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The Cairo Angel

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posted by Ronald S. Coddington alias Ron Coddington on Sunday 31st of May 2020 02:17:18 AM

Carte de visite by an anonymous photographer. The daylong battle in the fields and woods around the Missouri town of Belmont on November 7, 1861, resulted in a nightmare landscape of carnage and debris. An abandoned Confederate camp burned by federal forces had spread, leaving in its wake charred remains of soldiers. Looted baggage and supplies from the camp lay strewn everywhere, intermixed with discarded weapons, equipment and more bodies of dead and wounded untouched by the flames. In the midst of this wreckage, rescue and recovery efforts were underway. Among the hearty souls who scoured the battleground for survivors was a lone woman holding aloft a makeshift flag of truce fashioned from a stick and handkerchief. Accompanied by a man of color, she distributed supplies to the wounded and made them as comfortable as possible until medical personal arrived to treat them. She was 29-year-old Mary Jane Safford, later known as “The Cairo Angel.” Friend, journalist and woman’s rights advocate Mary A. Livermore described her as being “very frail, petite in figure as a girl of twelve summers, and utterly unaccustomed to hardship.” Yet she possessed a remarkable degree of grit and determination, and an underlying Universalist faith, that fueled her humanitarian instincts. Mary’s base of operations lay a score of miles north in Cairo, Illinois. Located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in the southernmost tip of the state, the town was flanked by Missouri and Kentucky. Both had significant populations of pro-slavery secessionists, and their adherence to the Union was an open question. Cairo’s strategic value attracted federal army and navy forces. The first soldiers were ordered in shortly after the surrender of Fort Sumter, and more than 12,000 troops were quartered in the area by June 1861. Mary acted on her own initiative, without organizational support, to establish nursing and hospital care for the rapidly growing soldier population. She was a one-woman relief agency. According to Livermore. “She commenced her labors immediately when Cairo was occupied by our troops. If she was not the first woman in the country to enter upon hospital and camp relief, she was certainly the first in the West. There was no system, no organization, no knowledge of what to do, and no means with which to work. As far as possible she brought order out of chaos, systematized the first rude hospitals, and with her own means, aided by a wealthy brother, furnished necessaries, when they could be obtained in no other way.” The hospitals were crude, but functional. The brother who helped fund Mary’s effort was Abner, a prosperous Cairo banker. Another brother, Anson, a politically-active businessman in California, went on the become governor of Arizona territory. All three had relocated from their birthplace in Hyde Park, Vermont, to Crete, Illinois, in the late 1830s with their parents for a fresh start as farmers in the burgeoning Midwest. The children went their separate ways after the death of their parents in 1848 and 1849. Anson struck out for the Gold Rush in California. Mary returned to New England for her education, lived in Canada for a time, and eventually returned to Illinois and joined her brother Abner in Cairo. Meanwhile, word of the crude conditions in Cairo spread. On June 8, 1861, another indomitable woman responded. Mary Ann Bickerdyke, a 44-year-old widow 17 years Mary’s senior, arrived on the scene with medical knowledge and considerable organizational skills. Bickerdyke systematized the hospital, first with funds provided by concerned citizens in her hometown of Galesburg, Illinois, and later under the auspices of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. The relief organization was legislated by the federal government ten days after Bickerdyke showed up in Cairo. Bickerdyke learned of Mary’s efforts upon her arrival. She sought out Mary, introduced herself, and began a new and lasting friendship. The women worked side by side, though Bickerdyke was the dominant personality. Bickerdyke also collaborated with the senior Union officer in the area, an obscure brigadier general named Ulysses S. Grant, with whom she formed a working relationship that spanned the war. Previous to the arrival of Grant and Bickerdyke, Mary, who had her own success facing up to surgeons and officers initially hostile to her involvement, also befriended Grant. Bickerdyke helped develop Mary’s innate abilities into a proper nurse. Livermore, accompanied her on rounds one day. As they entered the first hospital, she observed her Mary’s routine with patients. “It would be difficult to imagine a more cheery vision than her kindly presence, or a sweeter sound than her educated, tender voice, as she moved from bed to bed, speaking to each one.” Mary carried a basket with her on these visits, and from it produced writing paper and ink, newspapers, books, crafting supplies and other items requested by the bedridden men on earlier visits and carefully recorded by her in a memorandum book. Livermore continued, “One hospital thoroughly visited, Miss Safford departed, leaving it full of sunshine, despite its rudeness and discomforts, and hastened home, rejoining me in a short time in ‘Hospital No. 2,’ with a fresh installment of baskets and goodies—and so on through the whole number. The visiting done for that day, she hurried home with her filled memorandum book, in which had been noted the wants and wishes for the next day, and began anew the marketing, purchasing, cooking, packing, and arranging.” Mary made trips to surrounding camps as well. Her journey to Belmont in November 1861 marked the first time she encountered the wounded from a major battle. A few months later, in February 1862, Gen. Grant’s successful capture of Fort Donelson, Tennessee, resulted in thousands of wounded and prompted relief efforts. According to one account, Mary and Bickerdyke leapt into action within hours of the victory. They boarded steamers hastily outfitted as hospital ships and in company with other nurses, surgeons and others traveled up the Cumberland River to care for the injured. “Mary Safford made five trips to Donelson with the boats, standing in the snow, her slight form whipped by the wind, directing men who with pick and axe pried and hacked the wounded out of the mud into which they had frozen fast.” The relentless pace of these events, followed by long days in the Cairo hospitals and a brief stint on the transport City of Memphis, drove Mary to the brink of collapse. Her health began to fail and she retired to her brother’s home to recuperate. She returned in time to participate in relief efforts following the Battle of Pittsburgh Landing, or Shiloh, on April 6-7, 1862. Livermore recounted how Mary came to receive her nom de guerre: “She was hailed by dying soldiers who did not know her name, but had seen her at Cairo, as the ‘Cairo Angel.’ She came up with boat-load after boat-load of sick and wounded soldiers who were taken to hospitals at Cairo, Paducah, St. Louis, etc., cooking all the while for them, dressing wounds, singing to them, and praying with them. She did not undress on the way up from Pittsburgh Landing, but worked incessantly.” Shiloh proved to be her last battle. Her health already compromised, she suffered a complete breakdown that confined her to bed for months. In the summer of 1862, at the urging of her brother, she embarked on a tour of Europe to recover her health. Mary came home in the autumn of 1866. The following year, she entered the New York Medical College for Women and graduated with a homeopathic degree in 1869. She then returned to Europe to study surgery. Upon her return to America in 1872, she joined the faculty of the Boston University School of Medicine as a professor of gynecology. Like other leading women of her time, she embraced a reformist agenda. Mary supported the suffrage movement, campaigned against heavy dresses and tight lacing as a health hazard and embraced a radical doctrine of free love. She was also active in the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, an organization founded to help needy working-class women and children of Boston. In 1886, Mary’s health began to fail and prompted her retirement. She moved to Tarpon Springs, Florida, where she passed away in 1891. She was 56 years old. She was survived by two young girls she had adopted and her ex-husband, Gorham Blake, to whom she was married from 1872-1880. Mary’s early passing was not a surprise to those who knew her, as her health had been generally frail since the war. Still, her death was met with sorrow. Her hometown newspaper observed, “Years came and went, leaving their traces in her face; but through it all shone ever the light of love, the cheery spirit that never knew defeat.” NOTE: The book referenced on the mount of this image, "Heroines of the Civil War" published by N.C. Miller, does not appear to have been published by this name. I encourage you to use this image for educational purposes only. However, please ask for permission.



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  • Published 07.01.22
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