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A Civil War Nurse’s Memoir: Discerning Women’s Experiences

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Mary Ann Bickerdyke Papers: Civil War activities; Memoir, incomplete draft, image 20

During the U.S. Civil War, despite being excluded from traditional military service, women were able to serve by working in hospitals as nurses and administrators.

This excerpt from a memoir draft written by Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke, a Civil War nurse with the Union armies of generals Grant and Sherman, suggests that working in hospital was a battle in and of itself for women:

Dr. Stearns came in with the a regular Army officer ^from Washington^ to inspect the hospital…He says “Madam what are you doing here we don’t allow women in military hospitals you can be imployed (sic) as a laundress but you can’t be in the wards, I strictly forbid it” Major I said replied “that’s my rank sir” and passed him leaving the and left the room”

Bickerdyke’s response to the officer demonstrates strength and a strong sense of purpose. Yet her work also required a gentler side.  According to Michelle Krowl, a historian in the Library’s Manuscript Division, “thousands of Union soldiers in the Western Theater affectionately called Mary Ann Bickerdyke (1817–1901) ‘Mother’ for the tender maternal care she provided as a nurse and relief worker with the United States Sanitary Commission.”

Mary Ann Bickerdyke Papers: Family correspondence; Bickerdyke, James; To Mary Ann Bickerdyke

Reading correspondence in the collection sheds light on some of the other struggles she faced. For example, to pursue her work, she had to leave behind her own children. Krowl notes that:

Letters between Bickerdyke and her children in the Bickerdyke Papers document the tension this separation occasionally caused between mother and children. ‘I suppose you are very busy and hardly have time to think of the loved ones at home,’ wrote Bickerdyke’s daughter Mary on November 25, 1861. ‘There is not many minutes passes but I think of you wishing you was home or I could see you.’ Son James frequently mentioned in his letters a wish to see his mother, noting on January 7, 1864, that ‘I would walk 5 miles to see you if you was so near.’”

Primary sources such as these letters and diaries offer rich insights into the lives of real people. The fragmented, personal nature of these sources requires careful reading in context and comparison across multiple accounts to glean information and construct understanding. To deepen their understanding of the complex range of experiences and events, students might:

  • Explore other pages of Bickerdyke’s memoir and correspondence;
  • Examine Civil War nurse, and founder of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton’s accounts of her struggle with her own sense of propriety in caring for the wounded;
  • Investigate the story behind the song Be My Mother Till I Die. They might research to find evidence to determine whether the accompanying story was based on an actual incident. Whether or not the story is factual, they might discuss the appeal of spreading the imagery in popular culture of the time.

Leave us a comment to let us know what surprises your students.

Comments (3)

  1. In the library at Washington we have a biography titled Clara and Davie by Patricia Polacco. It is the story of Clara Barton as a young girl.

  2. Such an enjoyable post! I was not familiar with the memoir draft of Bickerdyke, and I had never taken the time to dig into the Clara Barton papers. Thanks for the nudge, Cheryl Lederle!

    In thinking about how a teacher might encourage students to read and interpret the words in these primary sources, I was drawn to the idea of using them in a “found poetry” lesson. The Teachers Page has an excellent Teacher’s Guide for implementing a Found Poetry lesson-

    Below I’ve copied a single example of an excerpt from Clara Barton’s diaries that would lend itself beautifully to a found (or distilled) poem:

    The slight naked chest of a fair-haired lad caught my eye and dropping down beside him, I bent low to draw the remnant of his torn blowse [sic] about him when with a quick cry he threw his left arm across my neck and wept like a child at his mothers knee. I took his head in my hands and held it until his great burst of grief should pass away. “And you don’t know me” he said at length “I am Charley Hamilton who used to carry your satchel home from school.” My faithful pupil – poor Charley! That mangled right arm will never carry a satchel again. -Image 12 and 13 from Clara Barton Papers: Speeches and Writings File, 1849-1947; Speeches and lectures; War lectures, 1860s

    I’m sure students could interpret these texts through dramatic presentations or Readers Theater scripts, too.

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