Women in war


by Melissa Calhoun, Infobahn Outfitters, Inc.Women in Illinois were affected by six wars during the first one hundred years of Illinois statehood:

  • Black Hawk War of 1832
  • Mormon War of 1846
  • Mexican War, 1846-1848
  • American Civil War, 1861-1865
  • Spanish-American War of 1898
  • World War I, 1917-1918

War of 1812. Although the war occurred prior to statehood, the war influenced settlement of 3.5 million acres in western Illinois. The land between the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers became military bounty for veterans of the War of 1812.

Black Hawk War. The War placed the Sauk and Fox Indians against volunteer soldiers. The Illinois militia (including Capt. Abraham Lincoln) drove the Sauk and Fox from Illinois. The war was of short duration and affected primarily the Sauk and Fox and residents in the area of the conflict.

Mormon War. The War was the culmination of unrest between Mormons and non-Mormons in Hancock County. Many felt Mormon leader Joseph Smith had too much political and potentially military control. In 1844, Smith was assassinated while imprisoned at the jail in Carthage. His death had a significant effect the lives of his wife Emma Hale Smith and the other Mormon women. Subsequently, militia from Hancock County and surrounding counties drove thousands of Mormons from Nauvoo. The Mormons began the migratation across the Great Plains to Utah. Many Mormons perished during the journey west.

Civil War. Illinois’ 250,000 soldiers equaled 10 to 15% of the state’s population. Wounds and disease took their toll and many never returned. Virtually every woman’s husband, father, son, or boyfriend became a soldier. Illinois was an amalgum of northerners and southerners, and many families were divided by the issues. Sarah Withers of Bloomington was one example. Another is Mary Todd Lincoln. Her husband was President of the Union, while her brothers fought for the Confederacy.

The war left women to do the work of the men gone to war. Many regiments left home with a silk flag made by local women. Boxes and letters from home eased the dullness of a soldier’s life. The Ladies Union Aid Society and the Western Sanitary Commission supplied the troops with critical supplies of clothing and food. Many Illinois women nursed wounded and ill soldiers. Mother Bickerdyke of Galesburg, Aunt Lizzie of Peoria and Louisa Maertz of Quincy and many others served in the field hospitals. The only woman to earn a Congressional Medal of Honor was Dr. Mary E. Walker, who tended soldiers and served four months in a southern prison. Some traveled to visit wounded husbands. Mrs. Carter Van Vleck of Macomb reached Atlanta in time to see Colonel Van Vleck of the 78th Illinois Infantry for the last time and arrange for his body to be returned home. Many were not so fortunate.

Women were officially banned from serving as soldiers. That ban didn’t stop Jennie Hodgers. Disguised as a male named Albert Cashier, she served with the 95th Illinois Volunteers for 3 years. Cashier collected a pension until 1911 when medical examination following an accident revealed the secret identity. Albert/Jennie was not alone. Some estimates claim as many as 400 women served as soldiers and as many as 60 women were killed or wounded in battle during the Civil War.

World War I. Between 1900 and 1910, the Army and Navy each developed Nurse Corps, opening the way for women’s official service in the military. In 1917, U.S. women were admitted for the first time at full rank and military status into the Navy and Marines. Approximately 34,000 women served, primarily in clerical positions and as nurses. Women were unlikely to enter disguised as men due to the required physical examinations.


  1. Efflandt, Lloyd H. (1991) Lincoln and the Black Hawk War. Rock Island Arsenal Historical Society, Rock Island, Illinois.
  2. Hallwas, John E. (1990) Macomb: A Pictorial History. G. Bradley Publishing, Inc., St. Louis, Missouri.
  3. Hicken, Victor. (1991) Illinois in the Civil War University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Illinois.
  4. Launius, Roger D. and John E. Hallwas, eds. (1996) Kingdom on the Mississippi Revisted: Nauvoo in Mormon History. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Illinois.

Mother Bickerdyke, 1817-1901


Mary Ann Ball was born in Knox County, Ohio in 1817. By 1861 after the outbreak of the Civil War, Mary Ann was Mrs. Bickerdyke and was living in Galesburg, Knox County, Illinois. During that first summer of the War, Edward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher) visited Galesburg and spoke at the Congregational Church. The service included the reading of a letter written by a man from Galesburg telling of the poor conditions of the military camp at Cairo, Illinois, where several hundred of Galesburg’s men were stationed.

