't provide crutches for men who had lost a leg to a minnie ball. Mrs. Porter had suggested the project and Mrs. B. wished she had thought of it first.


       Near Resaca, Georgia, Mrs. Bickerdyke's caravan came to a clearing. Dr. Woodward, who had been in charge of the hospitals at Cairo, was busy removing shattered arms and legs from wounded men on a kitchen table under a tree. Soon pine branches had been cut, placed on the ground and covered with blankets on which the wounded men could rest. Mrs. B. started a fire and made soup for the wounded. She also established a kitchen to prepare food for the fighting men.


       As Sherman's army moved toward Atlanta, Mrs. Bickerdyke followed. She made blackberry cordial for diarrhea, brewed a tea from jimson weed as a painkiller, and a tea of willow bark for the malaria cases. She also cooked and did the laundry for the field hospitals which sometimes held twelve hundred men.


       Mrs. Bickerdyke stayed in Marietta, Georgia, through the summer. The field hospital of tents covered thirty acres. The soldiers called it “Mother Bickerdyke's Circus.” The Sanitary Commission had sent a large supply of lemon extract so Mrs. B. made lemonade. It was a favorite treat for the wounded for the rest of the war.


       The siege of Atlanta ended on September 2, 1864. The two ladies continued to look after the sick and wounded for another two months. Mrs. B. wanted to follow General Sherman on his “March to the Sea.” The General insisted that Mrs. Bickerdyke meet him at Savannah, Georgia, in the spring. He even promised to provide a ship for the supplies she always insisted were necessary.


       She was on the last train out of Atlanta before it was burned. She and Andy Somerville had checked as many dwellings as possible to make sure there were no living people or animals still in them.


       Mrs. Bickerdyke went on a speaking trip to New York and Philadelphia. At the Henry Ward Beecher church in Brooklyn, she asked the ladies to donate one of their muslin petticoats to be used for bandages.  She knew the fashion was to wear five petticoats under the ladies' voluminous skirts.     Three trunks were filled with the donated petticoats and they went with Mrs. B. when she boarded the ship for Savannah. Reverend Beecher was an older brother of the pastor of Galesburg's Brick Church.


       At Wilmington, North Carolina, the ship stopped for water. Mrs. Bickerdyke took a walk through the town and discovered the captured men who had been held at the Andersonville, Georgia, prison were being released. She wrote a note to General Sherman that there was a greater need at Wilmington. She stayed and used the New York petticoats and other supplies for the sick and starving men.


       Mrs. Bickerdyke rejoined General Sherman at Beaufort, North Carolina. She was there on April 9, 1865, when a service of thanksgiving was held in the chapel to commemorate the end of the war. She didn't join in the revelry, but continued to care for the patients in the hospital.


       General Logan telegraphed Mrs. B. that he wanted her to meet him at Alexandria, Virginia. His Army of the Tennessee had been through many hard battles and they would need her tender care while camped in that place.


       In Washington, DC, the black bunting was taken down from public buildings. It had been on display since Lincoln's death on April 12th. There was to be a Grand Review of the Union troops on May 23rd and 24th. General George Meade's Army of the Potomac consisting of 80,000 men, was to march down Pennsylvania Avenue from behind the Capitol and past the White House on the first day. They marched twelve abreast and the parade lasted for seven hours.


       At 9 am on the second morning, 65,000 men of the Armies of Tennessee, Ohio and Cumberland had their turn. General Sherman rode at the head of the parade. He was concerned that his men had been so busy fighting that they had forgotten parade formation. But they did him proud with their straight lines and cadence.


       General John A Logan asked Mother Bickerdyke to ride beside him at the front of the Fifteenth Corps. Just before the parade began, some of the boys showed Old Whitey to her. He had been curried, had his hooves polished and tail braided with ribbons. The saddle blanket was covered with forget-me-not flowers. A shiny red leather sidesaddle with a floral Brussels carpet seat was resting on Old Whitey's back. Her boys had “found” it for her.


       Mrs. Bickerdyke had received a new outfit to wear for the Grand Review from friends in New York. She was busy before the Review setting up a first-aid tent, lemonade stand and latrine for the marching soldiers. There wasn't time to change so Mrs. B. rode in the Grand Review wearing her calico dress and bonnet. Later, the garments were auctioned as relics of the war. The hundred dollars realized went to help the soldiers.


