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When his staff complained about the outspoken, insubordinate female nurse who consistently disregarded the armies red tape and military procedures, Union General William T. Sherman threw up his hands and exclaimed, "she outranks me, I can't do a thing in the world." They were discussing Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke, 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 enlisted men in General Ulysses S. Grant's and then Sherman's army 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?"

Born in Knox County, Ohio, 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, Ill. When a young Union volunteer physician wrote home about the filthy, chaotic military hospitals at Cairo, Ill., 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. 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.