Angels of Mercy

Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke

A story that exemplified her ingenuity, boldness and devotion to the soldiers [recounted by Mary Livermore]. The last day of the year 1863, was one of memorable coldness, as were the first few days of the year 1864. The rigor of the weather in Chicago at that time actually suspended all outdoor business, and laid an embargo on travel in the streets. It was even severer weather in Mother Bickerdyke’s location; for the icy winds swept down Lookout Mountain where they were re-enforced by currents of air that tore through the valleys of Mission Ridge, creating a furious arctic hurricane that overturned the hospital tents in which the most badly wounded men were located. It hurled the partially recovered patients out into the pouring rain, that became glare-ice as it touched the earth, breaking anew their healing bones, and chilling their attenuated frames with the piercing mountain gales... Night set in intensely cold, for which the badly fitted up hospitals were wholly unprepared. All that night Mother Bickerdyke worked like a Titan to save her bloodless, feeble patients. There were several hundred in hospital tents -- all wounded men-- all bad cases. The fires were piled higher and higher with logs, new fires were kindled which came nearly to the tents, until they were surrounded by a cordon of immense pyres, that roared and crackled in the stinging atmosphere. But before midnight the fuel gave out. …The surgeon in charge said, "we must try and pull through until morning for nothing can be done to-night".” And he retired to his own quarters, in a helpless mood of mind. Mother Bickerdyke was equal to the emergency. With her usual disdain of red tape, she appealed to the Pioneer Corps to take their mules, axes, hooks, and chains, and tear down the breastworks near them, made of logs with earth thrown up against them. They were of no value, having served their purpose during the campaign.… There was no officer of sufficiently high rank present to dare give this order; but, after she had refreshed the shivering men with a cup or two of panado [A thick paste made by mixing breadcrumbs, flour, etc. with water, milk, stock, butter or sometimes egg yolks.], composed of hot water, sugar, crackers, and whiskey, they went to work at her suggestion, without orders from officers. They knew, as did she, that on the continuance of the huge fires through the night, depended the lives of hundreds of their wounded comrades; for there was no bedding for the tents, only a blanket or two for each wounded suffering man. The men of the corps set to work tearing down the breastworks, and hauling the logs to the fierce fires, while Mother Bickerdyke ordered half a dozen barrels of meal to be broken open, and mixed with warm water, for their mules. Immense caldrons of hot drinks were renewedly made under her direction -- hot coffee, panado, and other nourishing potables; and layers of hot bricks were put around every wounded and sick man of the entire fifteen hundred as he lay in his cot. From tent to tent she ran all night in the icy gale, hot bricks in one hand, and hot drinks in the other, cheering, warming, and encouraging the poor shivering fellows. Suddenly there was a great cry of horror; and looking in the direction whence it proceeded, she saw thirteen ambulances filled with wounded men, who had been started for her hospital from Ringgold, in the morning, by order of the authorities. ...On opening the ambulances, what a spectacle met Mother Bickerdyke’s eyes! They were filled with wounded men nearly chilled to death. …the men, who were past complaining, almost past suffering, were dropping into the sleep that ends in death. The surgeons of the hospital were all at work through the night with Mrs. Bickerdyke, and came promptly to the relief of these poor men, hardly one of whom escaped amputation of frozen limbs from that night’s fearful ride. As the night was breaking into the cold gray day, the officer in command of the post was informed of Mother Bickerdyke’s unauthorized exploits. ... He took in the situation immediately, and evidently saw the necessity and wisdom of the course she had pursued. But it was his business to preserve order and maintain discipline; and so he made a show of arresting the irregular proceeding. …Not until day-dawn, when they could go safely into the woods to cut fuel, were the men disposed to abate their raid on the breastworks. "Madam, consider yourself under arrest!" was the Major’s address to ubiquitous Mother Bickerdyke. To which she replied, as she flew past him with hot bricks and hot drinks, "All right, Major! I’m arrested! Only don’t meddle with me till the weather moderates; for my men will freeze to death, if you do!" A story got in circulation that she was put in the guardhouse by the Major; but this was not true. The men for whom she labored so indefatigably could mention her name only with tears and benedictions. And those in camp manifested their approval of her by hailing her with three times three deafening hurrahs whenever she appeared among them, until, annoyed, she begged them "for Heaven’s sake to stop their nonsense, and shut up!"

Mother Bickerdyke continued to serve “her boys” after the war. She arranged for the free rail transportation of fifty veteran families from Chicago to Salina, Kansas, to claim homesteads. She appealed to her old friend, General Sherman, now commandant of Fort Riley to condemn army wagons and horses to help the homesteaders get started. Not finished yet, General Sherman sent a letter of recommendation to railroad officials to build a hotel in Salina and appoint Mrs. Bickerdyke the manager. The Salina Dining Hall, better known as Bickerdyke House, became a charitable institution for the over 250 veterans and their families that settled in the area over the next two years. She continued to help the families in Kansas even when she moved to New York and later San Francisco, helping others in need. Mrs. Bickerdyke returned to Kansas when she was in her eighties where she founded the Bickerdyke Home for war nurses, veterans and their widows and orphans. It kept in continuous operation until 1951.

Few women were more beloved and respected than Mrs. Bickerdyke was. An officer once said Mother Bickerdyke meant more to the “army than the Madonna to Catholics,” and a colleague wrote, “She talks bad grammar, jaws at us all … and is not afraid of anybody … but Lord, how she works!”

Mary Ann Ball
Nickname(s): "Mother" Bickerdyke
Born:: July 19, 1817
Died: November 8, 1901 (aged 84)
Bunker Hill, Kansas
Buried at Galesburg, Illinois
Years of service: 1861–1865
Spouse(s): Robert Bickerdyke
Relations: Two sons

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Mary Bickerdyke


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