MOTHER BICKERDYKE---STORY OF A REMARKABLE WOMAN---HER MOTHERLY CARE OF THE "BOYS IN BLUE"---HOSPITAL SIGHTS AND SCENES---ON THE BATTLE-FIELD AT NIGHT.
A remarkable Woman---Sent into the Service at Cairo by Ladies of Galesburg, Ill.---Improvises a sick-diet Kitchen---Stratagem to detect the Thieves who steal her Delicacies---"Peaches don't seem to agree with you, eh?"---Colonel (now General) Grant removes the dishonest Officials---Mother Bickerdyke after the Battle of Donelson---A Surgeon's Testimony---She extemporizes a Laundry---Is associated with Mrs. Porter of Chicago---After the Battle of Shiloh---" I get my Authority from the Lord God Almighty; have you anything that ranks higher?"---Her System of foraging---Her "Night-Gowns" as hospital Shirts---"Say you jerked them from the Secesh, Boys!---Experiences at Corinth---Finds a dying Soldier left in a Tent.
MONG the hundreds of women who devoted a part or the whole of the years of the war to the care of the sick and wounded of the army, "Mother Bickerdyke" stands preeminent. Others were as heroic and consecrated as she, as unwearied in labors, and as unselfish and self-sacrificing. But she was unique in method, extraordinary in executive ability, enthusiastic in devotion, and indomitable in will. After her plans were formed, and her purposes matured, she carried them through triumphantly, in the teeth of the most formidable opposition. She gave herself to the rank and file of the army,---the private soldiers,---for whom she-had unbounded tenderness, and developed almost limitless resources of help and comfort.
To them she was strength and sweetness; and for them she exercised sound, practical sense, a ready wit, and a rare intelligence, that made her a power in the hospital, or on the field. There was no peril she would not dare for a sick and wounded man, no official red tape of formality for which she cared more than for a common tow string, if it interfered with her in her work of relief. To their honor be it said, the "boys" reciprocated her affection most heartily. "That homely figure, clad in calico, wrapped in a shawl, and surmounted with a 'Shaker' bonnet, is more to this army than the Madonna to a Catholic!" said an officer, pointing to Mother Bickerdyke, as she emerged from the Sanitary Commission headquarters, in Memphis, laden with an assortment of supplies. Every soldier saluted her as she passed; and those who were at leisure relieved her of her burden, and bore it to its destination. To the entire army of the West she was emphatically "Mother Bickerdyke." Nor have the soldiers forgotten her in her poverty and old age. They remember her to-day in many a tender letter, and send her many a small donation to eke out her scanty and irregular income.
I was intimately associated with this remarkable woman during the war. Whenever she came to Chicago, on brief furloughs from army work, my house was her home. Utterly regardless of her own comfort, and ignoring her personal needs, it was absolutely essential that some one should care for her; and this grateful work I took into my own hands.
Whatever were her troubles, hindrances, or liabilities, I persuaded her to entrust them to me; and, with the help of Mrs. Hoge, my inseparable co-worker, she was relieved of them. Little by little, I learned the story of her early life from her own lips,---a story of struggle with poverty, hard fate, and lack of opportunity, but glorified, as were her maturer years, by unselfishness and a spirit of helpfulness, that recognized the claims of every needy creature. Such of the incidents of the following sketch as did not come under my own observation were narrated to me by Mrs. Bickerdyke herself. I only regret my inability to repeat them in her language.
Mary A. Bickerdyke was born in Knox County, Ohio, July 19, 1817. She came of Revolutionary ancestors, and was never happier than when recounting fragments of her grandfather's history, who served under Washington during the whole seven years' struggle. When Washington made the memorable passage across the Delaware, her grandfather was one of those detailed to keep the fires burning on the shore, and crossed in one of the last boats. She married, when about twenty-five, a widower with four or five children, by whom she has been beloved as if she were their natural mother, and between whom and her own two sons she has never seemed to know any difference. The marriage was a happy one, although I suspect that the immense energy and tireless industry of the busy wife proved, sometimes, annoying to the easy-going husband. His death occurred about two years before the breaking out of the war. I have heard her tell married men, in a sort of warning way, and very seriously, that she really believed her husband might have lived twenty years longer, if he had not worn himself into the grave trying to boss her. "He wanted me to do everything in his way," she would say, "and just as he did; but his way was too slow, I couldn't stand it."
She was living in Galesburg, Ill., and was a member of Rev. Dr. Edward Beecher's church when the war of the rebellion broke out. Hardly had the troops reached Cairo, when, from the sudden change in their habits, their own imprudence, and the ignorance of their commanders on all sanitary points, sickness broke out among them. At the suggestion of the ladies of Galesburg, who had organized to do something for the country---they hardly knew what at that time--Mrs. Bickerdyke went down among them. Her well-known skill as a nurse, the fertility of her resources, her burning patriotism, and her possession of that rare combination of qualities which we call "common sense," had always enabled her to face any emergency.
There was at that time little order, system, or discipline anywhere. In company with Mary Safford, then living in Cairo, she commenced an immediate systematic work in the camp and regimental hospitals at Cairo and Bird's Point. In the face of obstacles of every kind, she succeeded in working a great change for the better in the condition of the sick. The influence of her energetic, resolute, and systematic spirit was felt everywhere; and the loyal people of Cairo gladly aided her in her voluntary and unpaid labors. A room was hired for her, and cooking-stove set up for her especial use. She improvised a sick-diet kitchen, and carried thence to the sick in the hospitals the food she had prepare for them. The first assortment of delicacies for the sick sent to Cairo by the Chicago Sanitary Commission, were given to her for distribution. Almost all the hospital supplies sent from the local societies of Chicago or Illinois, were, for a time, given to her trustworthy care.
After the battle of Belmont she was appointed matron of the large post hospital at Cairo, which was filled with the wounded. She found time, however, to work for, and to visit daily, every other hospital in the town. The surgeon who appointed her was skilful and competent, but given to drunkenness; and he had little sympathy with his patients. He had filled all the positions in the hospitals with surgeons and officers of his sort, and bacchanalian carousals in the "doctor's room" were of frequent occurrence. In twenty-four hours Mother Bickerdyke and he were at swords' points. She denounced him to his face; and, when the garments and delicacies sent her for the use of the sick and wounded disappeared mysteriously, she charged their theft upon him and his subordinates.
He ordered her out of his hospital, and threatened to put her out if she did not hasten her departure. She replied that "she should stay as long as the men needed her---that if he put her out of one door she should come in at another; and if he barred all the doors against her, she should come in at the windows, and that the patients would help her in. When anybody left it would be he, and not she," she assured him, "as she had already lodged complaints against him at headquarters." "Conscience makes cowards of us all"; and he did not proceed to expel her, as he might have done, and probably would, if his cause had been just.
But though she was let alone, this was not the case with her supplies for the sick and wounded they were stolen continually. She caught a wardmaster dressed in the shirt, slippers, and socks that had been sent her, and, seizing him by the collar, in his own ward, she disrobed him sans cérémonie before the patients. Leaving him nude save his pantaloons, she uttered this parting injunction: "Now, you rascal, let's see what you'll steal next!" To ascertain who were the thieves of the food she prepared, she resorted to a somewhat dangerous ruse. Purchasing a quantity of tartar emetic at a drug store, she mixed it with some stewed peaches that she had openly cooked in the kitchen, telling Tom, the cook, that "she wanted to leave them on the kitchen table over night to cool." Then she went to her own room to await results.
