She was born in Knox County, Ohio, to Hiram Ball and Annie Rodgers Ball. She later moved to Galesburg, Illinois.
After the outbreak of the Civil War, she joined a field hospital at Fort Donelson, working alongside Mary J. Stafford. Bickerdyke also worked closely with Eliza Emily Chappell Porter of the Northwest Sanitary Commission. She later worked on the first hospital boat. During the 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 was a nurse who 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?"
Mother Bickerdyke became the best known, most colorful, and probably most resourceful Civil War nurse. 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. When a young Union volunteer physician wrote home about the filthy, chaotic military hospitals at Cairo, Illinois, Galesburg's citizens collected $500 worth of supplies and selected Bickerdyke to deliver them.
She stayed in Cairo as an unofficial nurse, and through her unbridled energy and dedication she organized the hospitals and gained Grant's appreciation. Grant sanctioned her efforts, and when his army moved down the Mississippi, Bickerdyke went too, setting up hospitals where they were needed. 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.
- De Leeuw, Adèle (1961). "Cyclone in Calico". Nurses who Led the Way. Whitman. p. 27. OCLC 2702953.
- Livermore, Mary (1888). "XXIV". My Story of the War. http://www.ourstory.info/library/1-roots/Livermore/story09.html.
- Henderson, Harold J. (May 1947). "Ships in World War II Bearing Kansas Names". http://www.kancoll.org/khq/1947/47_2_henderson.htm. Retrieved 26 November 2009.
- Short biographical sketch from PBS Civil War
- Article from Ohio Biography[dead link]
- Biography from Spartacus Schoolnet
- Livermore, Mary (1888). "Chapters XXIV-XXVII". My Story of the War.
sv:Mary Ann Bickerdyke