Mary Edwards Walker
– February 21
) was an American feminist
, alleged spy
, prisoner of war
, and the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor
Early life and education
Mary Walker was born in Oswego
, New York
,in 1832 the daughter of Alvah and Vesta Walker. She was the youngest of five daughters and had one younger brother. Walker worked on her family farm as a kid. She did not wear women's clothing during farm labor, because she considered them too restricting. Her elementary education consisted of going to the local school where her mother taught. As a young woman, she taught at the school to earn enough money to pay her way through Syracuse Medical College, where she graduated as a medical doctor in 1855 as the only woman in her class. She married a fellow medical school student, Albert Miller, and they set up a joint practice in Rome, New York
. The practice did not flourish, as female physicians were generally not trusted or respected at that time.
At the beginning of the American Civil War, she volunteered for the Union Army as a civilian. At first, she was only allowed to practice as a nurse, as the Army had no female surgeons. During this period, she served at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), July 21, 1861 and at the Patent Office Hospital in Washington, D.C. She also worked as an unpaid field surgeon near the Union front lines, including the Battle of Fredericksburg and in Chattanooga after the Battle of Chickamauga. Finally, she was awarded a commission as a "Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)" by the Army of the Cumberland in September, 1863, becoming the first-ever female U.S. Army Surgeon.
Walker was later appointed assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry. During this service, she frequently crossed battle lines, treating civilians. On April 10, 1864, she was captured by Confederate troops and arrested as a spy. She was sent to Richmond and remained there until August 12, 1864 when she was released as part of a prisoner exchange. She went on to serve during the Battle of Atlanta and later as supervisor of a female prison in Louisville, Kentucky, and head of an orphanage in Tennessee.
After the war, she became a writer and lecturer, supporting such issues as health care, temperance
, women's rights
and dress reform for women. She wore men's clothes exclusively for the rest of her life.
Medal of Honor
After the war, Walker was recommended for the Medal of Honor
by Generals William Tecumseh Sherman
and George Henry Thomas
. On November 11
, President Andrew Johnson
signed a bill to present her the medal, specifically for her services at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas).
In 1917, the U.S. Congress, after revising the standards for award of the medal so that it could only be given to those who had been involved in "actual combat with an enemy", revoked more than 900 previously-awarded medals, including that of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker and William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody. Although ordered to return the medal, she refused to do so and continued to wear it until her death.
President Jimmy Carter restored her medal posthumously in 1977.
Attribution and citation
Rank and organization: Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian), U. S. Army. Places and dates: Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861; Patent Office Hospital, Washington, D.C., October 1861; Chattanooga, Tenn., following Battle of Chickomauga, September 1863; Prisoner of War, April 10, 1864-August 12, 1864, Richmond, Va.; Battle of Atlanta, September 1864. Entered service at: Louisville, Ky. Born: 26 November 1832, Oswego County, N.Y.
- 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.
In World War II, a Liberty ship, the SS Mary Walker, was named for her.
In 1982, the U.S. Postal Service issued at 20 cent stamp in her honor.
The medical facilities at SUNY Oswego are named in her honor. On the same grounds a plaque explains her importance in the Oswego community.
There is a United States Army Reserve center named for her in Walker, Michigan.