The congregation prepared to send supplies for the men at Cairo and suggested that Mary Ann Bickerdyke accompany them. Mrs. Bickerdyke was then 44 years old, a widow with two young sons. Mary Ann agreed to take the supplies to Cairo. She devoted the next four years to the cause. It is believed that she ministered to the needs of the wounded in no less than nineteen battles, bettering the lives of the soldiers who gave her the nickname “Mother Bickerdyke”. She gained the respect of Generals Grant and Sherman.

Following the war she returned to Galesburg. Later she traveled through Kansas and California. She was instrumental in obtaining pensions for veterans and for Civil War nurses. By 1901, she had returned to her childhood home in Knox County, Ohio, where died. She was buried in Galesburg. A monument in her honor stands on the lawn of the Courthouse of Knox County, Illinois. Upon the monument is a phrase which exemplifies Mother Bickerdyke’s importance in the Civil War: General Sherman’s quote claiming, “She outranks me.”


  1. Allen, John W. 1968. It happened in southern Illinois. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University.
  2. Baker, Nina Brown. 1952. Cyclone in Calico: The Story of Mary Ann Bickerdyke. Little, Brown, Boston, MA
  3. Cichy, Kelly A., 1986. Women Meet the Challenge in Southern Illinois History. Carbondale, Ill. : Women’s History Week Steering Committee

Below is a more complete article about Mary Ann Bickerdyke’s participation in the war.


from Women of the War, their Heroism and Self-Sacrifice by Frank Moore (1867) S. S. Scranton & Co., Hartford, Conn.Among the many noble women whose names will be forever enshrined with those of the brave defenders of their country, that of Mrs. Byckerdyke, of Illinois, will be held in especial honor. From no merely romantic impulse, but acting from the dictates of her mature sense of duty, she entered the service of the country as a volunteer nurse for its soldiers early in the war, and continued her work of patriotic charity until the war closed. By all those who remain of the armies who conquered their way down the Mississippi, Mrs. Byckerdyke is affectionately and gratefully remembered, as one of the most constant, earnest, determined, and efficient laborers for their health and comfort in the hospital and in the field.

Mrs. Byckerdyke, who is a woman of middle age, commenced her labors for the soldiers in August, 1861, when — at her own solicitation, and because her judgement was confided in — she was sent from Galesburg, Illinois, to Cairo, to ascertain what was needed by the troops stationed there. After ascertaining the condition of affairs there and reporting, her Galesburg friends advised her to remain, which she did, exerting all her energies to remedy the many miseries attending the establishment of a large camp of soldiers, nearly all of whose officers were as ignorant of camp discipline as themselves. When the battle of Belmont sent a large number of the wounded to the Brigade Hospital at Mound City, she went there, and remained until the most of them were sent to their homes.

Returning herself to her home, she barely continued long enough to put her household in order for a more prolonged absence. She had enlisted for the war. At the bloody field of Donelson — where the sufferings of our wounded were most distressing, from the lack of medical attendance and the severity of the weather — she was untiring in her efforts for the poor fellows. She took a prominent part in shipping five boat-loads of wounded men, her kind and motherly care doing more than aught else to save the soldiers from neglect. Hardly through with this severe labor of love, she was in a few days called to Pittsburg Landing, to assist in the care of the immense numbers of wounded men for whom the provisions of the medical department were not half adequate. She stationed herself at Savannah, ten miles below Pittsburg Landing, where the most of our wounded were brought. An incident of her experience while there will illustrate her character better than anything we can say. It was told us by an officer who was at Savannah at the time.