She did not wait long. Soon the sounds of suffering from the terribly sick thieves reached her ears, when, like a Nemesis, she stalked in among them. There they were, cooks, table-waiters, stewards, wardmasters,---all save some of the surgeons,---suffering terribly from the emetic, but more from the apprehension that they were poisoned. "Peaches don't seem to agree with you, eh?" she said, looking on the pale, retching, groaning fellows with a sardonic smile. Well, let me tell you that you will have a worse time than this if you keep on stealing! You may eat something seasoned with ratsbane one of these nights." Her complaints of theft were so grievous that there was sent her from the Sanitary Commission in Chicago a huge refrigerator with a strong lock. She received it with great joy, and, putting into it the delicacies, sick-diet, milk, and other hospital dainties of which she had especial charge, she locked it in presence of the cook, defying him and his companions. "You have stolen the last morsel from me that you ever will," she said, "for I intend always to carry the key of the refrigerator in my pocket." That very night the lock of the refrigerator was broken, and everything appetizing inside was stolen. The depredation was clearly traced to Tom. This was too much for Mother Bickerdyke. Putting on her Shaker bonnet, she hastened to the provost-marshal, where she told her story so effectively that he sent a guard to the hospital kitchen, arrested the thieving cook, and locked him in the guard-house. The arrest was made so quickly and silently, from the rear of the hospital, that only Mother Bickerdyke and two or three of the patients knew it; and, as she enjoined secrecy, Tom's sudden disappearance was involved in mystery.
Greatly mollified at this riddance of her enemy, Mother Bickerdyke courteously offered to "run the kitchen" until Tom returned; and Dr. -----accepted the proposal.
"I am afraid," said the doctor, as days passed, and no tidings of Tom were received, "I am afraid that Tom went on a spree, and fell off the levee into the river, and is drowned."
"Small loss!" replied sententious Mother Bickerdyke; "I never want to see him again."
Going to the guard-house a week after, on some errand, the doctor discovered the lost cook, and immediately sought his release. He was too late. Mother Bickerdyke had made such charges against him, and the other subordinates of the hospital,. that the provost-marshal investigated them. Finding them true, he laid them before General Grant---then Colonel---who was in command of that department. He ordered the men sent back to their regiments, and better officials were detailed in their places. Their removal was followed shortly after by that the surgeon, and Dr. Taggart, one of the noblest men, was put in his place. The story of Mother Bickerdyke's exploits in this hospital preceded her in the army. The rank and file learned that she was in an especial sense their friend, and dishonest and brutal surgeons and officials, of whom there were not a few, in the early months of the war, understood, in advance, that she could neither be bought nor frightened. Throughout the war, the prestige of her hospital life in Cairo clung to her.
After the battle of Donelson, Mother Bickerdyke went from Cairo in the first hospital boat, and assisted in the removal of the wounded to Cairo, St. Louis, and Louisville, and in nursing those too badly wounded to be moved. The Sanitary Commission had established a depot of stores at Cairo, and on these she was allowed to make drafts ad libitum: for she was as famous for her economical use of sanitary stores as she had been before the war for her notable housewifery. The hospital boats at that time were poorly equipped for the sad work of transporting the wounded. But this thoughtful woman, who made five of the terrible trips from the battle-field of Donelson to the hospital, put on board the boat with which she was connected, before it started from Cairo, an abundance of necessaries. There was hardly a want expressed for which she could not furnish some sort of relief.
On the way to the battle-field, she systematized matters perfectly. The beds were ready for the occupants, tea, coffee, soup and gruel, milk punch and ice water were prepared in large quantities, under her supervision, and sometimes by her own hand. When the wounded were brought on board, mangled almost out of human shape; the frozen ground from which they had been cut adhering to hem; chilled with the intense cold in which some had lain for twenty-four hours; faint with loss of blood, physical agony, and lack of nourishment; racked with a terrible five-mile ride over frozen roads, in ambulances, or common Tennessee farmwagons, without springs; burning with fever; raving in delirium, or in the faintness of death,---Mother Bickerdyke's boat was in readiness for them.
"It was Mother Bickerdyke with a lantern still groping among the dead. Stooping down, and turning their cold faces towards her, she scrutinized them searchingly, uneasy lest some might be left to die uncared for. She could not rest while she thought any were overlooked who were yet living."
"I never saw anybody like her," said a volunteer surgeon who came on the boat with her. "There was really nothing for us surgeons to do but dress wounds and administer medicines. She drew out clean shirts or drawers from some corner, whenever they were needed. Nourishment was ready for every man as soon as he was brought on board. Every one was sponged from blood and the frozen mire of the battle-field, as far as his condition allowed. His blood-stiffened, and sometimes horribly filthy uniform, was exchanged for soft and clean hospital garments. Incessant cries of "Mother! Mother! Mother!" rang through the boat, in every note of beseeching and anguish. And to every man she turned with a heavenly tenderness, as if he were indeed her son. She moved about with a decisive air, and gave directions in such decided, clarion tones as to ensure prompt obedience. We all had an impression that she held a commission from the Secretary of War, or at least from the Governor of Illinois. To every surgeon who was superior, she held herself subordinate, and was as good at obeying as at commanding." And yet, at that time, she held no position whatever, and was receiving no compensation for her services; not even the beggarly pittance of thirteen dollars per month allowed by government to army nurses.
At last it was believed that all the wounded had been removed from the field, and the relief parties discontinued their work. Looking from his tent at midnight, an officer observed a faint light flitting hither and thither on the abandoned battle-field, and, after puzzling over it for some time, sent his servant to ascertain the cause. It was Mother Bickerdyke, with a lantern, still groping among the dead. Stooping down, and turning their cold faces towards her, she scrutinized them searchingly, uneasy lest some might be left to die uncared for. She could not rest while she thought any were overlooked who were yet living.
Up to this time, no attempt bad been made to save the clothing and bedding used by the wounded men on the transports and in the temporary hospitals. Saturated with blood, and the discharges of healing wounds, and sometimes swarming with vermin, it had been collected, and burned or buried. But this involved much waste; and as these articles were in constant need, Mother Bickerdyke conceived the idea of saving them. She sent to the Commission at Chicago for washing-machines, portable kettles, and mangles, and caused all this offensive clothing to be collected. She then obtained from the authorities a full detail of contrabands, and superintended the laundering of all these hideously foul garments. Packed in boxes, it all came again into use at the next battle.
This work once begun, Mother Bickerdyke never intermitted. Her washing-machines, her portable kettles, her posse of contrabands, an ambulance or two, and one or two handy detailed soldiers, were in her retinue after this, wherever she went. How much she saved to the government, and to the Sanitary Commission, may be inferred from the fact that it was no unusual thing for three or four thousand pieces to pass through her extemporized laundry in a day. Each piece was returned to the hospital from which it was taken, or, if it belonged to no place in particular, was used in transitu. She saw it boxed, and the boxes deposited in some safe place, where she could easily reach them in time of need.
During a large part of her army life, Mrs Bickerdyke was associated with, and most efficiently supplemented by, Mrs. Eliza Porter, wife of a Congregationalist clergyman of Chicago. She entered the service in the beginning, as did her associate, and turned not from the work until the war ended. Together they worked in the hospitals, enduring cold and hunger, dwelling amid constant alarms, breathing the tainted air of wounds and sickness, and foregoing every species of enjoyment save that which comes from the consciousness of duties well done. Unlike in all respects, they harmonized admirably; and each helped the other. Mrs. Bickerdyke came less frequently into collision with officials when in company with Mrs. Porter; and the obstacles in the. way of the latter were more readily overcome when the energy of Mrs. Bickerdyke opposed them. Mrs. Porter patiently won her way, and urged her claims mildly but persistently. Mrs. Bickerdyke was heedless of opposition, which only nerved her to a more invincible energy; and she took what she claimed, no matter who opposed. Both were very dear to the soldiers, from each of whom they expected sympathy and pity, as well as courage and help.
After the wounded of Donelson were cared for, Mrs. Bickerdyke left the hospitals, and went back into the army. There was great sickness among our troops at Savannah, Tenn. She had already achieved such a reputation for devotion to the men, for executive ability, and versatility of talent, that the spirits of the sick and wounded revived at the very sound. of her voice, and at the sight of her motherly face.
While busy here, the battle of Shiloh occurred, nine miles distant by the river, but only six in a direct line. There had been little provision made for the terrible needs of the battle-field in advance of the conflict. The battle occurred unexpectedly, and was a surprise to our men,---who nearly suffered defeat,---and again there was utter destitution and incredible suffering. Three days after the battle, the boats of the Sanitary Commission arrived at the Landing, laden with every species of relief,---condensed food, stimulants, clothing, bedding, medicines, chloroform, surgical instruments, and carefully selected volunteer nurses and surgeons. They were on the ground some days in advance of the government boats.
