The Mother Bickerdyke Monument at Galesburg, Illinois

By Barbara Schock

I have a commission from the Lord God Almighty to do all I can for every miserable creature who comes in my way; he is always sure of two friends, God and me.

                                                                                 ---Mother Bickerdyke.


For the past century, a massive bronze and granite monument has occupied a part of the lawn at the Knox County Courthouse. Even though it weighs more than fourteen tons, there is a quality of gentleness about it; probably because it depicts a wounded soldier, receiving the tender ministrations of a nurse on a Civil War battlefield. The nurse is Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke. The soldier represents the thousands of men to whom Mrs. Bickerdyke gave comfort during the course of the conflict.

         Mrs. Bickerdyke had been a resident of Galesburg for about three years when the Civil War began in April, 1861. Her husband, Robert, had passed away in the spring of 1859 so she had supported herself and her children taking in washing and performing nursing duties.

         She belonged to Central Congregational Church whose members were supporters of the abolition of slavery. The breaking out of war between the northern and southern states was a great concern to the members of the church. The pastor, Edward Beecher, preached stirring sermons about serving God and protecting the Union. It took about six months for people to realize the war was going to be a long one.

         A local doctor, Benjamin Woodward, who had referred patients to Mrs. Bickerdyke for nursing care, became a surgeon in the 22nd Illinois Regiment in the fall of 1861. Earlier he had toured the military installations and wrote a number of letters to friends in Galesburg describing the deplorable conditions in Cairo, Illinois, where many Knox County men were stationed. Contagious diseases were rampant. Sanitary conditions were appalling and the soldiers weren’t receiving medical attention. Invalid soldiers with no medical training were expected to care for those with worse ailments. Some officers didn’t seem to care and others thought such conditions, while regrettable, were part of being in the military.

         The Reverend Mr. Beecher spoke one Sunday about the poor conditions described by Dr. Woodward and said Knox County volunteers shouldn’t be treated in such a manner. The congregation was in agreement and started collecting food, money, clothing, bandages and medicine. Mrs. Bickerdyke volunteered to take the supplies to Cairo and to ascertain what else might be necessary to help the Knox County boys. It was the beginning of a five-year career as an army nurse.

         Mrs. Bickerdyke’s first concern was the “boys” who were suffering and dying needlessly. She had no use for uncaring and ignorant officers. The infantry was experiencing most of the wartime hardships and her goal was to make their lives easier. She possessed enough medical knowledge to know that clean beds, fresh food and good care were essential for saving lives.

         Some forty years later, one of the speakers at the dedication of her grave marker succinctly described her work. Postmaster F.A. Freer, who had been acquainted with Mrs. Bickerdyke, stated “she saw that some one was needed to make order out of this confusion.” He continued, “Her love was like that of a mother, her touch was like that of a mother, and so she became known to all the soldiers, and finally she was known to everyone as Mother Bickerdyke.”

         Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke was born July 19, 1817, on a farm in Knox County, Ohio. Her mother died of burns from a cooking accident when Mary was seventeen months old. Her grandparents and other relatives took care of the young girl. Her father remarried and had other children. Mary Ann Ball may have received little emotional support during her growing years and her education was limited. She did have a strong sense of duty and her religious belief was complete. She was endowed with a strong constitution, energy and had a practical turn of mind.

         As a young woman she apparently had some medical training in and around Cincinnati, Ohio. Recurring outbreaks of cholera and other contagious diseases created a need for individuals with nursing experience. There, she met Robert Bickerdyke, a widower with three children. They were married April 27, 1847. Mr. Bickerdyke was a musician and sign painter. Both professions were somewhat tenuous as far as income was concerned. The family lived in Ohio, Kentucky and Iowa before moving to Galesburg. Robert and Mary had four children, but only two sons survived to adulthood.

