Angels of Mercy

Nurses and Doctors On and Off the Battlefield

"I have been rewarded a thousand times for all I have sacrificed or endured for the soldiers. Sacred tears of gratitude, blessings from pale lips, and seats beside death beds of our country’s noblest sons, have been mine; and though some still live who remember the 'cup of cold water', the many have sealed their devotion to their country with their lives.” -- Sarah Sampson

The Civil War marked a milestone in the transformation of nursing from a menial service to a genuine profession. The war also produced important innovations in army medical practice, such as the creation of a special ambulance corps for first-aid treatment of the wounded and their evacuation to field hospitals. Wearing special uniforms and imbued with high morale, these noncombatant medics risked their lives to reach the wounded in the midst of battle and evacuate them as quickly as possible to surgeon’s stations and field hospitals. The courage and energy demonstrated by many women chipped away at the weaker-sex image. The wife of George Templeton Strong (treasurer of the Sanitary Commission) insisted on going to the Virginia Peninsula as a volunteer nurse in June 1862. There she performed capably, found new purpose in her life and transformed her husband’s view of her. “The little woman has come out amazingly strong during these two months”, wrote Strong in his diary. “Have never given her credit for a tithe of the enterprise, pluck, discretion and force of character that she has shown. God bless her.”

Mary Ann Bickerdyke

This hard-charging widow from Illinois began her service in 1861 at the fever-ridden army base hospitals in Cairo, Illinois. She swept through the camp like an avenging angel, cooking, nursing and providing supplies for Union Soldiers. Nicknamed the “cyclone in calico, she took charge in cleaning up and organizing the camps with General Grant’s and then General Sherman’s armies from Fort Donelson to Atlanta, often to the aggravation of surgeons and nurses. On one occasion a senior-ranking surgeon appealed to General Grant, accusing Mrs. Bickerdyke of misconduct. Grant replied, “My God, man, Mother Bickerdyke outranks everybody, even Lincoln. If you have run amuck of her I advise you to get out quickly before she has you under arrest.” Affectionately named Mother Bickerdyke by the enlisted men, she earned the respect of both these Union generals and was the only woman that Sherman allowed in his advanced base hospitals.

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