Murray: Mother Bickerdyke: the indomitable nurse

Murray: Mother Bickerdyke: the indomitable nurse

May 4th, 2014 by By Dr. R. Smith Murray in Opinion Columns

In December 1863, following Missionary Ridge and the routing of the Confederates into Dalton, Ga., Federal forces occupied Chattanooga. Tending the Federals' sick and wounded was the formidable nurse, Mary Ann (Mother) Bickerdyke. She was a force to be reckoned with. When it came to the care of her ailing "boys," she feared neither man nor beast.

The weather was severely cold, and the hospitalized Federal soldiers were shivering in their beds. Mother Bickerdyke called for more wood to build up the fire. When told there was no more, she sent soldiers out to dismantle the breastworks (temporary fortifications) and bring the wood into the hospital.

The soldiers were quick to obey as she was quite popular with them. She supplied them with good food and clean clothing. In addition, she bribed them with doses of her special whiskey-laced tonic called Panado.

A Federal officer, seeing what she was doing, ordered her to stop. He said he would arrest her if she continued to tear down the breastworks.

"All right, Major," she said, "I'm arrested, but don't meddle with me 'til the weather abates."

She was arrested but not until the weather abated. Later when subjected to a court of inquiry, she received a commendation.

Trouble for Mother wasn't apt to come down from the Federal Army of the Tennessee. Its commander, Gen. William T. Sherman, admired her, and they had a warm relationship. She never addressed him as General but rather as Bill or Uncle Billy.

At the outset of the war, Mother worked for the Sanitary Commission, a private relief commission with no tie to the Federal Army. To to make her presence official, Uncle Billy assigned her to Gen. Jack Logan's Corps, and she accompanied Sherman's army all the way into Atlanta.

Sherman and Mother parted in Atlanta. Over her objections, he was taking no ambulances on his march to the sea. He told her to return north and bring supplies by ship to meet him in Savannah. Mother never made it to Savannah because she stopped in Wilmington, N.C., to tend sick Union prisoners of war.

She was reunited with Sherman when the victorious Federal Army marched down the boulevard in Washington, D.C. She rode a horse next to Gen. Logan as he led the 15th Corps. Sherman took their salute from the reviewing stand.

Her history with Logan preceded her relationship with Sherman. It went back to Fort Donelson. She arrived at Fort Donelson via the Sanitary Commission's ship, the City of Memphis. The ship, which stayed there while the sick and wounded were taken off the battlefield, was due to leave the next day. Around 4 in the morning Col. (later Gen.) Logan looked out of his tent and saw a light bobbing around in the battlefield.

Fearing robbers, Logan sent his orderly to investigate and to bring the culprit back into camp. The orderly returned with Mother Bickerdyke. She had been searching the battlefield to be sure that no wounded soldiers had been overlooked. Before Logan could upbraid her, Mother spoke up and thanked him for sending out his orderly as it made her search go twice as fast.

To be sure, Logan was proud to ride next to Mother in the Washington victory parade.

Curiously, Mother had no official position with anything until nearly a month after the battle of Shiloh. That never stopped her. However, after Shiloh the Sanitary Commission employed her at $50 a month.

At the outset of the war, the widowed Mrs. Bickerdyke practiced botanic (herbal) medicine in Galesburg, Ill. Her church sent her with supplies and a little money to Cairo, Ill., after a Dr. Woodward reported how many sick soldiers were there. These men, having not yet been in battle, were sick from disease.

Mother quickly ascertained that the hospital itself, deplorable with filth, dirty cloths, foul water and poor food contributed to the soldiers' ill health.

She was given a one-day pass and was to be gone by sundown. Ignoring Woodward's protests, she decided to stay on. Woodward wouldn't be the last surgeon to try to get rid of her. All to no avail.

Mother went through hospitals like a cyclone. Cleanliness and nourishing food were her watchwords. She wanted everything clean, and this included seeing to it that all the patients were bathed.

From Cairo to Atlanta she stayed with the Army, and all the hospitals she served were made better.

Dr. Smith Murray is a retired urologist.

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