Here Mother Bickerdyke was found, carrying system, order, and. relief wherever she went. One of the surgeons went to the rear with a wounded man, and found her wrapped in the gray overcoat of a rebel officer, for she had disposed of her blanket shawl to some poor fellow who needed it. She was wearing a soft slouch hat, having lost her inevitable Shaker bonnet. Her kettles had been set up, the fire kindled underneath, and she was dispensing hot soup, tea, crackers, panado, whiskey and water, and other refreshments, to the shivering, fainting, wounded men.
"Where did you get these articles?" he inquired; and under whose authority are you at work?"
She paid no heed to his interrogatories, and, indeed, did not hear them, so completely absorbed was she in her work of compassion. Watching her with admiration for her skill, administrative ability, and intelligence,---for she not only fed the wounded men, but temporarily dressed their wounds in some cases,---he approached her again:---
"Madam, you seem to combine in yourself a sick-diet kitchen and a medical staff. May I inquire under whose authority you are working?"
Without pausing in her work, she answered him, "I have received my authority from the Lord God Almighty; have you anything that ranks higher than that?" The truth was, she held no position whatever at that time. She was only a "volunteer nurse," having received no appointment, and being attached to no corps of relief.
The Chicago boat took down over one hundred boxes of sanitary stores, on which she was allowed to draw. But they were only as a drop in the bucket among the twelve thousand wounded, lying in extemporized hospitals in and around Savannah. Other consignments of sanitary goods were made to her from Chicago and Springfield, Ill. The agents of the St. Louis and Cincinnati Commissions gave to her freely, when she made requisition on them. When every other resource failed, Mother Bickerdyke would take an ambulance, and one of her detailed soldiers as driver, and go out foraging. Never returned she empty-handed. The contrabands were her friends and allies and she always came back with eggs, milk, butter, and fowls, which were the main objects of her quest. These foraging expeditions sometimes placed her in great peril; but she scorned any thought of danger where the welfare of the boys was concerned.
After she became an agent of the Sanitary Commission, we endeavored to keep her supplied with what she needed. But emergencies were constantly arising which she could not foresee, and for which the Commission could not provide, which would throw her on her own resources; and these never failed her. Sometimes, when opportunities for purchasing hospital supplies came in her way, she would buy largely, and send the bills to the Commission with her endorsement. Again, at other times of great need, she would borrow money, expend it for the boys in her charge, and, sending to Mrs. Hoge and myself vouchers and notes, would leave the affair with us to settle.
The gentlemen of the Commission, while they had no doubt that the good woman made a legitimate use of the money and of the articles purchased, objected to these irregular and unbusiness-like transactions; and they were in the right. Again and again have we taken these bills, notes, and vouchers into our hands, and raised money to pay them outside the Commission, among personal friends who knew Mr. Bickerdyke through sons, husbands, and brothers. They believed she should be sustained in her wonderful work, even though she were a little irregular in her proceedings.
The ladies of the city and country were continually sending Mrs. Bickerdyke boxes of clothing for her own use. In her life of hard work, her clothes were soon worn out; and as she never had time to bestow on herself, she was greatly in need of such kindnesses. Reserving for herself a few articles of which she had imperative need, she would take the remainder of the garments in her ambulance to the Southern women in the neighboring country, and peddle them for honey, fruit, milk, eggs, and butter, of which she never could have too much.
Among the articles sent her at one time were two very elegant long night-dresses, embroidered, and trimmed with ruffles and lace. They were the gift of very dear friends; and she had some scruples about bartering them away as she did other garments. Returning with the "plunder" she had received in exchange for her superfluous clothing, she crossed a railroad track, on which stood a train of box cars. Stopping the ambulance, she began to explore them, according to her usual custom. Inside of one were two wounded soldiers going home on furlough. Their unhealed wounds were undressed, and full of vermin; they were weak for lack of food, were depressed and discouraged, and in all respects were in, a very sorry plight.
"Humph! " said Mother Bickerdyke; "now I see what them furbelowed night-gowns were sent down here for. The Lord meant I should put 'em to a good use, after all."
The wounds of the poor fellows were washed and cleansed. Tearing off bandages from the bottom of the night-dresses, she properly dressed and bandaged them. Socks, and drawers, and handkerchiefs were found in the ambulance; but she was entirely destitute of shirts. A happy thought came to her.
"Here, boys," she said; "put on the upper half of these night-gowns; they're just the thing. My sakes! but this is lucky!
But to this the men decidedly objected. "They would wear the dirty, tattered shirts, that had not been changed in two months, rather than go home in a woman's night-gown!"
"Oh, pshaw, boys! don't be fools!" persisted practical Mother Bickerdyke. "Night gowns, or night shirts; what's the odds? These will be softer to your wounds; and Heaven knows they're enough sight cleaner. Put 'em on, and wear 'em home. If anybody says anything, tell them you've jerked 'em from the secesh, and the folks will think a heap sight more of you for it."
The men were persuaded, and got into the nondescript garments. In passing through Chicago, they halted for a brief rest at the Soldiers' Home, where, when, their wounds were dressed, their outré shirts were discovered, marked in indelible ink, with Mrs. Bickerdyke's name. We offered to exchange them for genuine hospital shirts; but the men had had such sport already, that they clung to the abbreviated night-gowns, one of which is to-day preserved in a Wisconsin household as a sacred relic.
As the Savannah hospitals were vacated by the transfer of the men farther North, Mother Bickerdyke, still keeping in the immediate rear of the army, was sent to Farmington. Here was one large hospital, of which she was appointed matron. The wounded of the battle of Iuka were brought here, and those disabled in various skirmishes. Here for the two months of July and August, amid incessant alarms from the enemy, Mother Bickerdyke stood at her post, personally superintending the cooking, washing, and nursing of some thousands of sink and wounded men. The hospitals were then removed to Corinth, where the elevated ground gave promise of a healthier situation, and the defences of the town ' secured perfect safety.
"On the second day of the fight (Corinth) to her horror her hospital came within range of the enemy's artillery and the fearful missiles of death fell with fatal precision among her helpless men."
Hardly were the hospitals in running order again, hardly had Mother Bickerdyke again extemporized her laundry and diet kitchens, before the battle of Corinth was fought. On the second day of the fight, to her horror, her hospital came within range of the enemy's artillery, and the fearful missiles of death fell with fatal precision among her helpless men. There was no alternative but to remove the poor fellows again. Worn out with the heat and her unparalleled labors, while shot and shell, and grape and canister were dealing death around her, she bent her energies to this unaccustomed work. They were removed to a beautiful grove within the range of the hostile guns, where shot and shell passed harmlessly over them. After the battle, they were carried back to their hospitals.
This battle greatly increased the labors of Mother Bickerdyke. She had learned how to take care of men brought in from the battle-field, and was always prepared with soups, tea, coffee, milk punch, stimulants, rags, bandages, and whatever else might, be needed. The rebel wounded fell into her hands, and, bitterly as our heroine hated the "secesh," all the bitterness died out of her heart when the wounded in gray uniforms were left to her tender mercies. She became mother to them, as to the boys in blue. Her work was arduous beyond description. Had she been contented to perform her work as a matter of routine, it would have been easy for her, but this would not suffice her great heart and conscientious nature. Her work was never done. If anything could be suggested to save a man who was dying, to soothe, or inspire, encourage, or strengthen a patient who was anxious or disheartened, her work was not done until this was accomplished. Nowhere in her department was there neglect or suffering, misrule or waste.
Orders had been given to bring the wounded lying in tents into her large hospital, as fast as there was room for them. At last she was informed that the tents were all vacated. With her habit of seeing for herself if the work was done, she went from tent to tent, examining them. Turning from one, she thought she saw a movement under a heap of blankets in a corner. She raised the nauseous, fly-covered blanket, and there lay a man, still breathing, but hardly alive. He had been shot through both cheeks, a part of his tongue had been cut off, which was swollen to bursting in his mouth, and the left shoulder and leg were broken. How long he had been forgotten, no one could tell; but the flies had rioted in his wounds, and he was in a most lamentable condition. He was brought on a stretcher immediately to her hospital, when she devoted herself to his restoration, fighting grim death inch by inch, hour by hour, until she came off conqueror, and the man recovered. He is living to-day, and is proud to call Mother Bickerdyke his savior. It was something to witness the tempest that burst over the heads of the men who had been commissioned to remove the wounded, and had passed by this poor fellow. Mother Bickerdyke was merciless on such an occasion, and flashed such lightnings of wrath on the offenders as to astonish them into speechlessness. Nothing so aroused her as carelessness, or neglect of the helpless, the sick, or the wounded. She would work day and night herself, to relieve suffering, and she was impatient, even to severity, to witness indifference or neglect on the part of others. Her only thought was to help the poor soldiers; and she did this in a way that secured the favor of man, and the approbation of Heaven.
