Only one woman has ever been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor: Dr. Mary Edwards Walker.
Mary E. Walker, daughter of Alvah and Vesta Walker, was born in 1832 on the family farm in the small town of Oswego, New York. Alvah, an abolitionist and free-thinking man, encouraged education amongst all his children. He built the town’s first school house on his land. Although Alvah was a farmer and carpenter, he was also a self-taught country doctor of sorts, keeping a collection of medical books around his house. This sparked Mary’s interest in medicine.
As a youth, Mary Walker worked on the family farm. With the approval of her parents, she did not wear woman’s clothing as she labored, finding women’s clothes, with their tight corsets, too restrictive and unhealthy. She continued to pursue this notion of women’s dress reform throughout her life.
Walker attended a local elementary school where her mother taught. Walker later taught at the school to earn enough money to pay her way through higher education. She attended Falley Seminary in Fulton New York, for two winter terms (1850-52). After a short stint of teaching in Minetto, New York, she started attending Syracuse Medical College in 1853. This medical school distinguished itself as the first to accept both men and women. She paid her way through school and graduated with a medical degree in 1855. At the age of 21, she was the only female medical doctor in her graduating class. After graduation, she started her own medical practice in Columbus, Ohio; however, society was not yet fully receptive to female doctors. Soon after, in 1856, she married one of her fellow peers from medical school, Albert Miller of Rome, New York. At the marriage ceremony, she wore trousers and a dress coat. She did not mention the words “to obey” in her marriage vows, nor did she take her husband’s name. They practiced medicine together for a few years in Rome. By 1859, Walker and her husband were separated, and she again established her own practice for short time. She also began advocating for social reform and writing for The Sybil, a women’s dress reform newspaper established by Lydia Sayer. Walker’s writing appeared in programs of the Reform-Dress Association, and in 1960, she was elected one of the vice presidents elected at the National Dress Reform Association Convention. While living in Iowa, where Walker briefly attended the Bowen Collegiate Institute, she sought – but was not granted – a divorce decree. It wasn’t until 1869 that she finally obtained a divorce decree in New York. Once the Civil War broke out, Walker went to Washington D.C. to seek an appointment as an Army surgeon. While in the process of seeking this appointment, she temporarily served as an unpaid volunteer Union nurse in the Patent Office Hospital. She also helped organize the Women’s Relief Association, an organization that collected and distributed life-saving supplies such as bandages, blankets, food, clothing and medical supplies. During this time period, she would also took time off for visits to Oswego and to New York City, where she earned a degree from the New York Hygeio-Therapeutic College. Her request for enrollment as an Army doctor was ultimately denied. A woman in trousers who could perform surgery and give medical examinations was no doubt unthinkable to the military leaders. As a result, she volunteered to work, with no compensation, under Dr. J.N. Green as an acting assistant surgeon. As the lone surgeon of the Indiana Hospital, a makeshift infirmary hastily set up inside the unfinished U.S. Patent Office, he readily accepted her help. Green tried to help get Walker formally appointed but was unsuccessful. Walker refused to share Green’s salary.
The Indiana Hospital eventually received additionally doctors, but Walker did not respect all their judgments. At that time, doctors routinely performed amputations for limb compound fractures and serious lacerations. However, over 60% of the solider who received leg amputations at the knee and over 80% of amputations done at the hip resulted in death. Walker observed doctors conducting senseless amputation and she started counseling soldiers against the surgery, when appropriate. Many soldiers later wrote thank you letters to her reporting that their limbs were well healed. In 1862, without any official standing, Walker went into the Virginia battle zone to lend assistance at tent hospitals in Warrenton and Fredericksburg. She designed her own blue uniform with a green sash – an accouterment indicating a battlefield physician. A New York Times article wrote:
“Dressed in male habiliments…she carries herself amid the camp with a jaunty air of dignity well calculated to receive the sincere respect of the soldiers…She can amputate a limb with the skill of an old surgeon, and administer medicine equally as well. Strange to say that, although she has frequently applied for a permanent position in the medical corps, she has never been formally assigned to any particular duty.”
The Tribune also wrote to criticize the military’s reluctance to recognize her contributions, writing:
“What ‘ism’ is more absurd than Conservatism? If a woman is proved competent for duty, and anxious to perform it, why restrain her?”
