Nurses Who Led the Way

Real Life Stories of courageous women in an exciting profession.

Young Dr. Woodward stopped his horse and buggy in front of three tents. “This is my hospital,” he said.

Mary Ann Bickerdyke refused his hand and stepped down into the thick mud, clutching her carryall with the precious supplies in it. Her gray calico dress was plain and serviceable; her keen blue eyes, shaded under the black cotton Shaker bonnet, saw everything. There was work to be done here, and she was dressed for working.

“Don’t stand there,” she told him impatiently. “Show me what’s to be seen so I can start.”

She was there because of a letter he had written to his pastor, Dr. Beecher, back in Galesburg, Illinois. But he did not want her here. The general did not approve of women at army encampments; Dr. Woodward hoped she would not stay long.

Mrs. Bickerdyke followed him into the tents. It was much worse than his letter had said. Ten men were crowded into one tent, lying mostly on straw pallets on the filthy mud floor with only an army blanket between the pallets. The air was thick with unpleasant smells; bluebottle flies buzzed around the patients. The water bucket was empty. It was the same, or worse, in all the tents.

“Get me some men,” she ordered the doctor.

He said, “I can’t — I’m only a junior medical officer.”

She snorted, and marched over to the nearest campfire where the men were eating their meal of half-raw salt-pork, boiled beans, and hardtack.

“How’d you like some fried chicken and some light bread with blackberry jam?” she asked in her hearty voice. The men stared at her, unbelieving. “The doctor and I’ve got a job to be done. We need strong fellows to help. If you help us I can find you some better grub than this!”

They leaped up, half a dozen of them. Mrs. Bickerdyke issued her orders. There were no tubs, so she had men saw casks in two. Water was boiled in every container she could find. She opened her carryall and brought out cakes of strong laundry soap. Then she went into the first tent.

“You men want a bath and a clean bed and some good supper? Then those of you who can walk, walk out here and get scrubbed up. Those who can’t we’ll carry…Doctor, you boss this job. Got some scissors on you? Then cut off their whiskers…I can see graybugs from her. New drawers and undershirts is in them carryalls. Burn all their old clothes…and the straw and blankets, too. And get me some clean straw.

The doctor was horrified. He was not used to being ordered about like this. And besides, he said, some of these men had high fevers. It would kill them to be taken out-of-doors and bathed.

“Fiddle-faddle!” said Mrs. Bickerdyke. “Not a breath of air stirring, and it’s ninety in the shade. Won’t kill any of ’em…Get them clothes off, sonny,” she said to the first man.