         At war’s end, she continued her selfless work. She worked in the slums of New York and San Francisco. She tried to help soldiers who wanted to settle in Kansas, but the project was a financial failure. She traveled to Washington, DC, many times to secure pensions for old soldiers. She was not to receive a pension herself until 1886. In later years, if an old soldier who was terminally ill knocked at her door asking for help, she would take him in.

         The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) was established in 1866 by B.F. Stephenson and other Union officers in Decatur, Illinois. It grew to be a large organization of veterans with political influence nationally as well as locally. The community organizations were called Posts and were numbered as they were created. In Galesburg, Post No. 45 was organized in 1879 and was named in honor of James T. Shields.

         Members of Post 45 knew that Mrs. Bickerdyke’s husband and daughter were buried in Linwood Cemetery west of Galesburg. They wished to conduct her funeral and burial service when that time came. A committee of H.A. Allen, F.A. Freer and W.F. Tait was appointed to write to Mrs. Bickerdyke expressing their desire to honor her at the end of her life. Through her son James, Mrs. Bickerdyke responded that her wish was to be buried next to her husband. She thanked the Post for its kindness and forethought in the matter.

         Word was received in Galesburg that Mary Bickerdyke had died November 8, 1901, at the age of 84 years. She had been living with her son James in Bunker Hill, Kansas. Memorial services were conducted by the Grand Army in that community. The G.A.R. members of Kansas felt she was one of their own since she had lived in that state for 34 years. Her remains were shipped to Galesburg by rail accompanied by her son, two members of the Bunker Hill G.A.R. Post and a large flag contributed by the Post.

         The funeral in Galesburg was held in Central Congregational Church on November 12, 1901. This was appropriate as Mrs. Bickerdyke had been a member of the church when she lived in Galesburg. There many floral tributes. Post 45 members escorted the casket from the undertaking parlor on the Public Square to the church.

         The Reverend Joe Bell, a Civil War chaplain, gave the eulogy. Other clergymen from the community gave prayers and appropriate remarks. A male quartet sang hymns and “Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Grounds,” a favorite among the old soldiers. The casket was open so the many mourners could pass by and view her face one last time.

         Officers of the Women’s Relief Corps (W.R.C.) conducted the ritual at the grave site. The Corps was composed of wives and widows of the G.A.R. men. They functioned as an auxiliary to raise money for various projects and to provide aid to poor and sick veterans. The ladies frequently organized social events which were open to the public and served as fundraisers.

         Within a month of the Bickerdyke funeral, the women of the W.R.C. had secured a charter from the State of Illinois for the Mother Bickerdyke Memorial Association. The officers were President, Fannie A. Blazer; Vice President, Mattie E. Elder; Recording Secretary, Nellie J. Compton; Corresponding Secretary, Mary E. Efner; and Treasurer, Emily R. McCullough. The first meeting of the Association was held December 5, 1901, and meetings were held monthly thereafter.

         At the annual meeting of the Association in January, 1903, the treasurer reported there was $300 on hand. The ladies were concerned that the fund for a memorial was growing so slowly. They felt the entire state of Illinois should be honoring the memory of Mother Bickerdyke, especially the old soldiers who had served in the Civil War.

         Senator Leon A. Townsend and Representative Wilfred Arnold of the 43rd District were interviewed by representatives of the Memorial Association about the possibility of an appropriation from the Illinois Legislature. Both men gave their support to the idea and Representative Arnold wrote the bill. An appropriation of $5,000 was approved on May 6, 1903. Governor Richard Yates signed it a few days later.

         The ladies were unaware that their problems were just beginning. A movement started among several businessmen and members of other organizations suggesting how the Mother Bickerdyke Memorial Association might spend the money. One suggestion was to build a new facility for the Free Kindergarten, a charity which cared for the pre-school children of poor, working families. Another suggestion was to add a wing to Cottage Hospital.

         In addition, the Memorial Association had to decide on the location for a memorial, what kind of memorial should be created and who should create it. They considered a shaft with a fountain in the Public Square. The City of Galesburg responded that the well water from the city main would eat away the stone.

