Mary Ann Ball moved to Cincinnati and in 1847, married Robert Bickerdyke. Robert was a sign painter and a musician. By 1856, Robert and Mary Ann Bickerdyke had moved to Galesburg. About 3 years later, May Ann was a widow, with two sons. She has been described as a ''woman rough uncultivated, even ignorant, but a diamond in the rough.''
In 1861, one of those odd circumstances occurred that lead to the saving of untold numbers of lives, and the improvement of the remaining hours or days of many dying soldiers. During the summer of 1861, Edward Beecher, brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher came to Galesburg and spoke at the Congregational Church. On this particular Sunday, Dr. Beecher read a letter from Dr. Benjamin Woodward.
Dr. Woodward was one of about 500 Galesburg volunteers who had enlisted to fight in the Civil War. The problem, however, was that they were in Cairo, Illinois and conditions were terrible. Disease was running rampant in the crowded conditions. Northern troops were dying, without ever hearing a shot fired in anger. Mothers' sons would never return home.
In response to the terrible conditions, Galesburg responded, with the collection of supplies for its soldiers. Despite having two half-grown sons, Mary Ann Bickerdyke volunteered to go with the supplies to Cairo. On June 9, Mary Ann boarded a train for Cairo. Her baggage consisted of a couple of dresses for herself and all the supplies that were raised for the troops in Cairo. Dr. Woodward met her train.
The situation in Cairo was bad. Sanitation was not stressed. The cause of disease was still unknown at that time. The ''hospital'' consisted of only a couple of tents housing perhaps ten men each. The overflow of the sick lay in dirt covered with straw. Urine, excrement, vomit was everywhere to be found. Even without the advantage of hindsight concerning sanitation and the cause of disease, Mary Ann knew that these conditions were unacceptable for the soldiers.
Because she had no official standing and could not order anyone about, she begged, cajoled, and promised homemade chicken dinners to recruit healthy soldiers to help her. Barrels were cut in half and made for boiling water. Galesburg's donated lye soap was used with the water to wash the sick and their clothes. She did the right things for the sick, not out of some innate knowledge of the ''germ theory,'' but simply from the belief that these young men deserved better. Modesty issues arose and were quickly brushed aside. There was work to be done, these men deserved better. The sick were washed, shaved, and given close haircuts to eliminate the habitat of lice. When the work was completed, the sick were given clean clothing from the Galesburg donations.
What had started as a short trip to deliver supplies to the sick troops, became a full time effort through the rest of the Civil War. Mary Ann Bickerdyke recorded what was useful and needed and ensured that the information made it back to Galesburg. She asked for soap, underwear, chamber pots, and cooking and washing utensils. When she had completed what she could with the Galesburg troops, she moved on to other soldiers from other towns and to help other mothers' sons.
So this was the beginning of Mary Ann Bickerdyke's calling. History is full of stories of how she pulled rank on various military officers in order to provide care for their troops. Only God and Mary Ann know how much of these stories are valid and how many have grown beyond reasonable proportion in the retelling. It is known, that she did the right things for whatever reason, and saved the lives for unknown numbers of troops who would have died from disease that paraded through the wounded and whole, taking one and sparing the next.
Her success was based not only upon her ability to organize and to innately due the right thing to reduce the risk of infection, but also in her ability to win over the senior ranks of the military. It was this later ability that gave her the freedom to do what needed to be done and to deal heavily with those who were in her away. This came, not necessarily though any broad generosity on the part of the generals, but rather on her demonstrated ability to save lives, and to save money. By the time of Vicksburg, she had obtained the materials necessary to wash and therefore reuse the uniforms of the wounded. Previously they have been discarded. This saved money and reduced the logistical burden of the Union army.
At Vicksburg, she developed strong and important relationships with General William Tecumseh Sherman, who commanded the Army of Tennessee and General John (''Black Jack'') Logan who commanded the 15th Army Corps. Through these contacts, she was able to travel with the Army of Tennessee, attending to the sick and wounded.
It is not clear when and how she came by the name ''Mother Bickerdyke,'' but many of young dying men have been known to call out for their mothers in their last hours. Mother Bickerdyke became that mother for many of such young men, whose real mothers were hundreds of miles away, worried about their sons.
Late in the war, Mary Ann was shipboard, heading to Savannah, Georgia to meet General Sherman in order to help tend to the sick and wounded. In route, the ship stopped at Wilmington, North Carolina. She went ashore and encountered some of the recently released prisoners from Andersonville. She unloaded her supplies, and stayed, tending to the sad souls. She could not leave them, not even for the wounded and sick in Savannah.
With the war's conclusion, the North needed to ''bring closure.'' Hundreds of thousands of sons, brothers, and fathers were dead. Father had fought against son. Brother had fought brother. For reasons only understood by the military, the war-weary survivors had one more task before going home. The 15th Corps, under the command of ''Black Jack'' Logan, was to come to Washington, D.C. and march in review. As good soldiers must, they followed their orders and marched through Washington D.C. At their lead, was, as would be expected, General Logan, the commander. With him, was Mother Bickerdyke riding sidesaddle. The sidesaddle had been obtained for her by the troops, along with a velvet riding dress. She declined the dress, wearing one of the simpler and more practical dresses she always wore.
Of course, Mother Bickerdyke is well known in Galesburg. Her likeness can be found near the courthouse. Perhaps less known, or at least less appreciated, is that she was not one of a kind. Other women also refused to be left behind and knew that they too could serve to heal what others tried to kill.
Quincy (Illinois) had Louisa Maertz. Louisa began nursing the sick and wounded in Quincy hospitals shortly after the war began. She later took her work to Helena Arkansas. Like Mary Ann Bickerdyke, she also was at Vicksburg. She, again like Mary Ann, ended up tending to the Andersonville prisoners.
Peoria had ''Auntie Lizzie'' Aiken. She served with the Sixth Illinois Cavalry, also known as ''Governor Gates' Legion.'' In her case, the story goes that a soldier asked Major Niglas how they should address this nurse that attended to them. Major Niglas is reported to have said that they could call her ''Aunt Lizzie.''
There was also Mary Jane Safford from southern Illinois who served the sick of Cairo, Illinois. As the war progress, Cairo became the location of a number of hospitals for the wounded and Mary Jane Safford nursed the sick and wounded. After the war was over, Mary Jane obtained a medical degree and set up practice in Chicago.
Of course, the fact that Mother Bickerdyke was not unique in offering her services to the sick, wounded and dying of the Civil War does not detract from her action. She, from all reports, was a headstrong, aggressive woman, when such traits were not tolerated. She found a need and found ways to meet it. In the process, she sometimes ''stepped on the toes'' of military officers who found her ways unacceptable. The story goes that a surgeon complained to General Sherman about a nurse. When Sherman heard that the nurse was none other than Mother Bickerdyke, Sherman is quoted as saying, to the effect ''Oh, well, in that case I can't help you. She (out)ranks me. You'll have to see President Lincoln.''