Mary Ann Bickerdyke (July 19, 1817 – November 8, 1901), also known as Mother Bickerdyke, was a much-beloved volunteer nurse and hospital administrator for Union soldiers during the American Civil War.
Widowed two years before the war began, she supported herself and her two half-grown sons by practicing as a “botanic Physician” in Galesburg, Illinois. After the outbreak of the Civil War, she became chief of nursing under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant, and served at the Battle of Vicksburg.
When his staff complained about the outspoken, insubordinate female nurse who consistently disregarded the army’s red tape and military procedures, Union Gen. William T. Sherman threw up his hands and exclaimed, “She outranks me. I can’t do a thing in the world.”
Bickerdyke ran roughshod over anyone who stood in the way of her self-appointed duties. She was known affectionately to her “boys,” the grateful enlisted men, as “Mother” Bickerdyke. When a surgeon questioned her authority to take some action, she replied, “On the authority of Lord God Almighty, have you anything that outranks that?”
Sherman was especially fond of this volunteer nurse who followed the western armies, and supposedly she was the only woman he would allow in his camp. By the end of the war, with the help of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, Mother Bickerdyke had built 300 hospitals and aided the wounded on 19 battlefields including the Battle of Shiloh and Sherman’s March to the Sea.
“Mother” Bickerdyke was so loved by the army that the soldiers would cheer her as they would a general when she appeared. At Sherman’s request, she rode at the head of the XV Corps in the Grand Review in Washington at the end of the war.
After the war ended, she worked for the Salvation Army in San Francisco, and became an attorney, helping Union veterans with legal issues. She ran a hotel in Salina, Kansas, for a time. She received a special pension of $25 a month from Congress in 1886, and retired to Bunker Hill, Kansas. She died peacefully after a minor stroke.
A statue of her was erected in Galesburg, and a hospital boat and a liberty ship, the Mary Bickerdyke,were named after her