THRILLING INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF MOTHER BICKERDYKE---HER HOSPITAL EXPERIENCES---HER FIRST FURLOUGH---RETURN TO THE FRONT---FIGHTING THE DOCTORS---A COW-AND-HEN EXPEDITION.
She is much worn down---Extremely Perilous to remain longer without Rest---Her Health demands a Respite from her Labors for a Time---Comes to my House on her Furlough---Attends a Wedding---"Have enjoyed your Wedding as if it were a Prayer-Meeting!"---Calls Meetings to raise Supplies---Returns to the Front, organizes and regenerates Hospitals---Re-organizes her Laundries in Memphis---Quarrels with the Medical Director---Outgenerals him---"One of us two goes to the Wall, and 'taint never me! "---The Storm finally ends in Sunshine---They become Friends---He sends her North on a Cow-and-Hen Expedition---Returns with a hundred Cows, and a thousand hens---Improved Condition of the Hospitals---Confided in everywhere---Impatient of Red Tape---Cared little for Sect, but much for the Comfort of the Soldiers.
N November, 1862, Mrs. Bickerdyke was compelled, for the first time, to take a furlough. She was thoroughly worn out, although she would not admit it, and was as indomitable in will, and as Herculean in energy, as at the first. But the medical director and the surgeons under whose immediate direction she was then working, and who were noble men and her personal friends, saw that she had reached a point of nervous exhaustion when it was extremely perilous for her to remain longer at her post. They compelled her to take a furlough. She came direct to Chicago, and, as I had requested, to my house. I was not at home when she arrived, but returned that evening. "Norwegian Martha," who had presided in my kitchen for years, and who had never before seen Mother Bickerdyke, informed me of the new arrival in characteristic style.
"Another one more of them nurse woman have come with some carpet-bag," Martha said. (The nurses sent by the Commission into the service had made my house a sort of headquarters as they passed through the city, a proceeding greatly disapproved by Martha.) "This one have no afraid to do anything, and have make herself to take a bath, and have put herself to bed till supper time. She say she have very many hundred miles rode, and very many all-shot-up"---shot to pieces---" soldiers to take care of, and she be got awful tired, and, poor woman, she look seek (sick). But she have make me to think of my poor mother, what make herself to die in Norway with so much work too hard, before to this country I come. I like this nurse woman what have come more than the rest that stayed away." The influence of Mother Bickerdyke's great maternal heart was felt everywhere.
After tea, I accompanied my family to the wedding of a friend, which was solemnized in a church nearby. Wearied as Mother Bickerdyke was, she insisted on making one of the company. She believed it would rest her to see the inside of a meeting-house; it was a sight that had not blessed her eyes for eighteen months, she said. It was an intensely tedious ceremony; for the old clergyman who officiated at the marriage added to a very long prayer, a Scripture reading and a full half-hour's exhortation to good living, with directions for accomplishing it, which he counted off, firstly, secondly, thirdly, and so on. It was a sermon, in fact. After the marriage, the newly wedded halted for a few moments in the church parlor, to take leave of their friends, as they were to proceed directly to the train, en route for the distant city of their future residence. Mother Bickerdyke was introduced, at her request; for she had learned that the young husband held the rank of major in one of the Illinois regiments.
"My dear," said our motherly heroine in a naïve way to the bride, "I have enjoyed your wedding very much; it has done me as much good as a prayer-meeting. I am very much refreshed by it." (She had slept through the interminable service.) "I am sure you will make your husband a good wife, for you have got the face of a good girl; and I hope you and he will live together a good many years. If he gets wounded in battle, and falls into my hands, I will try to take good care of him for you."
"Why, Mother Bickerdyke! God bless you! I am glad to see you!" burst out the bridegroom, with a mighty welcome. "You have already taken care of me. After the battle of Donelson I was brought up on one of the boats filled with wounded men, and you took care of me, as you did of the rest, like a mother. Don't you remember a lieutenant who had a minie-ball in his leg; and the doctors wanted to amputate the leg, and he fought against their doing it, and how you helped him keep it? I am the man. Here's the old leg, good as new. I have been promoted since." But she could not recall his case among the thousands more seriously wounded whom she had since carefully nursed.
This one wedding, attended on the first evening of her arrival, was the only recreation of her furlough. The very next morning she set herself to work to stimulate the increase of supplies, which were called for now in greater quantities than ever. A meeting of the ladies of the city was called in Bryan Hall, and to them the earnest woman made so eloquent an appeal, backed by such thrilling statements, that they consecrated themselves anew to the work of relieving our brave men. She pursued the same course at Milwaukee, Springfield, Galesburg, Aurora, and many other cities. With many of the leading men of these cities she held interviews, when her devotion, common sense, pathos, pluck, and energy, so secured their confidence, and aroused their sympathy, that they made large donations to the Sanitary Commission, to be repeated quarterly while the war continued.
Rested and recuperated, and having placed her two sons at boarding-school where she could feel easy about them, she reported to the medical director at Memphis, as she had been ordered, in January, 1863. Immense hospitals were being organized in that city, which was also being made a base of military and medical supplies. She was first set to organizing the Adams Block Hospital, and, that completed, she was sent to Fort Pickering to re-organize the "Small-pox Hospital." There had been great neglect here; and the loathsome place had been left uncared for until it was fouler and more noisome than an Augean stable. But Mother Bickerdyke was just the Hercules to cleanse it. She raised such a hurricane about the ears of the officials whose neglect had caused its terrible condition, as took the heads from some of them, and sent back to their regiments several private soldiers who had been detailed as nurses.
The storm she raised left the atmosphere and premises sweeter than she found them. The walls were whitewashed, the kitchens regenerated, so that the patients could have the diet necessary to them, and both they and their beds were supplied with fresh clothing. Disinfectants were used with a lavish hand, and then, leaving a matron in charge who was an abridged edition of herself, she went to the Gayoso Hospital, to organize and take charge of that.
In the meantime she organized anew her huge laundries, in which was performed all the washing of the Memphis hospitals, even when there were eight and ten thousand patients in them. Washing-machines, wringers, caldrons, mangles, and any other needed laundry machinery, were sent her by the Sanitary Commission. Her old apparatus had been destroyed at Holly Springs, Miss., when that point was captured by the enemy, through the incompetence of Colonel Murphy, of the Eighth Wisconsin.
About one million dollars' worth of ordnance, subsistence, and quartermasters' stores belonging to Grant's army was destroyed at Holly Springs at the time of its capture; and so also was a splendidly furnished depot of sanitary stores.
It was some time before the medical authorities at Memphis were able to understand Mother Bickerdyke. There was perfect harmony between the military authorities and herself; and she readily obtained from them any co-operation she desired. As her work increased, she asked for details of more and more contrabands, and rations for them, until, when I went down to Memphis, in the spring of 1863, there were from fifty to seventy men and women in her employ. General Grant had given her a pass anywhere within the lines of his department, into all camps and hospitals, past all pickets, with authority to draw on any quartermaster in his department for army wagons to transport sanitary or hospital stores. This pass, enlarged as his department extended, she held until the end of the war.
The Sanitary Commission authorized her to draw on its depot of stores at Memphis, Cairo, or Chicago, for anything needed for the boys. She was never refused by the Indianapolis, Cincinnati, or St. Louis Commissions. Indeed, the St. Louis Commission supplied her as if she were its own accredited agent; and Mr. Yeatmen, its president, was ever one of her best friends and wisest counsellors. All this power, and authority, and opulence of relief, enlarged her sphere of action, and made her a very important personage in Memphis. She never, in a single instance, abused the trust reposed in her, but, with rigorous and terrible conscientiousness, devoted all she had and was to the cure and comfort of the soldiers in hospital, without favoritism or partiality.
