Mary Safford was 'Cairo's Angel' to Illinois soldiers

Posted Online: Oct. 26, 2013, 5:23 pm
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By Tom Emery
The Civil War, like the rest of the 19th century, was a male-dominated era, but some women managed to stand out. One was Mary Safford, who became "Cairo's Angel" to wounded and ill soldiers in that southern Illinois outpost.

The most famous battlefield angel of Illinois was "Mother" Mary Ann Bickerdyke, of Galesburg, and rightfully so. But Safford worked tirelessly at her side, and the two women forged a close relationship, despite their differences in personality.

Safford was born in Vermont on Dec. 31, 1834, and her family moved to Crete, near Chicago, when she was 3. Her father died in 1848, followed by her mother's passing a year later. Safford returned to Vermont for schooling and spent a year after graduation studying French near Montreal. She then lived with a family of an educated German to study that language as well.

Safford later returned to Illinois and lived with a brother, successively residing in Joliet and Shawneetown before moving to Cairo in 1858. Her new city became strategically important to the Illinois war effort, and she drew upon her earlier care-giving experiences to serve as a volunteer nurse in the Cairo hospitals.

Safford soon became a daily fixture in the hospitals under Bickerdyke, an older, physically stronger woman who handled the worst of the work. The fragile Safford performed lighter duties, such as changing bed linens, spoon-feeding the incapacitated, reading aloud and writing letters home. The assertive Bickerdyke and the demure Safford quickly built a deep mutual respect, and each spoke highly of the other.

One onlooker wrote of Safford's "sweet, young face, full of benevolence, pleasant voice and winning manner (that) instate her in everyone's heart. Every sick and wounded soldier in Cairo knows and loves her, and as she enters the ward, every pale face brightens at her approach. She is performing a noble work ... in the quietest and most unconscious manner."

Safford also used her multilingual talents to converse with immigrant soldiers in their native tongues. She frequently fulfilled soldiers' requests for special meal items and treats, and she provided magazines, newspapers, games and handicrafts to help patients pass their time. On Christmas Day 1861, each ill soldier in every hospital received a small gift from Safford.

On her own volition, Safford traveled to the Belmont battlefield in November 1861 to move wounded men and accidentally was fired upon by Southern forces. She protected herself by tying her handkerchief to a stick as a "white flag."

She also worked endlessly to care for the battlefield wounded at Fort Donelson, but the fragile Safford eventually drove herself to exhaustion and was forced to return to Cairo. After a month of rest, she returned to help the numerous wounded men from Shiloh, but her health further declined, causing a more severe breakdown.

To regain her strength, Safford was sent on an extended tour of Europe, not returning until 1866. Not surprisingly, she later pursued a career in medicine, graduating from the New York Medical College for Women in 1869 before a period of surgical training in Vienna.

She later practiced in Chicago and taught at the Boston University School of Medicine before moving to Tarpon Springs, Fla., with her two adopted daughters. There, she lived with her brother, Anson, a two-term territorial governor of Arizona. Safford became one of the first female doctors in the state of Florida and was an active proponent of women's issues before and after her retirement in 1886. She died on Dec. 8, 1891.

Though overshadowed by Mother Bickerdyke, the story of the remarkable Mary Safford remains one of the most inspiring tales of the Civil War in Illinois.

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and researcher who lives in Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or


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