Governor Harvey, of Wisconsin, had been visiting the field of battle, and the hospitals there and at Savannah, to learn what was the condition and what were the wants of the soldiers from his state. He had a small but excellent staff of volunteer surgeons, and ten tons of the best sanitary supplies. He saw every sick and wounded Wisconsin soldier individually, and gave to all the medical attendance and sanitary supplies they needed. Our informant could not restrain the tears as he recalled the kind acts, the cordial and sympathetic greetings of this noble-hearted governor, whose life was so suddenly ended in its prime by a distressing casualty. After his work was through, Governor Harvey met our friend at the Savannah levee, perfectly satisfied that he had done all in his power and happy that he had been permitted to do so much good. He had still five tons of sanitary stores left, and had been in great doubt as to what to do with them. He distrusted the surgeons in charge at Savannah, and finally concluded to turn over the stores to Mrs. Byckerdyke. He had known nothing of her antecedents, and had only seen her while in Savannah. Still, as he told our friend, he observed how efficient she was, with how much business-like regularity she was performing her work, and that honesty, decision, and judgment seemed written on her plain but good-looking face. He would trust her, and no one else.

After the governor’s death, Mrs. Byckerdyke began to suspect that her supplies were diverted to the private uses of a certain surgeon’s mess. She resolved to stop that, and did, in a very summary manner. Going into the tent of this surgeon just before dinner, she discovered on the table a great variety of the jellies, wines, and other comforts belonging to her stores. She at once made a clean sweep of these articles, went straight down to the levee, took a boat to Pittsburg Landing, saw General Grant, and within twenty-four hours had the guilty surgeon under arrest. The surgeons had little disposition to interfere with her or her stores after this example, and the sick and wounded men rejoiced to find that their faithful friend had won so complete a victory.

Occupied all the time of the Corinth campaign with the wounded in the rear of General Halleck’s army, she was put in charge of the Main Hospitals at Corinth, when our force entered that place. While there her indomitable force and determination to serve the soldiers had another trial and another victory. Learning that a brigade was to march through the hospital grounds, and knowing that the soldiers would be nearly exhausted from their long march under a burning sun, she got out her barrels of water which had been brought for the men in hospital, had a corps of her assistants ready with pails and dippers, and gave the soldiers water as they passed through. When the commanding officer came up, Mrs. Byckerdyke asked that the men be halted; but he refused, and, going ahead, ordered his men to march along. At the same time a voice in the rear — that of Mrs. Byckerdyke — was heard giving the reverse order. “Halt!” in very clear tones. The woman’s order was obeyed, and the “Tin Cup Brigade” worked energetically for a few minutes, rejoicing in the triumph of their commander.

At the siege of Vicksburg Mrs. Byckerdyke undertook the difficult task of correcting abuses in the use of distribution of sanitary supplies. The lasting gratitude of the sick and wounded, and the approval of the higher officers in command, attest the fidelity and efficiency with which she executed this trust. She was not at all times a welcome guest to the agents and officers having in charge sanitary supplies. One of these latter applied to headquarters to have a woman removed from his hospital, on the complaint of improper influence. “Who is she?” inquired the general. “A Mrs. Byckerdyke,” replied the major. “O, well,” said the general, “she ranks me; you must apply to President Lincoln.”

After the battles of Mission Ridge and Lookout Mountain she remained in the field thirty days, till the last of the wounded were removed to northern hospitals, working with all her remarkable energy, and with her untiring determination, that the soldiers should be well cared for. On the Atlantic campaign she followed the army with a laundry, and had daily from fifteen hundred to two thousand pieces washed, besides the bandages and rags used in dressing wounds. In addition to this work, which was more than enough for one woman to perform, she superintended the cooking for the field hospitals, and, when the commissary stores failed, supplied the tables from those of the Christian and Sanitary Commisions. To meet emergencies, she has been known to take passage in an afternoon train, ride fifteen miles, get her supplies to the hospital, and have the bread baked and distributed to over a thousand patients the same day, and in proper season.

Perhaps a good idea of the nature and value of the labors of Mrs. Byckerdyke can best be given from an extract of a letter, written from Chattanooga by Mrs. Porter, – another noble laborer for the soldiers, – soon after the battle there. Mrs. Porter says, –

“I reached this place on New Year’s Eve, making the trip of the few miles from Bridgeport to Chattanooga in twenty-four hours. New Year’s morning was very cold. I went immediately to the field hospital, about two miles out of town, where I found Mrs. Byckerdyke hard at work, as usual, endeavoring to comfort the cold suffering sick and wounded. The work done on that day told most happily on the comfort of the poor wounded men.

