Early Illinois Women

Mother Bickerdyke, 1817-1901

Mary Ann Ball was born in Knox County, Ohio in 1817. By 1861 after the outbreak of the Civil War, Mary Ann was Mrs. Bickerdyke and was living in Galesburg, Knox County, Illinois. During that first summer of the War, Edward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher) visited Galesburg and spoke at the Congregational Church. The service included the reading of a letter written by a man from Galesburg telling of the poor conditions of the military camp at Cairo, Illinois, where several hundred of Galesburg's men were stationed.

The congregation prepared to send supplies for the men at Cairo and suggested that Mary Ann Bickerdyke accompany them. Mrs. Bickerdyke was then 44 years old, a widow with two young sons. Mary Ann agreed to take the supplies to Cairo. She devoted the next four years to the cause. It is believed that she ministered to the needs of the wounded in no less than nineteen battles, bettering the lives of the soldiers who gave her the nickname "Mother Bickerdyke". She gained the respect of Generals Grant and Sherman.

Following the war she returned to Galesburg. Later she traveled through Kansas and California. She was instrumental in obtaining pensions for veterans and for Civil War nurses. By 1901, she had returned to her childhood home in Knox County, Ohio, where died. She was buried in Galesburg. A monument in her honor stands on the lawn of the Courthouse of Knox County, Illinois. Upon the monument is a phrase which exemplifies Mother Bickerdyke's importance in the Civil War: General Sherman's quote claiming, "She outranks me."


  1. Allen, John W. 1968. It happened in southern Illinois. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University.
  2. Baker, Nina Brown. 1952. Cyclone in Calico: The Story of Mary Ann Bickerdyke. Little, Brown, Boston, MA
  3. Cichy, Kelly A., 1986. Women Meet the Challenge in Southern Illinois History. Carbondale, Ill. : Women's History Week Steering Committee

Below is a more complete article about Mary Ann Bickerdyke's participation in the war.


from Women of the War, their Heroism and Self-Sacrifice by Frank Moore (1867) S. S. Scranton & Co., Hartford, Conn.

Among the many noble women whose names will be forever enshrined with those of the brave defenders of their country, that of Mrs. Byckerdyke, of Illinois, will be held in especial honor. From no merely romantic impulse, but acting from the dictates of her mature sense of duty, she entered the service of the country as a volunteer nurse for its soldiers early in the war, and continued her work of patriotic charity until the war closed. By all those who remain of the armies who conquered their way down the Mississippi, Mrs. Byckerdyke is affectionately and gratefully remembered, as one of the most constant, earnest, determined, and efficient laborers for their health and comfort in the hospital and in the field.

Mrs. Byckerdyke, who is a woman of middle age, commenced her labors for the soldiers in August, 1861, when — at her own solicitation, and because her judgement was confided in — she was sent from Galesburg, Illinois, to Cairo, to ascertain what was needed by the troops stationed there. After ascertaining the condition of affairs there and reporting, her Galesburg friends advised her to remain, which she did, exerting all her energies to remedy the many miseries attending the establishment of a large camp of soldiers, nearly all of whose officers were as ignorant of camp discipline as themselves. When the battle of Belmont sent a large number of the wounded to the Brigade Hospital at Mound City, she went there, and remained until the most of them were sent to their homes.

Returning herself to her home, she barely continued long enough to put her household in order for a more prolonged absence. She had enlisted for the war. At the bloody field of Donelson — where the sufferings of our wounded were most distressing, from the lack of medical attendance and the severity of the weather — she was untiring in her efforts for the poor fellows. She took a prominent part in shipping five boat-loads of wounded men, her kind and motherly care doing more than aught else to save the soldiers from neglect. Hardly through with this severe labor of love, she was in a few days called to Pittsburg Landing, to assist in the care of the immense numbers of wounded men for whom the provisions of the medical department were not half adequate. She stationed herself at Savannah, ten miles below Pittsburg Landing, where the most of our wounded were brought. An incident of her experience while there will illustrate her character better than anything we can say. It was told us by an officer who was at Savannah at the time.