With the medical authorities she was for a time at variance. The medical director at Memphis was a young man belonging to the regular army---able, industrious, skilful, and punctilious. He wished Mrs. Bickerdyke to revolve in an orbit he marked out for her---to recognize him as the head, and never to go beyond him, or outside him, for assistance or authority. Moreover, he was a Catholic, and naturally gave the preference to the excellent "Sisters of Mercy" as nurses; nor was he backward in publicly expressing his preference. He disapproved of Mrs. Bickerdyke's laundry; chiefly, it seemed, because he had not organized it. He did not approve of her contraband help, nor of her possessing so much power; nor, if the truth must be told, of Mother Bickerdyke herself. He could not see any excellence in a woman who worked with her own hands, who held no social position, who was as indifferent to the Queen's English as to his red tape, who cared little for the Catholic, but very much for the Congregationalist Church, and who did what she wished, when and as she wished, without consulting him, the medical director.
Mrs. Bickerdyke cared little for what he said or thought, if he did not meddle with her; for she was no more in love with the medical director than he was with her. He inspected her hospital regularly, and never found fault with it; for its perfect management defied criticism. Once, in passing through a ward, he espied some half-dozen eggs under a sick man's pillow. The man was recovering from a fever, and had a great craving for food, that could not be allowed him in his weak condition. Especially, he coveted boiled eggs; and, as the poor fellow was very babyish, Mrs. Bickerdyke had petted him in her motherly way, and tucked half a dozen hardboiled eggs under his pillow, telling him he should have them to eat when he was well enough. The sick man found a vast deal of comfort in fondling the eggs with his hands. I have seen men in hospitals handling half a dozen potatoes under their pillows in the same way. The medical director espied the eggs, and ordered them to the 'kitchen', declaring "he would have no hens' nests under the pillows." The man was just weak enough to cry miserably over his loss; and the nurse in charge hastened to report the story to Mother Bickerdyke.
If any unnecessary offence came to her boys, woe to him through whom it came. She would have "shown fight" to Secretary Stanton himself, if he had been the offender. Catching up a large pail filled with eggs, she strode into the ward, her blue eyes blazing, her cheeks glowing: "Dr. -----, will you tell me what harm it does to humor a sick man in an innocent fancy? Let this boy have the eggs where he can see them. There, John, there's a whole pailful of eggs," pushing them under his bed; "and you may keep them there until they hatch, if you've a mind to." And she strode out again. The doctor chose not to hear, and the boy's eggs were not meddled with again.
A few days after, on her return from her regular visit to the Small-pox Hospital, she found that the blow which had been impending had fallen. The medical director had left a written order that all the contrabands detailed to her service should be sent to the contraband camp by nine o'clock the next morning, the hour for hospital inspection. It was night when she returned and received the order, and it was raining hard. Going to the door, she recalled the departing ambulance.
"Here, Andy," she said to the driver, you and I must have some supper, these mules must be fed, and then we must go to General Hurlburt's headquarters. I'll see if these darkies are going to be sent to the contraband camp. If Dr. ----- is going to be ugly, he'll find two can play at that game, and a woman is better at it than a man." The negroes stood around, with comically doleful faces, like so many statues in ebony. They liked Mother, Bickerdyke and the hospital, and they hated the camp with its forlornness.
"When's we gwine from dis yer hospittle?" they inquired.
"When I tell you to, and not before!" was her laconic answer. "Get yourself ready, Mary Livermore, to go with me!"
I protested against her taking this drive; for the streets had been torn up by the enemy before the city was surrendered, there was no gas, and no street lights, we had not the countersign, the rain poured in torrents, and the project was fraught with danger. She silenced me, "Oh, we'll leave you behind, if you're such a coward; but Andy and I'll go, safe or not safe!" Knowing that I had more prudence than she, I finally accompanied them.
Through the pouring rain, over broken and excavated streets, not a glimmer of light anywhere, save from the one lantern of the ambulance, halted at every few paces by the challenge of the closely set guards,---for Memphis, though conquered, was still a rebellious city, ---Mother Bickerdyke and I toiled on to the headquarters of the Post Commander. By and by, we met the officer of the night, making the grand rounds, and he gave us the countersign. Then we proceeded a little more comfortably.
It was hard work to get access to the Commander, for he was in bed. But at last her importunity prevailed, and she was conducted to his presence. She told her story honestly, and with straightforwardness, and asked for written authority to keep her detailed contrabands until he, General Hurlburt, should revoke the order. It was granted; and back through the rain we rode, Mother Bickerdyke triumphant.
The next morning, at nine, the medical director made his appearance at the Gayoso Hospital, according to appointment. The negroes were all at their work in the kitchen, in the laundry, in the wards, everywhere, as if no order had been given for their dismissal. He came to the kitchen, where Mother Bickerdyke was making soup.
"Mrs. Bickerdyke, did you receive an order I left for you Saturday morning?"
"I did, sir!" continuing to season and taste her soup.
"An order for the dismissal of these black people to their camp?"
"I expected it to be obeyed!" in a positive tone of voice.
"I suppose so, sir!" very nonchalant in manner.
"And why has it not been?" in a louder tone, and with rising anger, menace in his eyes, and a flush of wrath on his cheek.
"Because, sir," turning and facing him," General Hurlburt has given me an order to keep 'em here until he dismisses them; and, as General Hurlburt happens to outrank you, he must be obeyed before you." And putting her hand in her pocket, she produced General Hurlburt's order.
There was a storm. The doctor was vulgarly angry, and raved in a manner that was very damaging to his dignity. He threatened all sorts of dreadfui things, and wound up by telling Mother Bickerdyke that "he would not have her in Memphis "---that "he would send her home before she was a week older."
"But I sha'n't go, doctor!" she answered. "I've come down here to stay, and I mean to stay until this thing is played out. I've enlisted for the war, as the boys have, and they want me and need me, and can't get on without me; and so I shall stay, doctor, and you'll have to make up your mind to get along with me the best way you can. It's of no use for you to try to tie me up with your red tape. There's too much to be done down here to stop for that. Nor is there any sense in your getting mad because I don't play second fiddle to you; for I tell you I haven't got time for it. And, doctor, I guess you hadn't better get into a row with me, for whenever anybody does one of us two always goes to the wall, and 'tain't never me!"
The doctor had a keen sense of the ridiculous, and Mother Bickerdyke's novel method of pacification amused him when he got over his short-lived anger. He was really a very superior officer; but like many another clever man he was dominated by the inborn belief that all women were to play "second fiddle" to him. He had the good sense to appreciate blunt Mother Bickerdyke's excellences, and when mutual friends entered on the work of pacification they were successful.
Turning to her one day, in a threatening way, but half jocularly, he said, "Take care, madam; your turn to go to the wall may come yet!" "May be so!" was her brief answer; and then she went on with her work. From being at disagreement, they finally came to a perfect understanding, and by and by became the best of friends.
A week after, I was in her hospital about noon, when the wardmaster of the fourth story came to the kitchen, to tell her that the surgeon of that ward had not made his appearance, the special diet list for the ward had not yet been made out, and the men were suffering for their breakfasts.
"Haven't had their breakfasts! Why did'nt you tell me of this sooner? Here, stop! The poor fellows must be fed immediately." And filling enormous tin pails and trays with coffee, soup, gruel, toast, and other like food, she sent half a dozen men ahead with them. Extending to me a six-gallon pail of hot soup, she bade me follow her, being freighted herself with a pail of similar size in each hand. I stood looking on at the distribution, when her clarion voice rang out to me in tones of authority; "Come, make yourself alive, Mary Livermore! Try to be useful! Help these men!" I never knew any one who deliberately disregarded her orders---I had no thought but to obey---and so I sat down to feed a man who was too weak to help himself.
While we were all busy, the surgeon of the ward came in, looking as if he had just risen from sleeping off a night's debauch. Instantly there was a change in the tones of Mother Bickerdyke's voice, and in the expression of her face. She was no longer a tender, pitying, sympathizing mother, but Alecto herself.