       The day was sunny and warm. Some of the soldiers were still recuperating from their injuries. Mrs. Bickerdyke's first-aid tent treated blisters and sunstroke. The lemonade stand and latrine were very useful to the men who had walked so many miles during the Civil War.


       Mrs. Bickerdyke stayed on in Washington for a month. She had tea at the White House and was entertained by Dorothea Dix, head of the Army Nurse Corps.


       In early June, the Army of the Tennessee went to Louisville, Kentucky, to be disbanded. Mrs. B. and Mrs. Porter worked in the hospitals there for several months.


       Mustering out of the troops took a long time. Mrs. Bickerdyke accompanied an Illinois regiment to Springfield, Illinois. On March 20, 1866, the last man was mustered out. That day Mary Ann Bickerdyke sent her resignation to the Sanitary Commission. She was 48 years old and had two sons to finish raising. She needed a job.


       A soldier in the Civil War had a one in four chance of surviving. Besides, the poor food, unsanitary conditions and exposure to contageous diseases, there was the minnie ball. It was made of soft lead and was heavy. When the bullet hit the head or torso, it made an enormous hole and the result was death. If the bullet hit an arm or leg, the bone was shattered. That was the reason for the thirty thousand amputations during the war. Seventy-five percent of the amputees survived.


       There was also a high risk of infection as the germ theory wasn't understood in this country during the war. It became influential afterward. The knowledge of what caused disease and how to stop it from spreading would have been very useful. The total number of cases of injury and disease in all the armies during the war was ten million. The armies did improve the handling of cases during each year of the war, but it was never enough.


       Mrs. Bickerdyke had suffered the same hardships as the soldiers—cold and hot weather; wind, rain and snow; rough food and poor sanitary conditions. She had used her wits to bypass the army bureaucracy and scrounge whatever was needed to help her boys. She had become friends with the famous Union generals of the war. She had raised a great deal of money for the U.S. Sanitary Commission. She had set up 300 field hospitals during the course of the conflict.


       Mrs. Porter later wrote that Mrs. Bickerdyke had pioneered mobile, front-line nursing during the war. She had made nursing a respectable occupation for women. Mrs. B. wasn't afraid to take on the dirtiest job, but she had a temper. She tolerated officers only as long as they behaved themselves. If provoked, she able to give them a tongue-lashing which could cut them to ribbons.


       Even General Grant said the army had plenty of surgeons, but only one Mother Bickerdyke. She had become an ex-officio member of the Union army.


       Her name soon faded from the news of the day. In 1898, Post 45 of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) in Galesburg, wrote to Mrs. Bickerdyke to ask if she wanted to be buried next to her husband in Linwood Cemetery. She responded that was her wish. The GAR Post in Bunker Hill, Kansas, had hoped to conduct the burial in their town as she had lived there for a number of years. After her death in 1901, a group of soldiers' wives, widows and daughters in Galesburg inspired the idea of a monument to commemorate Mother Bickerdyke's services in the Civil War. It was dedicated May 22, 1906, and rededicated May 12, 2006; a unique monument for a unique woman.


       This is what Mary Ann Bickerdyke said about her years of work during the Civil War: “I served in our Civil War from June 9, 1861, to March 20, 1865. I was in 19 hardfought battles in the Department of the Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland Armies. I did the work of one, and I tried to do it well.”



Here is an 1860 recipe from CIVIL WAR RECIPES compiled by Lily May and John Spaulding: The recipe was originally published in Godey's Ladies Book, a popular woman's magazine of the time.


Blackberry Syrup


Make a simple syrup of a pound of sugar to each pint of water; boil it until it is rich and thick; then add to it as many pints of expressed juice of ripe blackberries as there are pounds of sugar; put half a nutmeg grated to each quart of the syrup; let it boil fifteen or twenty minutes, then add to it half a gill of  fourth-proof  brandy for each quart of syrup; set it by to become cold; then bottle it for use. A tablespoon for a child, or a wineglass for an adult is a dose.


       During the Civil War, Gail Borden produced a “condensed blackberry juice” using the same process with which he condensed milk. This condensed blackberry juice was used in Union hospitals for sick and wounded soldiers.


       The women of Knox County also made huge quantities of blackberry cordial and shipped it to the Sanitary Commission. There was great faith in it as a stimulant.