Governor Harvey, of Wisconsin, had been visiting the field of battle, and the hospitals there and at Savannah, to learn what was the condition and what were the wants of the soldiers from his state. He had a small but excellent staff of volunteer surgeons, and ten tons of the best sanitary supplies. He saw every sick and wounded Wisconsin soldier individually, and gave to all the medical attendance and sanitary supplies they needed. Our informant could not restrain the tears as he recalled the kind acts, the cordial and sympathetic greetings of this noble-hearted governor, whose life was so suddenly ended in its prime by a distressing casualty. After his work was through, Governor Harvey met our friend at the Savannah levee, perfectly satisfied that he had done all in his power and happy that he had been permitted to do so much good. He had still five tons of sanitary stores left, and had been in great doubt as to what to do with them. He distrusted the surgeons in charge at Savannah, and finally concluded to turn over the stores to Mrs. Byckerdyke. He had known nothing of her antecedents, and had only seen her while in Savannah. Still, as he told our friend, he observed how efficient she was, with how much business-like regularity she was performing her work, and that honesty, decision, and judgment seemed written on her plain but good-looking face. He would trust her, and no one else.

After the governor’s death, Mrs. Byckerdyke began to suspect that her supplies were diverted to the private uses of a certain surgeon’s mess. She resolved to stop that, and did, in a very summary manner. Going into the tent of this surgeon just before dinner, she discovered on the table a great variety of the jellies, wines, and other comforts belonging to her stores. She at once made a clean sweep of these articles, went straight down to the levee, took a boat to Pittsburg Landing, saw General Grant, and within twenty-four hours had the guilty surgeon under arrest. The surgeons had little disposition to interfere with her or her stores after this example, and the sick and wounded men rejoiced to find that their faithful friend had won so complete a victory.

Occupied all the time of the Corinth campaign with the wounded in the rear of General Halleck’s army, she was put in charge of the Main Hospitals at Corinth, when our force entered that place. While there her indomitable force and determination to serve the soldiers had another trial and another victory. Learning that a brigade was to march through the hospital grounds, and knowing that the soldiers would be nearly exhausted from their long march under a burning sun, she got out her barrels of water which had been brought for the men in hospital, had a corps of her assistants ready with pails and dippers, and gave the soldiers water as they passed through. When the commanding officer came up, Mrs. Byckerdyke asked that the men be halted; but he refused, and, going ahead, ordered his men to march along. At the same time a voice in the rear — that of Mrs. Byckerdyke — was heard giving the reverse order. "Halt!" in very clear tones. The woman’s order was obeyed, and the "Tin Cup Brigade" worked energetically for a few minutes, rejoicing in the triumph of their commander.

At the siege of Vicksburg Mrs. Byckerdyke undertook the difficult task of correcting abuses in the use of distribution of sanitary supplies. The lasting gratitude of the sick and wounded, and the approval of the higher officers in command, attest the fidelity and efficiency with which she executed this trust. She was not at all times a welcome guest to the agents and officers having in charge sanitary supplies. One of these latter applied to headquarters to have a woman removed from his hospital, on the complaint of improper influence. "Who is she?" inquired the general. "A Mrs. Byckerdyke," replied the major. "O, well," said the general, "she ranks me; you must apply to President Lincoln."

After the battles of Mission Ridge and Lookout Mountain she remained in the field thirty days, till the last of the wounded were removed to northern hospitals, working with all her remarkable energy, and with her untiring determination, that the soldiers should be well cared for. On the Atlantic campaign she followed the army with a laundry, and had daily from fifteen hundred to two thousand pieces washed, besides the bandages and rags used in dressing wounds. In addition to this work, which was more than enough for one woman to perform, she superintended the cooking for the field hospitals, and, when the commissary stores failed, supplied the tables from those of the Christian and Sanitary Commisions. To meet emergencies, she has been known to take passage in an afternoon train, ride fifteen miles, get her supplies to the hospital, and have the bread baked and distributed to over a thousand patients the same day, and in proper season.