“The wind came sweeping around Lookout Mountain, and uniting with currents from the valleys of Missionary Ridge, pressed in upon the hospital tents, overturning some, and making the inmates of all tremble with cold and anxious fear. The cold had been preceded by a great rain, which added to the general discomfort. Mrs. Byckerdyke went from tent to tent in the gale, carrying hot bricks and hot drinks, to warm and to cheer the poor fellows. ‘She is a power of good,’ said one soldier. ‘We fared might poor till she came here,’ said another. ‘God bless the Sanitary Commission,’ said a third, ‘for sending women among us!’ The soldiers fully appreciate ‘Mother Byckerdyke,’ — as they call here, – and her work.

“Mrs. Byckerdyke left Vicksburg at the request of General Sherman and other officers of his corps, as they wished to secure her services for the then approaching battle. The field hospital of the Fifteenth (Sherman’s) army corps was situated on the north bank of the Genesee River, on a slope at the base of Missionary Ridge, where, after the battle was over, seventeen hundred of our wounded and exhausted soldiers were brought. Mrs. Byckerdyke reached there before the din and smoke of battle were well over, and before all were brought from the field of blood and carnage. There she remained the only female attendant for four weeks. Never has she rendered more valuable service. Dr. Newberry arrived in Chattanooga with sanitary goods, which Mrs. Byckerdyke had the pleasure of using, as she says, ‘just when and where needed;’ and never were sanitary goods more deeply felt to be good goods. ‘What could we do without them?’ is a question I often hear raised, and answered with a hearty ‘God bless the Sanitary Commission,’ which is now everywhere acknowledged as ‘a great power for good.’

“The field hospital was in a forest, about five miles from Chattanooga; wood was abundant, and the camp was warmed by immense burning ‘log heaps,’ which were the only fireplaces or cooking-stoves of the camp or hospitals. Men were detailed to fell the trees and pile the logs to heat the air, which was very wintry; and beside them Mrs. Byckerdyke made soup and toast, tea and coffee, and broiled mutton, without a gridiron, often blistering her fingers in the process. A house in due time was demolished to make bunks for the worst cases, and the brick from the chimney was converted into an oven, when Mrs. Byckerdyke made bread, yeast having been found in the Chicago boxes, and flour at a neighboring mill, which had furnished flour to secessionists through the war until now. Great multitudes were fed from these rude kitchens. Companies of hungry soldiers were refreshed before those open fireplaces and those ovens.”

We will merely add a few words in conclusion. Mrs. Byckerdyke not only performed a great work in the field, but several times visited the leading cities of the North-west, and by her judicious advice did much to direct aright the enthusiastic patriotism and noble charity of the ladies of that region. They needed no stimulus to effort. Distinguished from the outset of her efforts by her practical good sense, firmness in maintaining the rights of the soldiers, and an unceasing energy, she was soon known among all the western soldiers as one of their best and most faithful friends. In addition to the consciousness of having performed her whole duty, Mrs. Byckerdyke has another reward in the undying gratitude of the thousands of gallant fellows who have received or witnessed her motherly ministrations. May she live long to enjoy both of these rewards for her good deeds.

Auntie Lizzie Aiken from Peoria


A memorial book published in 1906 at the time of her death describes Aunt Lizzie Aiken’s war service: In 1861 Mrs. Aiken was fired with the spirit of her revolutionary sires and offered her services as nurse to Major Niglas, head surgeon of the Sixth Illinois Cavalry, and also known throughout the state as “Gov. Yates’ Legion.”

In November, 1861, the regiment was ordered to Shawneetown and Mrs. Aiken accompanied it. Here “Aunt Lizzie” won her sobriquet. As she passed from cot to cot ministering to the comfort of the suffering soldiers, one of the patients asked Major Niglas: “What shall we call this kind woman?” “You may call her Aunt Lizzie,” answered the surgeon. She was never known by any other name during the entire war.