"You miserable, drunken, heartless scalawag!" shaking her finger and head at him threateningly, "What do you mean by leaving these fainting, suffering men to go until noon with nothing to eat, and no attention? Not a word, sir!" as he undertook to make an explanation. "Off with your shoulderstraps, and get out of this hospital! I'll have them off in three days, sir! This is your fourth spree in a month, and you shall go where you belong. Off with your shoulder-straps, I tell you, for they've got to go." She was as good as her threat, for in less than a week she had made such charges against him that he was dismissed the service, and that by the very medical director with whom she had had weeks' wrangling. The dismissed surgeon went to General Sherman to complain of the injustice done him. "He had been grossly belied, and foul charges had been made against him, which he could prove false," was his declaration. "Who was your accuser?" asked General Sherman; "who made the charges?" "Why---why---I suppose," said the surgeon reluctantly, "it was that spiteful old woman, Mrs. Bickerdyke." "Oh, well, then," said Sherman, "if it was she, I can't help you. She has more power than I ---she ranks me."
It was more difficult to supply the hospitals with milk and eggs than with any other necessaries. With the supplies furnished by government, the tea, coffee, sugar, flour, meat, and other like articles, which were usually of good quality, Mother Bickerdyke could work miracles in the culinary line, even when there was a lack of sanitary stores, if she could only have an abundant supply of milk and eggs. But these were very difficult to obtain. They could not be sent from the North, and they could not be purchased in sufficiently large quantities to supply the enormous demand. In the enemy's country, where the hospitals were located, their prices were exorbitant beyond belief. Mother Bickerdyke hit upon a plan to remedy these difficulties. When the medical director came into her hospital one morning, on a tour of inspection, she accosted him thus:--
"Dr.---do you know we are paying these Memphis secesh fifty cents for every quart of milk we use? And do you know it's such poor stuff, two thirds chalk and water,---that if you should pour it into the trough of a respectable pig at home, he would turn up his nose, and run off, squealing in disgust?"
"Well, what can we do about it?" asked the doctor, between whom and herself there was now an excellent understanding.
"If you'll give me thirty days' furlough and transportation, I'll go home, and get all the milk and eggs that the Memphis hospitals can use."
"Get milk and eggs! Why, you could not bring them down here, if the North would give you all it has. A barrel of eggs would spoil, this warm weather, before it could reach us; and how on earth could you bring milk?
"But I'll bring down the milk and egg producers. I'll get cows and hens, and we'll have milk and eggs of our own. The folks at home, doctor, will give us all the hens and cows we need for the use of these hospitals, and jump at the chance to do it. You needn't laugh, nor shake your head! " as he turned away, amused and incredulous. "I tell you, the people at the North ache to do something for the boys down here, and I can get fifty cows in Illinois alone for just the asking."
"Pshaw! pshaw! "said the doctor, "you would be laughed at from one end of the country to the other, if you should go on so wild an errand."
"Fiddlesticks! Who cares for that? Give me a furlough and transportation, and let me try it!"
So she came North again, and did not stop until she reached St. Louis. She was escorted as far as that city by several hundred cripples, "every one of whom had lost either a leg or an arm." These she saw placed in hospitals, and then came on to Chicago. She secured the cows with little difficulty. Jacob Strawn, of Jacksonville, one of the wealthy farmers of Illinois, with a few of his neighbors, gave the hundred cows without delay. They were sent to Springfield, Ill.,---whence Governor Yates had promised they should be shipped to Memphis,---in herds of fifteen or twenty, with some one in charge of each detachment, to take care of the animals.
The hens were sent to the rooms of the Commission in Chicago. In a week after the call, our building was transformed into a huge hennery, and all the workers therein were completely driven out. The din of crowing, cackling, and quarrelling was inbearable; and, as the weather was warm, the odor was yet more insupportable. The fowls were despatched to Memphis in four shipments, in coops containing about two dozen each.
Before her thirty days' leave of absence was ended, Mother Bickerdyke was on the return route to her hospital, forming a part of a bizarre procession of over one hundred cows and one thousand hens, strung all along the road from Chicago to Memphis. She entered the city in triumph, amid immense lowing and crowing and cackling. She informed the astonished Memphians that, "These are loyal cows and hens; none of your miserable trash that give chalk and water for milk, and lay loud-smelling eggs."
General Hurlburt, who was then at the head of the department, hearing of this novel immigration within his lines, gave up to the noisy new-comers President's Island, lying in the Mississippi opposite Memphis, a stretch of land so elevated that it is above the highest stage of water. Contrabands were detailed to take charge of them; and as long as Mrs. Bickerdyke remained in Memphis there was abundance of milk and eggs for the use of the hospitals.
Mrs. Bickerdyke remained at Memphis till after the fall of Vicksburg. During the siege of that defiant stronghold, she went again and again to the hospitals, a little beyond the reach of the guns,---taking lemons, ice, condensed milk, and portable lemonade. She always left the heroic sufferers more cheerful and comfortable, in their stifling little coops of temporary hospitals, for the good cheer of her visit. After the fall of Vicksburg, she remained at that point, and at Jackson, Miss., until the hospitals were nearly emptied of their severely wounded or sick men. No one ever worked more heroically, unselfishly and untiringly, than did this large-hearted woman for the welfare of sick and suffering soldiers.
MOTHER BICKERDYKE AND GENERAL SHERMAN---A NIGHT OF HORROR---HEROIC EFFORTS TO SAVE THE WOUNDED FROM FREEZING---HEARTRENDING SCENES AND TERRIBLE SUFFERING.
Mother Bickerdyke's Idolatry of General Sherman---She becomes an Attachée of his Corps---Comes to Chicago and does good Work for Soldiers' Families---Goes to Chattanooga after the Battle, and establishes a Hospital---Incredible Exertion to save her Patients from Freezing---Orders Breastworks torn down for Fuel---"All right, Major, I'm arrested! Only don't meddle with me till the Weather moderates! "---General Burnside beleaguered in Knoxville, Tenn.---Sherman marches to his Relief---Fearful Suffering from Cold and short Rations---Horrors of the Return Route to Chattanooga---Railroad from Nashville completed at last---Joyful Welcome of the first Train---All Night in the icy Gale---She ran from Tent to Tent---She encouraged the shivering Soldiers---Her Name mentioned only with Tears.
ENERAL SHERMAN was the beau idéal of Mother Bickerdyke. He was her great man and great soldier. She would always defend General Grant like a tigress if he were assailed; but it was clear to every one that General Sherman was the special object of her idolatry. And to-day I think she would find it easy to give her life for Sherman, if the sacrifice were necessary. She would count it a small thing to die for him. She rates him higher than Grant, higher than Lincoln, and altogether superior as a soldier to Washington or Wellington; and woe to the luckless wight who would dare lower her ideal
General Sherman on his side fully appreciated Mother Bickerdyke; and when he was curt and repellant to all agents, nurses, and employés of the Sanitary, Christian, and State Commissions, she had the entrée to his headquarters, and obtained any favor she chose to ask. There was something in her character akin to his own. Both were restless, impetuous, fiery, hard working, and indomitable. After the fall of Vicksburg, Mother Bickerdyke became a special attachée of his corps, the Fifteenth. Ever after, during the war, she considered herself in a special sense under Sherman's direction; and the soldiers of the Fifteenth Corps have always claimed exclusive ownership of her.
When Sherman went to re-enforce Grant at Chattanooga, she came North, by Sherman's direction, and hastened to the same destination by way of Louisville; but, as Sherman's army was to march from the Big Black, across the enemy's country, to Chattanooga, and she was to go round by railroad and steamboat, she had a few days to spare, and came again to Chicago for a brief visit. Her exploits in supplying Memphis with milk and eggs, as well as the grand accounts of her famous nursing, brought home by furloughed soldiers who were scattered through every town in the Northwest, had given her an enviable notoriety. Everybody wanted to see the good woman, and to aid her personally, or assist in her work. Her arrival in Chicago was announced in the papers, when she was overwhelmed with attentions, which she put aside with the utmost indifference. Invitations to visit towns, cities, and societies, poured in upon her like a flood. Receptions were tendered her, ladies offered to make parties for her, and the invitations to lunch came by dozens. But she declined all, with the stereotyped rebuke "that the country had a big war on its hands, and that this was no time for visiting or frolicking." She made several visits to the families of soldiers whom she had left in hospital, resident in the vicinity of Chicago, always carrying aid and comfort with her.
