It’s no secret that the general public’s grasp of American history is imperfect at best. For reasons both malevolent and unintentional, countless figures and their roles in pivotal events have been erased from America’s rich cultural heritage, to our great collective loss. For instance, a quick search for lists of the most successful Veteran-Founded startups or companies reveals monochromatic lists of men, when the reality of our Veterans’ entrepreneurial history is so much more diverse. 

The Veteran Entrepreneurs of American History series of blog posts aims to bring forgotten or unsung legacies within the history of our specific entrepreneurial community back into our collective memories, spotlighting Veteran and military spouse entrepreneurs throughout history. We hope to connect you to the rich legacy of America’s past Veteran and military spouse entrepreneurs. We also hope to inspire you with their stories of success in the face of overwhelming adversity.   

Women Veteran Entrepreneurs (Civil War) 

This March, America celebrates Women’s History Month, recognizing the contributions of women throughout American history. With that in mind, we’d like to talk about Mary J. Safford, a woman who served as a nurse during the Civil War, and went on after the war to launch three private practices. She’s one of many Veteran entrepreneurs whose stories have gone largely unsung by mainstream America.  

Mary J. Safford (1834-1891) 

Mary J Safford Headshots

Mary Jane Safford was born to a farming family in Hyde Park, Vermont on December 31st, 1834, the youngest of five children. She was a descendent of Thomas Safford, who left England in 1630 to help found the Massachusetts Bay Colony. At three years of age, her family moved to Crete, Illinois by covered wagon. Crete was a new town founded by fellow Vermonters Willard and Dyantha Wood a year earlier just 30 miles south of what is now downtown Chicago, newly incorporated as a city the year Safford arrived.  

Mary’s parents died when she was still a small child, and she returned to Vermont to stay with extended family. They sent her to an all-girls academy in Bakersfield, Vermont, until she graduated and moved to Canada. There, she worked as a governess and learned to speak German and French with fluency. She was under-sized, and often described later by fellow agents of the Sanitary Commission “as petite and frail as a girl of 12 summers, utterly unaccustomed to hardship”.  

By the 1850s, she moved back to the states with one of her older brothers in Joliet, Illinois, and found work as a schoolteacher. Her brother was a wealthy banker, and Mary enjoyed a privileged lifestyle. She moved with him from Joliet to Shawneetown, Illinois, and finally Cairo, Illinois in 1858 at the age of 24. It’s likely his bank was among the investors in the third attempt to establish a town there, this latest involving several banks and a promise of an Illinois Central Railroad station.  

Cairo Angel 

Cairo, Mississippi Map

Cairo, Illinois sits at the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, the two largest rivers in the United States, and near the borders of five other states (Missouri, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee). This made Cairo a critical staging area for Union soldiers and supplies destined for Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, and even Alabama. They might have come from as far as Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, or Minnesota, floating downriver toward Cairo.  

The soldiers started arriving in April of 1861, alongside the first shots of the conflict that month in South Carolina at Fort Sumter. Thousands of troops were housed in tents and makeshift sheds serving as barracks along dirt roads with no sanitation. It didn’t take much rain for the roads to turn into swampy avenues of fever and disease. Improvised hospitals amounted to piles of damp, moldy straw on the ground.  

It was into this messy situation, just before the institution of “germ theory”, that Mary Safford volunteered as a relief worker. She became known as the “Cairo Angel”, giving aid and comfort to the fevered and ill. While Union officers pushed her away at first, it wasn’t long before she was accepted by Brigadier General Grant and allowed to freely roam the camps and draw from the Sanitary Commission supplies. 

Cairo Civil War

Mother Mary 

By June, “Mother” Mary Ann Bickerdyke arrived in Cairo at the behest of her church, which raised funds to send her with $500 of supplies to set up a real field hospital for the soldiers in Cairo. She also brought her experience as a botanic physician, and knowledge of medicinal uses of herbs and plants. Bickerdyke took a liking to Safford, and took her under her wing, training her as a nurse.  

Battle of Belmont 

Safford’s first taste of combat was November 7th, 1861 at the Battle of Belmont, Mississippi, just downriver from Cairo. Grant sent just over 3,100 men by riverboat to attack a Confederate outpost on the other side of the Mississippi River. There were just over 600 casualties for the Union, including nearly 400 wounded, 300 of which were ultimately ferried out with Safford back to Cairo. 

Mary Safford literally walked the battlefield, by some accounts during the battle, while others say the day after, identifying herself as a battlefield nurse by waving a white handkerchief tied to a stick. She helped those she could back to safety, and alerted others to the locations of those she couldn’t. She was every bit as determined and steadfast as her mentor, Mary Bickerdyke. She accompanied the wounded all the way back to Cairo, where she stayed to tend them.  

