Upon leaving Oberlin, Ball became a nurse at the age of 20. She assisted doctors in Cincinnati, Ohio, during the cholera epidemic of 1837. Ball married Robert Bickerdyke in 1847, and the couple moved to Galesburg, Illinois in 1856. Robert Bickerdyke died two years later. Mary Bickerdyke continued to work as a nurse to support her two young sons.
When she arrived in Cairo, Bickerdyke found appalling conditions. She used the supplies to establish a hospital for the Union soldiers. She stayed on in Cairo, helping to organize and clean up the field hospitals. This caught the attention of Ulysses S. Grant, who appreciated her efforts.
Ignoring rank, protocol, and allegiance, she pursued fearlessly and with inexhaustible energy her mission to care for the sick and wounded. Rebel, Union, and Negro soldiers all received the same attention.
Both Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman admired Bickerdyke for her bravery and for her deep concern for the soldiers. She also earned a reputation for denouncing officers who failed to provide for their men. To assist the soldiers, Bickerdyke gave numerous speeches across the Union, describing the difficult conditions that soldiers experienced. She also solicited contributions from the civilian population. The soldiers nicknamed Bickerdyke "Mother Bickerdyke" because of her continuing concern for them. Gen Sherman woukld say to staff who grumbled about her unorthodox methods and forceful personality: "She outranks me! I can't do a thing in the world about it!"
With the help of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, by the end of the war, Bickerdyke had helped to establish over 300 field hospitals.
When the victorious armies of the North were in Washington, Sherman requested that she ride at the head of the Grand Review, "Mother Bickerdyke" road her faithful white horse beside the generals and colonels. Veterans along the line of march gave her the loudest cheers.
With the Civil War's conclusion, Bickerdyke continued to assist Union veterans. She provided legal assistance to veterans seeking pensions from the federal government. She also helped secure pensions for more than three hundred women nurses. Bickerdyke herself did not receive a pension until the 1880s. It was only twenty-five dollars per month. Bickerdyke moved to Kansas following the war, where she helped veterans to settle and begin new lives. She secured a ten thousand dollar donation from Jonathan Burr, a banker, to help the veterans obtain land, tools, and supplies. She also convinced the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy Railroad to provide free transportation for veterans hoping to settle in Kansas. Due to Bickerdyke's efforts, General Sherman authorized the settlers to use government wagons and teams to transport the belongings of the veterans to their new homes.
Bickerdyke remained in Kansas for most of the rest of her life. She settled in Salina, Kansas, where she opened a hotel. She continued to fight for the rights of veterans. She moved briefly to New York, before returning to Kansas with her two sons. Bickerdyke moved later to California, hoping that a change of climate would restore her declining health. She settled in San Francisco, where she accepted a position at the United States Mint. Bickerdyke eventually returned to Kansas, where she died on November 8, 1901. She was buried in Galesburg, Illinois.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.
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Mother Bickerdyke, Her Life and Labors for the Relief of Our Soldiers. published:1886