The winter of 1861 was severe, and accommodations for the soldiers inadequate, giving the nurses, two in number, plenty of work. The number of patients ranged from twenty to eighty every day, and the heroic women worked day and night each taking charge of the hospital for six-hour watches. In January, 1862, “Aunt Lizzie” wrote to a friend as follows:

“Quite a little incident took place yesterday; we, as nurses, were sworn into the United States service. Dr. Niglas tells me I have saved the lives of more than 400 men. I am afraid I hardly deserve the compliment. General Grant, General Sturgis and General Sherman paid us a visit. All join in saying that we excel all other hospitals in being attentive to our sick and in cleanliness. They suggested my going to Cairo. Dr. Niglas spurned the proposition, and I did too. I cannot tell you how well this work suits this restless heart of mine; my great desire to do something to benefit my fellow creatures is gratified in my present occupation.”

Would you know more of the experiences of Aunt Lizzie in the Army? Ask the patriots of 1861 and 1865. They will tell you in broken sentences as they lay upon their cots in the hospitals of Memphis or Paducah, of the tender care that saved their lives or of the pleading prayer that saved their souls. Aunt Lizzie has always been an honored guest and speaker at all of the G. A. R. encampments which she has attended.

Contributing Library:

Peoria Public Library, Peoria, Illinois

Mary Jane Safford, 1834-1891

Mary Jane Safford was born in the state of Vermont in 1834. Her family moved to southern Illinois while she was a child. She earned teaching qualifications and began her career as a teacher near Cairo.

In 1861, the Civil War focused military attention on Cairo and the surrounding area. Cairo, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, was considered of strategic importance because the rivers were a primary means of transportation. The Cairo area became the site of several military hospitals serving wounded soldiers. Mary Jane, along with Mother Bickerdyke and others, nursed wounded soldiers at the hospitals.

Following the war, Mary Jane earned a medical degree and opened a practice in Chicago. Poor health forced her to retire about 1886.


  1. Witter, Evelyn and David R. Collins. 1976. Illinois Women: Born to Serve. Illinos Federation of Women’s Clubs.

Contributing Library:

John A. Logan College

Nursing in the Civil War – Civil War Medicine


This essay about Civil War medicine was possibly written by Fr. Landry Genosky.
[Typewritten, Paper size= 8.5 x 11 inches, standard bond paper]

Contributing Library:

Brenner Library, Quincy University, Quincy, Illinois

Essay on Sisters in the Civil War – Civil War Medicine


This essay was possibly written by Fr. Landry Genosky. Believed to have been written during the Centennial Year of St. Mary’s Hospital, Quincy, Illinois, in 1966.
[Typewritten, Paper size= 8.5 x 11 inches, standard bond paper]


Contributing Library:

Brenner Library, Quincy University, Quincy, Illinois

[Abraham] Lincoln and the Nuns – Civil War Medicine by Ann Tansey


This essay was written by Ann Tansey.
[Typewritten, Paper size= 8.5 x 11 inches, standard bond paper]


Contributing Library:

Brenner Library, Quincy University, Quincy, Illinois

Louisa Maertz

bh000009 Louisa Maertz, 1837-1918, was born in Quincy and lived most of her life in this city. She was considered to be of a “delicate constitution” and yet managed to work in the field hospitals of the Civil War and to travel extensively. She never married and devoted her life to writing and philanthropy. This picture was most likely taken in the early 1890’s. The original is in the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County. She is remembered mostly as a Civil War nurse and the author of “New Method for the Study of English Literature” published in 1879.
bh000011 This photo is of Blessing Hospital, as it originally looked after its 1875 opening. The picture was probably taken in the 1880’s. From 1878, the hospital was run by the Board of Lady Managers with the Board of Trustees (mostly male) making the decisions only about the larger financial picture and the grounds.
bh000013 Miss Maertz was secretary of the Blessing Hospital Board of Lady Managers from 1892-1897. This Board met monthly and at the meetings discussed the funding problems, the cases who requested admission to the hospital, the repairs and equipment needed and applicants for the nursing school. This particular excerpt reads, “Miss Davis made her report. She stated that a second girl was needed [to clean]. She reported two more applicants for the Training School. The meeting adjourned.”
bh000012 This picture of Blessing Hospital includes the addition of 1895. The Maertz Ward was in the lower west side of the new building.
bh000010 This picture of the Maertz Ward of Blessing Hospital was published in the Annual Report of 1898. The Maertz Ward was endowed by Miss Maertz in memory of her father, who died in 1890.
bh000014 This is an excerpt from Miss Maertz’s article, “Midland War Sketches”, published in the Midland Monthly, 3 (1), 1895. She was a published author and had also been written about in the book, Woman’s Work in the Civil War: a Record of Heroism, Patriotism and Patience by L.P. Brockett, published in 1868, and in Chicago Woman’s News, 3 (4), 1894. The article, “Sketch of Louisa Maertz,” by an Old Friend, is about her life, travels, work and writing. By comparing these accounts with her own in Midland Monthly, several facts can be established.Miss Maertz began nursing the wounded and sick just a few months after the war began in 1861 in the hospitals of Quincy and in her home. She was commissioned as an army nurse late in 1862 and went to Helena Arkansas. Brockett says, “…always cheerful and kind, preserving in the midst of a military camp such gentleness, strength and purity of character that all rudeness of speech ceased in her presence, and as she went from room to room she was received with silent benedictions, or an audible ‘God bless you, dear lady,’ from some poor sufferer’s heart.” She traveled with the sick and wounded to the North, went home for a brief recuperation and returned to Vicksburg. It is the diagram of the hospital tents which is shown here from her own article, “Midland War Sketches.” She was the only female nurse. All of the other nurses and cooks were convalescents themselves. Her duties included getting water from the creek, making poultices, preparing special diets. The area was quite hot and damp and malaria was present. Once again she took sick and went home. Three months later she was called “to New Orleans to aid in establishing the Soldier’s Home….” She worked there on into 1864 when she returned home to rest. Her last post was to care for discharged Andersonville prisoners. Miss Maertz was an untrained nurse who saw her work as a service to humanity.


  1. Brockett, L. P. (1868). Woman’s work in the Civil War: A record of heroism, patriotism and patience. Boston: Zeigler, McCurdy & Co.
  2. Kroeter, G. (1996). Quincy women: Ambition, beauty, courage & faith, 1838-1996. Quincy, IL: Author
  3. Maertz, L. (1895). Midland war sketches: IV. Midland Monthly, 3, 79-85.
  4. An Old Friend. (1894). Sketch of Louisa Maertz. Chicago Woman’s News, 3, 1-3.

Contributing Library:

Blessing Health Professions Library, a service of Blessing-Rieman College of Nursing

Photography by Candace McCormick Reed (1818-1900)

When her husband Warren died in April 1858, Candace McCormick Reed was thrown upon her own devices to support her two surviving sons and her elderly mother-in-law. In October of that year she advertised the opening of her Excelsior Picture Gallery at 103 Hampshire Street in Quincy, Illinois. She would be assisted by her sister, Miss Celina McCormick. In the same advertisement Mrs. Reed also offered her services at “plain sewing and stitching.”

Candace McCormick was born in Tennessee in 1818, the same year Illinois was admitted to the Union. Her parents moved to St. Louis the following year. In 1842 she married Warren Reed, a native of Ohio four years her junior. About six years later the Reeds moved to Quincy, Illinois, and opened a daguerreotype gallery on the southeast corner of the square. After her husband’s death Mrs. Reed sold his “stand” and opened her Excelsior Gallery. She continued to raise her children while she found time to assist in the organization of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, an aid society for Civil War soldiers and their families. She served as a nurse in the army hospitals in Nashville, Chattanooga and Vicksburg. After the war she returned to Quincy and continued to operate her gallery. Few studios enjoyed the longevity of Mrs. Reed’s business. She died in Quincy on April 7, 1900.

Her pictures featured here are from the collection of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County, Quincy University, and a number of private collections loaned to the Society for this project. Street scenes, wedding portraits, baby photos, a civil war soldier – all give us a tantalizing view of what life was like for those who came before us. The images include the well known, such as Quincy founder and Illinois Governor John Wood, and the unidentified as in the carte de visite of a man in boxing tights, his hands in tight fists.


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