         A shaft in Standish Park was also considered. Mention was made of building a chapel. Opinion among the members was divided, but their intention was to spend the entire $5,000 on “a permanent and enduring monument.” Some people thought the money was for a monument at the grave. Members of the Memorial Association were firm in their belief that the monument to Mother Bickerdyke should be on or near the Public Square. Eventually, the lawn of the Knox County Courthouse was settled upon as the permanent site.

         On August 4, 1903, five members of the Memorial Association met with General O.O. Howard of Chicago. The general had visited Galesburg on several occasions and was known and respected by the members of the group. Also present was Attorney F.C. Chamberlain who represented Mrs. Theo Ruggles Kitson, a Boston sculptress. Mrs. Kitson had a reputation for designing statues and busts of soldiers. She offered her services free.

         General Howard was enthusiastic about having a woman create a monument to the Civil War nurse. He had known Mrs. Bickerdyke during the war and he was impressed the ladies of the Memorial Association had secured the appropriation so quickly. He advised them to have the monument made of bronze as that metal was more enduring.

         About a month later, on September 15, 1903, the Memorial Association met again in the G.A.R. Room of the Galesburg Public Library to consider six proposals for the Bickerdyke monument. Mrs. Kitson’s model consisted of a 4 by 5 foot painting in a frame. The suggested statue was to be laid on a bronze slab placed on a marble base. The statue would show “a soldier lying down with his head and shoulders resting on Mother Bickerdyke’s knee, who is in a kneeling position.” according to The Daily Republican-Register.

         The newspaper continued “In her hand she is holding a cup of water of which she is giving him a drink. Her sunbonnet is slipped off her head and hanging down her back, tied under her chin. Everything is brought out clearly and distinctly. Every feature is noticeable and the poise is perfect.”

         H.H. Kitson was present to represent his wife and explain the design. A contract for $5,000 was let to Mrs. Kitson. Although the ladies wanted the statue ready to be dedicated in the fall of 1904, Mr. Kitson insisted 18 months was necessary for completion.

         In the meantime, the Memorial Association used the $300 they had raised to put a large marker on the grave of Mary Ann Bickerdyke. It was dedicated June 30, 1904. A downpour of rain delayed the ceremony until 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Mrs. Blazer presided and the ceremony opened with the singing of “Nearer, My God to Thee.” The ladies of the W.R.C. formed a circle around the grave which was decorated with flags and flowers.

         Congressman George W. Prince was asked to speak as the Reverend Joe Bell hadn’t arrived yet due to the weather. He paid tribute to the memory of Mother Bickerdyke and announced the monument in the Courthouse Square would be placed within the next year. The guest of honor at the ceremony was Charles Bickerdyke of Savannah, Illinois, a grandson of Mrs. Bickerdyke.

         In creating the statue, Mrs. Kitson encountered a number of problems. She used human models to help establish the proportions of the figures. She also interviewed many old soldiers who had known Mother Bickerdyke during the war to get the likeness and bearing as close to reality as possible. Not all agreed on her appearance. Mother Bickerdyke’s bonnet was a casualty of the creative process. If it were placed on her head, her features would be obscured. It was too difficult to show it hanging down her back as had been depicted in the painting submitted by Mrs. Kitson for the selection committee’s consideration.

         The ladies in Galesburg anxiously waited for word that the monument had been completed. Mrs. Kitson asked for two extensions to the allotted time. Then, no word was received for months.

         About the same time, Galesburg had won the opportunity to hold the Fortieth State Encampment of the Illinois Department of the G.A.R. Committees were formed and money was raised for holding the convention in the city. The Commercial Club composed of local businessmen happily contributed to the fund as they saw it as an opportunity to serve the many visitors who would come the city.

