- The Washington Times - Friday, June 3, 2005

To the crowds lining Pennsylvania Avenue for the Grand Review of the Armies on May 23 and 24, 1865, the processions of marching men must have seemed endless.

On the first day, Gen. George G. Meade led his immaculately turned-out Army of the Potomac. The next day, red-haired William Tecumseh Sherman rode ahead of his defiantly shabby men.

How many of the watching multitude paid attention to a heavily built middle-aged woman riding sidesaddle on Old Whitey, with forget-me-nots entwined in its mane? Did any know who she was? Did they wonder what right this farm woman in her calico dress and sunbonnet had to ride with the heroes of a terrible war that had so recently ended?

She had every right, for this was Mother Bickerdyke, loved and honored by the hurt and dying of the 19 battles she had personally known.

She was a remarkable woman, but her beginnings were humble. Born on a farm in 1817 in Knox County, Ohio, the former Mary Ann Ball was the daughter of Hiram Ball and his wife, the former Annie Rodgers. She was just 17 months old when her mother died, and she was brought up by grandparents. What initial education she got came from a one-room log schoolhouse. Years later, she would study at Oberlin College. She also trained as a nurse.

She went to live with an uncle in Cincinnati, and it was there, on April 17, 1847, that she married widower Robert Bickerdyke, caring for his children and later her own two sons by this marriage. In 1856, she and Robert settled in Galesburg, Ill., where, in 1859, her husband died suddenly. She made what probably was a sparse living for her family as a botanical physician, drawing on her knowledge of herbal remedies.

When war came, she went full-speed ahead. An excellent cook, a competent nurse and above all an outstanding organizer, she must have had boundless energy. So what if she was loud-voiced, with an abrasive manner? To those who opposed her, she was formidable; beneath lay kindness and compassion.

In June 1861, she went to Cairo, Ill., with some essential medical supplies. This riverside town had six military hospitals, where conditions were appalling. Battling with resentful Army doctors, probably terrifying incompetent male nurses, she swept away the squalor and prepared nourishing meals for the wounded. It was they who called her “Mother.” She cared nothing for the limits of her authority, and it was a brave man who dared to challenge her. Someone who endured her very rough tongue dubbed her “the Cyclone in Calico.”

In 1862, she boarded the City of Memphis, a Sanitary Commission hospital transport vessel, and disembarked at Fort Donelson. She was there without authority and didn’t give a cuss. She promptly began work where the need for her was acute. That same year, again unofficially, she cared for the wounded at Pittsburg Landing (Shiloh). It was in April that she met Ulysses S. Grant, and they discovered they liked each other. He gave her a pass to travel anywhere she wished.

Sherman may have detested Dr. Mary Walker, but he liked and admired Mother Bickerdyke, who spoke her mind just as he did. He only blocked her once. She wanted to join his March to the Sea, but that he would not permit. In 1863, recognizing her worth, the Sanitary Commission appointed her one of its field workers.

Chickamauga knew her, and so did Chattanooga. At the latter, she got into trouble. Her sick men were freezing, so she arranged for some disused wooden fortifications to be torn down and had a big fire built. An officer promptly arrested her for destroying Army property, and she ended up in the guardhouse. Newspapers told of her plight, and she defended herself vigorously when questioned. She walked free.

Throughout the long years of war, Mother Bickerdyke never spared herself, but with a return to peace, she seems to have become restless. Appointed assistant director of the Protestant Home for the Friendless in Chicago, she quit after a year. Ever resourceful, she took destitute veterans’ families to Kansas, where they could settle on free land. To help them, she ran the Galina Dining Hall, a boardinghouse, for two years.

The town of Ellsworth, Kan., honored her when a home for former nurses and veterans’ widows and children opened there, calling it Mother Bickerdyke Home.

In 1870, she began to work for the Protestant Board of City Missions in New York, but four years later, she was back in Kansas. From 1876 to 1887, she lived in California and worked for the U.S. Mint, which seems a somewhat unlikely employer for her.

Belatedly, Congress acknowledged her contributions during the war years and afterward by awarding her a monthly pension of $25. One of her sons had become superintendent of schools in Russell County, Kan., and it was at his home, at Bunker Hill, that she died on Nov. 8, 1901, at age 84.

Eliza Pitzinger wrote a poem about her, which contained the lines: “The dear, good, kind and loving self / Of faithful Mother Bickerdyke.” Not great poetry, it must be admitted, but a fitting tribute to a doughty fighter and a great American who rode in the Grand Review wearing calico.

Peter Cliffe, a retired corporate administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became interested in the Civil War while working with a multinational firm in this country.

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