She found one of these families in great distress and poverty. The husband and father had been in positions for ten months that removed him beyond reach of the paymaster; and his family were in great need of the money which he failed to receive. They were owing six months' house rent; and the landlord, a hard. man, had served a writ, of ejectment upon them, and was preparing to put them summarily into the street. Mother Bickerdyke paid him a visit at his office, and sought to turn him from his purpose with all the peculiar eloquence of which she was mistress. He could not be moved, but scorned her and ordered her from his premises. She rose to go, and, taking a Bible from the shelf, which was never used except to give legality to oaths, she opened to the sixteenth chapter of Luke, and, straining to her full height, with a solemn and almost terrible face, she read these words before an audience of a dozen or more men,--
"'And it came to pass that the beggar died, and was carried by angels into Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried, and in hell---in HELL---HELL,' "---increasing the emphasis each time---"' he lifted up his eyes, being in torments, and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.' You see what you are coming to, sir," she added, "and the time may not be far off. May God have mercy on your mean soul! Goodbye." Then the resolute woman sought another house for the soldier's family, and rested not in her humane work until she had raised the money to pay the rent six months in advance.
Her visits always stirred us up at the North. Whenever she needed an extra quantity of sanitary stores, she would write us word to "stir up the aid societies as with a big spoon." And this work was effectually accomplished by one of her visits. Her detailed account of the work done in ministering to our sick and wounded men, the methods employed, together with a recital of events in which she had participated, would quicken our flagging spirits, and incite us all to new labor and sacrifice.
Hardly was the battle of Chattanooga fought, when Mother Bickerdyke was established at the base of Mission Ridge, in a field hospital. Here she was the only woman at work for nearly six weeks. In the very midst of the din and smoke of the carnage, she began to receive the wounded and exhausted, until very nearly two thousand of the worst cases were assigned to her nursing. Never did she render more valuable service. The Sanitary Commission had pushed through from Louisville, with immense trains of wagons, heavily loaded with supplies, and had bountifully provided Mother Bickerdyke with the stores most needed after the battle. The railroad running from Nashville, badly built, with poor material, and for light travel, had been used up long before. But as Chattanooga was to be the base of the army for some time, another road was necessary for heavy army-use, and this was now in process of construction. Everything, therefore, needed for the army,---rations and clothing for the men, provender for the horses and mules, hospital supplies for the wounded and sick,---was hauled through in army wagons, while this work was being done.
No pen can depict, and no tongue narrate the sufferings, hardships, and privations of our brave men in southern and eastern Tennessee, during the months of November, December, and January, of 1863 and 1864. Hunger and cold, famine and nakedness were their inseparable companions. Horses and mules starved also, ten thousand animals starving at Chattanooga. The reproachful whinnying complaints of the famishing beasts wrung the hearts of the soldiers, even when they were slowly dying themselves from lack of food.
Mother Bickerdyke's field hospital was on the edge of a forest, five miles from Chattanooga. The weather was as arctic as in New England in the same season. Men were detailed to fell the trees---and pile log heaps, which were kept continually burning, to warm the camps and hospitals. These log fires were her only means of cooking; nor could any other be hoped for until the railroad was completed. By these log fires Mother Bickerdyke, with her aids, contrabands, or convalescent soldiers, did all the cooking for her two thousand patients. Here she made tea and coffee, soup and toast. Here she broiled beef and mutton without a gridiron. Here she baked bread by a process of her own invention, blistering her fingers while doing it, and burning her clothing. A dress which she wore at this time came into my hands, and was kept at the rooms of the Commission for some time as a curiosity. It was burned so full of holes that it would hardly hang together when held up. It looked as if grape and canister had played hide-and-seek through it.
"The boys were all the time putting me out," she said, meaning her dress; "and a dozen of 'em were grabbing me whenever I was cooking by the log fires; for the fire would snap, and my clothes would catch, but I couldn't tell where." After a time men were detailed to tear down some of the store-houses, with the lumber of which they put bunks into other similar buildings, and these served as hospitals. With bricks from the demolished chimneys the men constructed ovens of her design, more convenient for the baking of bread. In one of her foraging expeditions she came across huge potash kettles, and an abandoned mill, where was plenty of flour, cattle, and sheep, which had belonged to General Bragg's discomfited army. All these were laid under contribution for the camp and the hospital.
The last day of the year 1863 was one of memorable coldness, as were the first few days of the year 1864. The rigor of the weather in Chicago at that time actually suspended all outdoor business, and laid an embargo on travel in the streets. It was even severer weather in Mother Bickerdyke's location; for the icy winds swept down Lookout Mountain, where they were re-enforced by currents of air that tore through the valleys of Mission Ridge, creating a furious arctic hurricane that overturned the hospital tents in which the most badly wounded men were located. It hurled the partially recovered patients out into the pouring rain, that became glare-ice as it touched the earth, breaking anew their healing bones, and chilling their attenuated frames with the piercing mountain gale.
The rain fell in torrents in the mountains, and poured down their sides so furiously and suddenly that it made a great flood in the valleys at their base. Before the intense cold could stiffen the headlong current into ice, it swept out into the swollen creeks several of the feeblest of the men under single hospital tents; and they were drowned. Night set in intensely cold, for which the badly fitted up hospitals were wholly unprepared.
All that night Mother Bickerdyke worked like a Titan, to save her bloodless, feeble patients from being frozen to death. There were several hundred in hospital tents---all wounded men--all bad cases. The fires were piled higher and higher with logs, new fires were kindled which came nearly to the tents, until they were surrounded by a cordon of immense pyres, that roared and crackled in the stinging atmosphere. But before midnight the fuel gave out. To send men out into the forests to cut more, in the darkness and awful coldness, seemed barbarous. The surgeon in charge dared not order them out, and it is doubtful if the order could have been obeyed had it been given. "We must try and pull through until morning," he said, "for nothing can he done to-night." And he retired to his own quarters, in a helpless mood of mind.
Mother Bickerdyke was equal to the emergency. With her usual disdain of red tape, she appealed to the Pioneer Corps to take their mules, axes, hooks, and chains, and tear down the breastworks near them, made of logs with earth thrown up against them. They were of no value, having served their purpose during the campaign. Nevertheless, an order for their demolition was necessary if they were to be destroyed. There was no officer of sufficiently high rank present to dare give this order; but, after she had refreshed the shivering men with a cup or two of panado, composed of hot water, sugar, crackers, and whiskey, they went to work at her suggestion, without orders from officers. They knew, as did she, that on the continuance of the huge fires through the night, depended the lives of hundreds of their wounded comrades; for there was no bedding for the tents, only a blanket or two for each wounded suffering man.
The men of the corps set to work tearing down the breastworks, and hauling the logs to the fierce fires, while Mother Bickerdyke ordered half a dozen barrels of meal to be broken open, and mixed with warm water, for their mules. Immense caldrons of hot drinks were renewedly made under her direction hot coffee, panado, and other nourishing potables; and layers of hot bricks were put around every wounded and sick man of the entire fifteen hundred as he lay in his cot. From tent to tent she ran all the night in the icy gale, hot bricks in one hand, and hot drinks in the other, cheering, warming, and encouraging the poor shivering fellows.
Suddenly there was a great cry of horror; and, looking in the direction whence it proceeded, she saw thirteen ambulances filled with wounded men, who had been started for her hospital from Ringgold, in the morning, by order of the authorities. It had become necessary to break up the small outlying post hospitals, and concentrate at Chattanooga. These had been delayed by the rain and the, gale, and for hours had been travelling in the darkness and unparalleled coldness, both mules and drivers being nearly exhausted and frozen. On opening the ambulances, what a spectacle met Mother Bickerdyke's, eyes! They were filled with wounded men nearly chilled to death. The hands of one were frozen like marble. The feet of another, the face of another, the bowels of a fourth, who afterwards died. Every bandage had stiffened into ice. The kegs of water had become solid crystal; and the men, who were past complaining, almost past suffering, were dropping into the sleep that ends in death. The surgeons of the hospital were all at work through the night with Mrs. Bickerdyke, and came promptly to the relief of these poor men, hardly one of whom escaped amputation of frozen limbs from that night's fearful ride.