Perhaps a good idea of the nature and value of the labors of Mrs. Byckerdyke can best be given from an extract of a letter, written from Chattanooga by Mrs. Porter, - another noble laborer for the soldiers, - soon after the battle there. Mrs. Porter says, -

"I reached this place on New Year’s Eve, making the trip of the few miles from Bridgeport to Chattanooga in twenty-four hours. New Year’s morning was very cold. I went immediately to the field hospital, about two miles out of town, where I found Mrs. Byckerdyke hard at work, as usual, endeavoring to comfort the cold suffering sick and wounded. The work done on that day told most happily on the comfort of the poor wounded men.

"The wind came sweeping around Lookout Mountain, and uniting with currents from the valleys of Missionary Ridge, pressed in upon the hospital tents, overturning some, and making the inmates of all tremble with cold and anxious fear. The cold had been preceded by a great rain, which added to the general discomfort. Mrs. Byckerdyke went from tent to tent in the gale, carrying hot bricks and hot drinks, to warm and to cheer the poor fellows. ‘She is a power of good,’ said one soldier. ‘We fared might poor till she came here,’ said another. ‘God bless the Sanitary Commission,’ said a third, ‘for sending women among us!’ The soldiers fully appreciate ‘Mother Byckerdyke,’ — as they call here, - and her work.

"Mrs. Byckerdyke left Vicksburg at the request of General Sherman and other officers of his corps, as they wished to secure her services for the then approaching battle. The field hospital of the Fifteenth (Sherman’s) army corps was situated on the north bank of the Genesee River, on a slope at the base of Missionary Ridge, where, after the battle was over, seventeen hundred of our wounded and exhausted soldiers were brought. Mrs. Byckerdyke reached there before the din and smoke of battle were well over, and before all were brought from the field of blood and carnage. There she remained the only female attendant for four weeks. Never has she rendered more valuable service. Dr. Newberry arrived in Chattanooga with sanitary goods, which Mrs. Byckerdyke had the pleasure of using, as she says, ‘just when and where needed;’ and never were sanitary goods more deeply felt to be good goods. ‘What could we do without them?’ is a question I often hear raised, and answered with a hearty ‘God bless the Sanitary Commission,’ which is now everywhere acknowledged as ‘a great power for good.’

"The field hospital was in a forest, about five miles from Chattanooga; wood was abundant, and the camp was warmed by immense burning ‘log heaps,’ which were the only fireplaces or cooking-stoves of the camp or hospitals. Men were detailed to fell the trees and pile the logs to heat the air, which was very wintry; and beside them Mrs. Byckerdyke made soup and toast, tea and coffee, and broiled mutton, without a gridiron, often blistering her fingers in the process. A house in due time was demolished to make bunks for the worst cases, and the brick from the chimney was converted into an oven, when Mrs. Byckerdyke made bread, yeast having been found in the Chicago boxes, and flour at a neighboring mill, which had furnished flour to secessionists through the war until now. Great multitudes were fed from these rude kitchens. Companies of hungry soldiers were refreshed before those open fireplaces and those ovens."

We will merely add a few words in conclusion. Mrs. Byckerdyke not only performed a great work in the field, but several times visited the leading cities of the North-west, and by her judicious advice did much to direct aright the enthusiastic patriotism and noble charity of the ladies of that region. They needed no stimulus to effort. Distinguished from the outset of her efforts by her practical good sense, firmness in maintaining the rights of the soldiers, and an unceasing energy, she was soon known among all the western soldiers as one of their best and most faithful friends. In addition to the consciousness of having performed her whole duty, Mrs. Byckerdyke has another reward in the undying gratitude of the thousands of gallant fellows who have received or witnessed her motherly ministrations. May she live long to enjoy both of these rewards for her good deeds.

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