In 1863, she travelled to Tennessee. After her skills were observed in the Chickamauga Campaign – despite objections of the medical director of the Army of the Cumberland – Walker at last received an appointment as an assistant surgeon to the 52nd Ohio Infantry. She wore a modified version of a male uniform. In 1864, soldiers captured Mary just south of the Georgia-Tennessee border and sent her to the Castle Thunder prison in Richmond, Virginia, a former tobacco warehouse. Food was scarce and rations were maggot-filled at the prison. While there, she complained of improper rations at the prison which resulted in the addition of wheat bread and cabbage for the prisoners. Both the Union and Confederate armies were desperate for doctors. After several months, she was released in exchange for a male physician. She later proudly said that she had been exchanged “man for man” because she had been exchanged for a Confederate Major. Shortly thereafter, she finally received a commission as acting assistant surgeon, becoming the first female surgeon commissioned in the Army. Having now served as s physician as at the Patent Office hospital, and at battle locations including Warrenton, Fredericksburg, Bull Run, Chickamauga, Atlanta and Chattanooga, Walker was sent to Louisville to be the head surgeon at a hospital for women prisoners. She later became the head of an orphanage in Clarkesville, Tennessee. At the conclusion of the war, Walker was awarded a disability pension for partial muscular atrophy suffered while she was imprisoned during the war. She was discharged in 1865. Soon after, Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and George Henry Thomas recommended her for the Medal of Honor, and she accepted the Medal on November 11, 1865. The citation reads:
“Whereas it appears from official reports that Dr. Mary E. Walker, a graduate of medicine, “has rendered valuable service to the Government and her efforts have been earnest and untiring in a variety of ways,” and that she was assigned to duty and served as an assistant surgeon in charge of female prisoners at Louisville, Ky., upon the recommendation of Major Generals Sherman and Thomas, and faithfully served as contract surgeon in the service of the United States, and has devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health, and has also endured hardships as a prisoner of war four months in a Southern prison while acting as contract surgeon; and Whereas by reason of her not being a commissioned officer in the military service, a brevet or honorary rank cannot, under existing laws, be conferred upon her; and Whereas in the opinion of the President an honorable recognition of her services and sufferings should be made: It is ordered, That a testimonial thereof shall be hereby made and given to the said Dr. Mary E. Walker, and that the usual medal of honor for meritorious services be given her. Given under my hand in the city of Washington, D.C., this 11th day of November, A.D. 1865. Andrew Johnson, President.”
After her war service, Walker wrote and lectured on topics on dress reform, women’s rights and temperance issues. She was elected as president of the National Dress Reform Association in 1866. She dressed as a man, including men’s pants, shoes, a top hat and bow tie. In 1866, she helped Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone – a prominent abolitionist, suffragist and organizer – create the Women’s Suffrage Association. For a few years, Walker lived with Belva Lockwood, a soon-to-be attorney who was active in the fight for equal rights for women. The two women jointly promoted various feminist causes, particularly woman suffrage. In 1872, Walker made an effort to vote in Oswego but was unsuccessful. Walker was unrelenting about her right to wear pants and men’s clothing. She was arrested multiple times for impersonating a man. Unfortunately, her eccentricity also started alienating the suffragists. Walker held very progressive beliefs on marriage and divorce and was tolerant regarding religion, but she also believed that the Constitution already granted women the right to vote, rejecting suffragette’s Constitutional Amendment effort as unnecessary. She increasingly became unwelcome at suffrage gatherings, and her influence waned. She stated her views in a 1907 published work entitled “Crowning Constitutional Argument.” She testified before the House of Representatives in the issue of women’s suffrage in 1912 and 1914.
In 1917, after a review of the terms that defined eligibility for the Medal of Honor, Congress rescinded Walker’s medal, along with about 900 others, due to lack of actual combat experience. Walker, however, refused to return the medal and wore it illegally every day until she died. Her health started to decline that same year after a fall on the U.S. Capitol Steps. Dr. Mary Edwards Walker passed away in 1919 at the age of 86. She had a simple funeral and was buried in her family plot in Oswego, New York, where she had been living since 1890. An American flag was draped over her casket. She once said, “Let the generations know that women in uniform also guaranteed their freedom.” Justly, she was buried wearing in a black suit, not in a dress. For many years, friends and family members lobbied to have Walker’s medal reinstated. That finally occurred when President Jimmy Carter posthumously reinstated her award, citing her “distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex.” In 1982, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 20-cent, first-class stamp in commemoration of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. When the U.S. Postal Service issued the stamp, it said in part:
“Dr. Mary Walker was a humanitarian devoted to the care and treatment of the sick and wounded during the Civil War, often at the risk of her own life. A patriot dedicated and loyal to her country, she successfully fought against the sex discrimination of her time. Her personal achievements, as much as her vocal support, significantly contributed to the struggle for women’s rights.”
The lengthy description went on to outline her military achievements. The designer of the stamp, Mrs. Glenora Case Richards, painted Walker’s portrait in watercolors on a piece of old ivory from her personal collection. Unfortunately, the stamp portrays Walker wearing a fancy dress with her hair in curls. Mary Edward Walker and her legacy is honored on a variety of landmarks and institutions. A World War II Liberty Ship was named the S.S. Mary Walker. A medical facility at the State University of New York at Oswego is named in her honor (Mary Walker Health Center). The Mary Walker Clinic at The National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, commemorates her service, and the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington D.C. celebrates her and Walt Whitman, who was both a poet and Civil War nurse. An excerpt from a 1974 letter sent from the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to Walker’s great-grandniece stated, “It’s clear your great-grandaunt was not only courageous during the term she served as a contract doctor [and] as an outspoken proponent of feminine rights. She was much ahead of her time and, as usual, she was not regarded kindly by many of her contemporaries. Today she appears prophetic.”