As the night was breaking into the cold gray day, the officer in command of the post was informed of Mother Bickerdyke's unauthorized exploits. He hastened down where the demolished breastworks were being rapidly devoured by the fierce flames. He took in the situation immediately, and evidently saw the necessity and wisdom of the course she had pursued. But it was his business to preserve order and maintain discipline; and so he made a show of arresting the irregular proceeding. By no mere order of his could this be done. Not until day-dawn, when they could go safely into the woods .to cut fuel, were the men disposed to abate their raid on the breastworks, which had served their purpose of defence against the enemy weeks before.
"Madam, consider yourself under arrest!" was the Major's address to ubiquitous Mother Bickerdyke.
To which she replied, as she flew past him with hot bricks and hot drinks, "All right, Major! I'm arrested! Only don't meddle with me till the weather moderates; for my men will freeze to death, if you do!"
A story got in circulation that she was put in the guard-house by the Major; but this was not true. There was some little official hubbub over her night's exploits, but she defended herself to the officers who reproved her, with this indisputable statement, "It's lucky for you, old fellows, that I did what I did. For if I hadn't, hundreds of men in the hospital tents would have frozen to death. No one at the North would have blamed me, but there would have been such a hullabaloo about your heads for allowing it to happen, that you would have lost them, whether or no." Some of the officers stood boldly by her, openly declaring that she had done right, and advised her to pursue the same course again, under the same circumstances. This was needless advice, as she would assuredly have done so.
The men for whom she labored so indefatigably could mention her name only with tears and benedictions. And those in camp manifested their approval of her by hailing her with three times three deafening hurrahs whenever she appeared among them, until, annoyed, she begged them "for Heaven's sake to stop their nonsense, and shut up!"
Every form of suffering came at once that winter, in that section of Tennessee. While the inclement weather was at its worst, the men were suffering from short rations, consequent on their distance from the base of supplies, and the lack of railroad communication. They were in the enemy's country, which had been stripped and. peeled for the sustenance of their own troops. It was impossible to keep the large army in that vicinity fully supplied, until the railroad from Nashville was completed and that was being pushed forward with all possible despatch. Whole brigades were called out to receive as their daily rations three ears of corn to a man, while the horses and mules were served more generously. For the famished beasts had not the spirit of the American soldiers to keep them alive, whether well fed, or not. And yet so wild with hunger were many of the men, that a guard stood over the animals while they were feeding, to protect them from the pilfering of the soldiers---and this did not always restrain them.
In the meantime General Burnside, in command of the Ninth and Twenty-third Corps, had crossed the mountains to Eastern Tennessee. Leaving behind his commissary wagons, and subsisting his army on such poor rations as came in their way, avoiding the safe and. travelled routes, which were strongly defended by the rebel army, he moved so secretly and. rapidly that his approach was not even suspected. The rebel troops were panic-stricken at the appearance of the Union forces, and fled in dismay, leaving behind them in Knoxville a large quantity of quartermaster's stores. So confident was General Bragg of his ability to manage the army under Grant and Sherman at Chattanooga, that he sent Longstreet with his division to recapture Knoxville, of which General Burnside had taken possession. It was the only instance during the war when the Union forces sustained a siege. For three weeks Burnside and his men were locked up in Knoxville, enduring the pangs of hunger, expecting hourly the assaults of the enemy, and ignorant of the fate of the army at Chattanooga.
At last, Burnside managed to send a despatch to General Grant, saying that his supplies would not last a week, and asking for help. Knoxville was ninety miles distant, and to reach it in time to save Burnside would require heavy marching. When Sherman received the order to go to his relief he said: "Seven days before, we left our camps on the other side of the Tennessee with two days' rations, without a change of clothing, stripped for the fight, with but a single blanket or coat per man, from myself to the private, included. We have no provisions but what we have gathered by the road, and are ill-supplied for such a march; but fifteen thousand of our fellow-soldiers are beleaguered in the mountain town of Knoxville; they need relief, and must have it in three days. That is enough, and it shall be done!"
His tired troops cheerfully consented to follow their leader on this long march, and started that night. They pressed forward rapidly, at great cost of men and animals, determined to accomplish their errand. But their rapid approach, flushed with victory, was sufficient to drive off the besiegers from Knoxville; and, when they had seen Longstreet decamp with his tatterdemalion troops, they turned and marched back to Chattanooga.
Many of them were in a deplorable condition; for, when the Fifteenth Corps started from the Big Black under General Sherman to re-enforce General Grant, they were clad in summer clothes, light blouses, poor shoes, and thin garments. No distribution of clothing was made to them before they started for Knoxville; for all army supplies were waiting the transportation of the not yet completed railroad. Their insufficient garments were worn out with hard service; and, shivering in summer rags in frigid midwinter, with the smallest amount of food that would keep body and soul together, with worn out shoes, and bruised feet, they came back over the mountains, sometimes tracking their path in blood. No banners waved over them, no martial music inspired them; not even such cheer was theirs as comes from a march in serried columns, where each man seeks to help his comrade onward.
But in squads of twenty, thirty, or fifty,---now in large companies, and then in smaller groups,---sometimes singly and alone,---the weary, famished, shivering, footsore conquerors painfully made their way back. Many sank on the march, and left their bones to bleach on the mountains. Others were so spent with fatigue that they reached Chattanooga only to die. Some live, testimonies to the hardships of that winter, utterly broken in constitution, and doomed to invalidism for the remainder of a reluctant life.
As the poor fellows trooped into Mother Bickerdyke's hospital, she had little to offer them, save sympathy and kind words. She, brave woman, was on short rations with the rest, and often gave up her meagre allowance of food to some wistful, weary soldier less able to fast than herself. But she supplied them with warm water for their swollen and bleeding feet, which had been wrapped by the men in the cut-off skirts of their blouses, on the return march. Sometimes the cloth had festered into the wounded feet, and it required careful nursing to save them from amputation. She taxed her ingenuity to make much out of the little they possessed, and concocted outré soups of unusual materials, for which no cook-book has ever given receipts.
Nothing that she did was amiss with them; and the singular preparations of food which she sometimes furnished them from an almost empty larder, were devoured with the keenest relish. "When I get home, boys," she used to tell the men, jocularly, "I shall publish a starvation cook-book, containing receipts for making delicious dishes out of nothing." If any one could prepare such a manual, Mother Bickerdyke is that person.
At last, as the winter was ending, the railroad was completed. One day, when the gloom hung deepest over camp and hospital, a distant and not very distinct sound, as of a steam whistle, aroused the attention of the long-enduring men. Hospital patients sat up, hushed, voiceless, listening for its repetition. It came presently; and as the train rounded the curve to the station, the grateful sound of a long, loud, shrill blast from the whistle of the locomotive smote their ears. It was pleasanter music than any instrument of sweetest note could make.
One mighty shout from camp and hospital answered it; and then a tide of blue-coated humanity surged down to welcome the incoming train. That long-expected train signified to them food, clothing, warmth, comfort, communication with the far-off homes, from which no tidings had reached them for months. They were not forgotten---the long-silent North was reaching down to them with hundred-handed bounty.
Up sprang the maimed from their cots, and reached for their rough crutches. Up slowly crept the feeble who had thought themselves done with life, and had turned their faces heavenward. Men who could not walk were led along between those who were stronger, or sometimes borne on the backs of the strongest. And as they saw the long, loaded train halt in their midst, they went wild with joy. They cheered the railroad---the train---the North---the food that had come---the barrels of "Boston crackers," speedily unloaded for them. They patted the giant locomotive, and caressed it as though it were a pet horse. And when three times three cheers were proposed for home, men who were dying, and whose last breath exhaled from their lips a few minutes later, threw up their white wasted hands, and their lips moved in wordless sympathy with the great roar of shouts from manly throats.