         Six weeks before the planned unveiling of the Bickerdyke monument there was still doubt that it would arrive on time. On April 7th, the newspapers reported Mayor Sanborn had been assured the statue and its pedestal would be delivered in time. Mrs. Kitson had explained the execution of the artistic work had taken much more time and effort than she had expected.

         The statue arrived by Wells-Fargo Express on the Santa Fe Railroad on May 15th. It weighted 2,045 pounds and required five men to unload it. The shipping charge was $71.50. Two days later, the granite pedestal was delivered by the Burlington. It weighed more than thirteen tons and required a whole flat car for its shipment. J.A. Ream, the contractor for the project, used house-moving equipment to carry the pedestal to the Courthouse lawn. Workers began to place the monument at once.

         The unveiling ceremony took place at 4 o’clock in the afternoon on Tuesday, May 22, 1906. A crowd estimated to be 8,000 persons witnessed the ceremony. On the speaker’s platform, were the officers of the Mother Bickerdyke Memorial Association, members of the Galesburg Commercial Club, State G.A.R. officials, representatives of Knox and Lombard colleges, public officials and several clergymen. The creator of the monument had an honored placed on the platform along with eight members of the Bickerdyke family.

         Mrs. Fanny Blazer, President of the Mother Bickerdyke Memorial Association, presided. The program opened with music and a prayer by the State W.R.C. Chaplain, Mrs. Ruby Loring of Chicago. Representative Wilfred Arnold read the bill which had appropriated the money for the memorial. Mrs. Kitson, the sculptress, was introduced. A male chorus sang “Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground” under the direction of Professor William F. Bentley of Knox College.

         Mayor Lake W. Sanborn, who had  known Mrs. Bickerdyke, welcomed the visitors. Mrs. Marietta Ervin, a member of the W.R.C., had the honor of unveiling the monument, as she had given the first $25 to the fundraising campaign. She and her husband walked to the statue, saluted, and drew aside the large flag which had covered it. The audience applauded.

         Mrs. Blazer than presented the monument to the Knox County Board of Supervisors for their care as it was located on their property. James Rebstock, Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, accepted the monument on behalf of the people of Knox County. He said “ With open arms therefore we accept this gift and pledge ourselves and the coming generations to guard and defend the spot where it stands with that earnestness and patriotic zeal, that with the same love that characterized her whom it represents in all her ministrations on the field of battle in the great war of freedom.”

         Former Governor Yates gave the major address of the day. He had been the governor who signed the appropriation bill to defray the cost of the monument. He and his father, who had been Illinois’ governor during the Civil War, were both accomplished orators. On this occasion, the younger Yates did not disappoint.  He recalled Mrs. Bickerdyke in this way: “She bound up the wounds of the afflicted and when she did so she administered a soothing balm to the lacerated hearts at home.

         “Cairo and Paducah, Fort Donelson and Shiloh, Corinth and Iuka, Vicksburg and Memphis, Chattanooga and Atlanta, Altoona and Marietta, Huntsville and Beaufort, Washington and Camp Butler are a few of the places where she fought, in hospitals, a gigantic winning battle against death and for human lives.

         “With her hot foods and soups and her stimulating drinks and restoratives she fought among the wounded ranks upon the battlefield too.

         “She tore up, and used to bandage wounds, all her clothing which was capable of such use, although it was made, with care and patience by loving ones back home in Illinois, who were full of the feeling that she needed such things more than anybody. She listened at night, on edges of battlefields, for groans of wounded men overlooked, and when she heard them went out herself, through rain and storm, with lanterns and stretchers, and found such men and brought them in.

         “She sang songs of home and heaven to dying men, while shot and shell fell in the midst of her field hospital.

         “She not only lessened the pain of thousands; but she contributed by her contagious example and leadership to the comfort of untold thousands more.”

