The war was terrible in terms of sick and wounded care–not exactly news, but something to be considered. The Army of the Potomac had Dr. Jonathan Letterman to rely on for help, but the other Union armies had ineffective leadership in the area of medical direction. Some Western troops, however, had Mary Ann Bickerdyke. Commonly referred to as “Mother Bickerdyke” by the soldiers she cared for, this gallant nurse and health care provider would have been right at home with the 21st century’s active women. In her own time, she was considered both a saint and a terrible nuisance. Which one she was depended upon the amount of selfishness and ego involved on the part of whomever she was facing down.
She was forty-five when she first established a hospital in Cairo, Illinois. In 1861, the
townspeople of Galesburg entrusted her with over five hundred dollars worth of supplies for Illinois soldiers. With this as seed, she grew hospitals over as much of the Western Theater as possible. She paired with the Western Sanitary Commission to accomplish her work, but mainly her success come through her own efforts to raise money and support for “her boys” as well as nursing them personally. Here is an example of her ingenuity and resolve.
In 1863, Mary Ann Bickerdyke was working in a series of smaller hospitals in Memphis, Tennessee. The monetarily inclined citizens of Memphis were just plain stingy with their milk and eggs, and when these items were made available to the hospitals, the prices were gouging. Milk brought 50 cents a quart, in Union greenbacks, which is close to ten dollars today. Not fair!!
Mrs. Bickerdyke had an idea, however. Why couldn’t the hospitals just raise their own milk and eggs? As usual, the medical director of her hospitals laughed when she presented him with her plan, but he finally agreed to give her a month to go North and see what she could do. After all, it would at least give him thirty Bickerdyke-free days! It was win-win, in his opinion.
Since many of the soldiers of the Army of the Tennessee were from Illinois, our heroine decided that would be a good place to start her quest. She left Washington Hospital with several hundred Volunteer State amputees who were, if possible, to be placed in hospitals nearest their homes for further convalescence. Once her charges were distributed, she turned to her original cow-and-hen mission.
As soon as her plan became generally known, she had very little trouble gettingcows. Mr. Jacob Strawn and a few of his Jacksonville, Illinois neighbors came up with a hundred female bovines within a very few days. These noble beasts were sent to Springfield, where Richard Yates, the governor of Illinois, gave his word that they would be entrained and sent on to Memphis, Tennessee. He even made sure “the girls” would be well cared-for. They were grouped into herds of fifteen to twenty and given their own drover to take care of their feeding and watering.
Mary Ann Bickerdyke’s BFF was Mary Livermore, who represented Chicago’s Western Sanitary Commission. These two ladies were, shall we say, birds of a feather! According to Ms. Livermore, “The hens were sent to the rooms of the Commission in Chicago. In a week after our call, our building was transformed into a huge hennery . . ..” Chickens are not known to be an indoor type of animal, and soon the din of cackling, crowing, and screeching became unbearable for SanCom volunteers. The warm spring weather did not help to limit the smell, either. The hens were quickly sent to Memphis in four shipments, travelling in their own special coops containing about two dozen each.
Before her month was over, Mary Ann Bickerdyke was on her way back to her hospitals, forming a part of a procession of over one hundred cows and one thousand hens, “strung all along the road from Chicago to Memphis.” Bickerdyke, hens, and cows made their triumphal entry into the city of Memphis, to the accompaniment of loud mooing, crowing, and cackling, and to the taunting derision of local Memphians who suddenly realized their cash cows had been, literally, displaced. Ms. Bickerdyke answered her critics with these brave Union words:
These are loyal cows and hens; none of your miserable trash that give chalk and water for milk, and lay loud-smelling eggs!
Brig. General Steven A. Hurlbut, the local area commander, sent Bickerdyke’s cows and chickens to President’s Island in the Mississippi. He also sent along a sufficient number of contrabands to give them the care necessary for plenty of milk and eggs. When the Union hospitals of Memphis emptied to a reasonable degree, Mary Ann moved on with the army. The chickens went into hospital stew pots, while the cows went on the march. Fresh milk in the Army of the Tennessee was thereafter known to the troops as “Bickerdyke Whiskey.”
Word: stay clear of loud-smelling eggs!