Period View of Safford’s Heroism 

“The morning after the battle of Belmont, found her, the only lady early on the field, fearlessly penetrating far into the enemies’ lines, with her handkerchief tied upon a little stick, and waving above her head as a flag of truce, ministering to the wounded, which our army had been compelled to leave behind, to some extent-and many a Union soldier owes his life to her almost superhuman efforts on that occasion.” L.P. Brockett & Mary C. Vaughn, Excerpt from “Women’s Work in the Civil War”, Published 1867, Battle of Fort Donelson 

Three months later, Safford and Bickerdyke volunteered to serve aboard the hospital ship City of Memphis. It steamed to Fort Donelson in early February, 1862, some 70 miles northwest of Nashville at the Tennessee-Kentucky border along the Cumberland River. Brigadier General Grant oversaw a much larger battle, this time, sending nearly 25,000 soldiers to take the Confederate fort. Grant was victorious, and made famous by the battle, allegedly coining the phrase “unconditional surrender,” and earning a promotion to Major General.  

The battle had far more wounded than Safford’s previous experience at Belmont. Nearly 2,000 Union soldiers were wounded. Safford and Bickerdyke refused to let the hospital ship leave for Cairo until every single bed on the ship had a wounded soldier. When it was full, Mary accompanied the wounded back to Cairo, caring for them and offloading them to the field hospital. She then returned with the ship to Fort Donelson four more times, filling the ship with wounded each time.  

After her fifth trip back to Cairo, IL, after working non-stop for ten days with little-to-no sleep, she suffered an exhaustion-related collapse. She stayed in Cairo at her brother’s home, bed-ridden, for nearly two months to recover. 

Hospital Ships of the Civil War 

The US Sanitary Commission was a private agency during the Civil War that raised funds for hospital care and medical services for the Union Army. It worked closely with the Union Army and even had several hospital ships. The commission outfitted over 20 river steamboats to serve as hospital ships, 5 of which they transferred directly to the US Army, and the rest operated privately. Perhaps the most famous Civil War hospital ship was the Red Rover 

Safford was attached to the hospital ships City of Memphis and Hazel Dell during her time as a nurse. The ‘Memphis’ was typical of hospital ships, and built in 1857. Interestingly enough she once claimed Samuel Clemens (perhaps better known by his pen name, Mark Twain) as a pilot. It was a large side wheeler steamer converted into a hospital ship and transferred to the US Army sometime after Feb 1862.

City of Memphis Hospital Boat  

Battle of Shiloh 

Safford returned to duty April 6, 1862, and again accompanied Bickerdyke, this time aboard the Hospital ship Hazel Dell to Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee. It was a shockingly bloody battle (the bloodiest two days in US military history to that point) the public criticized Major General Grant for at the time, thanks to enormous casualties. However, some scholars now refer to it as the “beginning of the end” of the Confederacy in the west, and “the moment the Union won the western front”, since it enabled Grant to control the Mississippi River Valley, a crucial strategic asset for logistics and resupply.  

Significance of Shiloh 

Winston Groom quote with headshot

The Battle of Shiloh took place over April 6-7 on the Tennessee River just north of the border with Mississippi. Grant’s approximately 63,000 soldiers were encamped when 40,000 Confederate soldiers attacked from Mississippi. Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston was killed in the fighting, a key, beloved figure regarding Confederate offensive hopes in the west.  

The scale of death and suffering was unlike anything America or Safford had ever seen. Over 8,400 Union soldiers were wounded in the battle while 1754 died. Numbers were similar for the Confederates, with nearly 24,000 total casualties. After two days of fighting, Safford again gave a heroic effort, forgoing sleep and comfort to give aid and accompany wounded back to Savannah, Tennessee field hospitals.  

Safford again worked until she suffered another physical breakdown. She was bed-ridden for months before recovering.  

Undiagnosed Chronic Illness? 

As often as Safford is described as “frail” by others, and as often as she required extended bed-ridden periods to recover from over-exertion, it’s not a stretch to imagine she possessed an undiagnosed chronic illness. Getting an official diagnosis remains an unnecessarily challenging journey for women today. Causes like this combine a number of issues Safford was passionate about, and were she alive today, might be one of the causes she was most passionate about championing.  

Life-Affirming Vacation 

At her brother’s urging, Mary Safford accompanied the former governor of Illinois Joel Matteson and his family on a tour of Europe from Summer 1862 through August 1866, sitting out the rest of the Civil War. Safford’s first cousin was married to the governor’s wife’s sister, and her fluency in French and German were believed a major selling point in joining the Matteson family vacation. While in Europe, Mary visited several hospitals. By the time she returned home, she had resolved to become a physician, and enrolled at the New York Medical College and Hospital for Women in 1866 upon her return to the United States. She graduated in 1869.  


Mary Safford graduated from the New York Medical College in 1869, and promptly returned to Europe for three years. There, she continued her studies at several European institutions, including the Vienna General Hospital, University of Breslau, and the University of Heidelberg. In Germany, she performed the first successful ovariotomy (the surgical removal of ovaries) ever performed by a woman on record.  

Medical Education in the 1860s 

It should be noted that medical practices in the United States were in their early stages, still. Leeches were considered a basic tool of modern medicine at the time, alongside opium and cocaine. Anesthetics were a new innovation, but limited to chloroform and ether. Germ theory had not yet risen to prominence. The “four humors” theory of medicine, dating back to 160 AD or so, still dominated the industry, centered on finding balance between blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile.   