         The dedication exercises closed at 6 o’clock with the singing of “America.” The band from the Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home in Bloomington then sounded “Taps.”






by Paulette Thenhaus


Behind every great sculpture is a great sculptor. This is especially true of the bronze sculpture of Mother Bickerdyke on the lawn of the Knox County Courthouse. The sculptor, Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson was present at the dedication ceremony on May 22, 1906 that drew 8,000 spectators including Illinois Governor Richard Yates. She was 34 years old at the time — midway in her life that spanned six decades.

As a teenager she had exhibited in the 1888 Paris Salon. In 1889 she was reportedly the first woman sculptor, of any age, to win an honorable mention at the Paris Salon, while many established male sculptors could not even jury into the competition. She was given a standing ovation.

Then after studying in Paris, at age 21 Theo Alice married the established, English-born sculptor, Henry Hutson Kitson. He was her teacher from age 15. (He had even nicknamed her “Little Tot”... Huh!) Later in the marriage, about the time when Theo Alice was working on Mother Bickerdyke, Henry became ill and depressed. They collaborated to finish his commissions, the “Minute Man” and “Patrick Collins Monument.” They are signed by both. Could this be a reason Theo Alice requested more time for completing our sculpture?

How Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson, a Boston sculptor, was selected for the Galesburg monument can only be guessed. But one hunch is that the great sculptor and art authority, Lorado Taft, born in Elmwood, may have recommended her. In his survey of American sculptors he says of her work: "In the presence of this spirited and ably composed work one is almost compelled to qualify the somewhat sweeping assertion that no woman has as yet modeled the male figure to look like a man. Her talent is robust, and she attacks fearlessly the problems of monumental statuary."

One assumes such a recommendation from Taft would be all any community would need. However she was selected for the $5,000 commission, she was well on her way to becoming known as a sculptor of war monuments. In 1902 she created her first Civil War monument for Newburyport, Mass. — "The Volunteer." Another commission for a similar figure followed. Then between 1904 and 1908 she created more than 60 busts and reliefs for Vicksburg alone. Kitson’s best known work is a Spanish-American War Memorial commissioned for the University of Minnesota in 1906. About fifty copies were later ordered for locations across the United States. Her longtime foundry in Boston, Bureau Brothers, cast 148 of her sculptures (though it is not clear whether some are reproductions of the originals).

Today, looking at the Mother Bickerdyke Memorial in terms of war memorials, we see how original a work of art it is. It breaks with traditional memorials which glorify war and portray the soldier as hero. Instead it represents a simple act of human kindness in the aftermath of battle. The "action" takes place at ground level and at the viewer’s eye level. No horses or weapons are involved. The only action is the offering of a cup of water, yet Kitson elevates this gesture to an act of honor.

Like Michelangelo's marble Pieta, here is another “mother” with wounded “son” in her lap. Just as Michelangelo was faced with balancing the body of a full-grown man in the lap of a middle-aged woman, Kitson had a similar problem, but in bronze. Her solution was to lean the two figures closely into each other. The bulk of Bickerdyke’s body offers not only support but shelter to the reclining young soldier. A message of compassion is not read so much in the two faces but rather in the subtle gestures of the hands. There is a naturalness to the figures in this and other Kitson sculptures that is uncommon for this period, especially in war memorials.

Unlike the typical war memorial, the figures are life-size and unidealized. Bickerdyke, the heroine, has short cropped hair, a robust figure and rolled up sleeves. Her gesture of supporting the soldier with one arm and knee while offering a cup with the other hand, is not grandiose and is certainly not feminine, but it is one of genuine human compassion. It is exactly what the story of Mother Bickerdyke is all about.

It is my presumption that this is the only Civil War memorial by a woman of a woman...probably the only woman Kitson ever memorialized.

One thing we can be sure of. Though Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson produced many reproductions, our Mother Bickerdyke Memorial is an original, unique cast. A one-of-a kind tribute to a one-of-a-kind Galesburg citizen.

Reference: American Women Sculptors, A History of Women Working in Three Dimensions, G.K. Hall, Boston 1990.