Four Humors in Medicine Graphic

The University of Pennsylvania’s Medical School required only two years of schooling to earn the title physician when it opened in 1865. It should be noted, therefore, that Mary Safford’s six years of collegiate and independent studies within institutions across the western world far exceeded the average local physician. Safford was an exceptionally well-educated doctor for her day.  

Private Practice 

In either 1871-1872, she returned home and opened a private practice in Chicago. She was one of the first female gynecologists in the United States. She also taught at the Evanston College for Ladies, which is now part of the prestigious Northwestern University School System. However, her time in Chicago was not to last, as she met and married James Blake in September of that same year. She adopted two children (though it is unclear if they were his or not) and moved with them to Boston. 

Moving to Boston 

The move to Boston made Mary no less industrious. She moved her private practice to Boston’s South End, giving care to impoverished inner-city women and girls. She somehow also found time to serve as a staff doctor at the Massachusetts Homeopathic Hospital. In 1873, she became a founding faculty member at Boston University School of Medicine (the nation’s first co-ed medical school) as professor of women’s diseases. She was one of five women on the faculty alongside Mercy B Jackson and Caroline Hastings. She later served as professor of gynecology from 1878-1886.  

Moving to Florida 

Mary’s brother, Anson Safford, was a former governor of the Arizona Territory, and in 1882 founded Tarpon Springs, a town on the west coast of Florida. Mary immediately began visiting to avoid the Boston winters, and became one of the first woman doctors in the state of Florida.  

Safford partnered with former student Dr. Fidelia Jane Merrick Whitcomb, and together they operated the Tarpon Springs Hotel as a health spa. This marked her third private enterprise. In 1886, at the age of 52, Safford moved to Tarpon Springs to enjoy retirement. Her business partner, Dr. Whitcomb, died in April of 1888. Just over three years later, Mary Safford died in her brother’s home on December 8th, 1891 at just 57 years of age.  

First Wave Feminist 

Image of 4 early feminists

Mary Safford was a member of the First Wave Feminism movement, which advocated primarily for the women’s right to vote, but also spoke to several other issues of the day. First wave feminists broadly cared about improving the lives of women across the nation. This included seeking legal remedies for abusive husbands, and an end to Victorian-era social reforms that legally stole many rights and economic opportunities from married women (unmarried women had it somewhat better).  

The feminist movement had many important personalities during Safford’s day. Anna Howard Shaw and Martha George Ripley were both admirers of her humanitarian efforts in Boston among the poor women and children. Safford also counted Mary Livermore and Alice Stone Blackwell as dear friends, both national feminist figures. It should be noted, however, that Mary Safford’s feminist movement was a very white movement. All too often, women of color were excluded from the conversation, at least until Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” took the nation by storm.  

While Mary Safford wrote on a wide range of feminist issues, spoke at events, and was a member to countless clubs and societies, her largest contribution to the cause was the sheer number of “firsts” she managed to achieve for women in the United States. And what firsts she didn’t accomplish as a woman in the medical field, her friends did. 

Dress Reform Movement

Safford was an ardent supporter of the Dress Reform Movement, which sought change the state of acceptable women’s clothing. Women’s dress at the time was Victorian-influenced, and the Dress Reformers sought to normalize more practical and comfortable women’s clothing. In other words, they wanted women to be able to wear slacks instead of dresses, particularly during work or physical activities, like riding a bicycle. In 1874, Safford lectured on the issue alongside Mercy B Jackson and Caroline Hastings, two co-workers at the Boston University School of Medicine.  

Free Love Movement 

The other big issue Mary Safford spoke on was the Free Love Movement. Most Americans today associate the movement with the 1960s, but the movement began out of a desire to separate the government from marriage and sex. Safford felt, like others in her movement, that such issues were private and not a matter for the state to rule on. While many today associate these beliefs with promiscuity, the original intent was largely to empower women to leave abusive husbands without the additional hurdle of gaining permission from the state. They also meant to ensure children were born to loving parents that desired children.  

Her Legacy Lives On 

There are still unique challenges unjustly facing women entrepreneurs today, regardless of their Veteran status. However, there has been significant progress in the 130 years since the passing of Mary Safford. Many of the social causes Safford dedicated efforts to have advanced and expanded, like the free love movement, and others have been fulfilled, like the women’s right to vote and dress reform (though the relationship between feminism and fashion is always evolving). The sheer number of medical “firsts” Safford owns have helped pave the way for women in the medical field. 

To see what today’s women Veteran and military spouse entrepreneurs are building with Bunker Labs, you can check in with the Transition Podcast and host “Iron” Mike Steadman year-round, or check out some of Mike’s recent interviews with women Veteran entrepreneurs. You can also support the current cohort of Bunker Labs’ Breaking Barriers in Entrepreneurship, a workshop series for growth-stage entrepreneurs from traditionally underserved communities.