Dr. Mary Edwards Walker
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker CMH, feminist, abolitionist, Civil War Surgeon, alleged spy, prisoner of war, and the only female Medal Of Honor Recipient of this prestigious award during a time when women’s roles were strictly held down. Throughout her life Mary Walker was surrounded by controversy and criticism. She was born on November 26, 1832, in the town of Oswego, New York into an abolitionist family. Her father, a country doctor, was a freethinking participant in many of the reform movements in the mid-1800s. He believed strongly in education and equality for his five daughters. It was clear in 1855 that at the age of 23 when she graduated from medical school that Walker wasn’t content with the norms of the time. Mary Walker’s advancements of her interests and talents caused resentment and anger toward her throughout her life. Right after the Civil War started in 1861; Walker went to Washington DC and offered her services as a physician with the Army. Dr. Walker’s offer was not accepted; she then filled a volunteer position at Indiana Hospital in Washington DC. Dr. J.N. Green was so desperate for help at this hospital that he ignored her gender. Dr. Walker gained needed experience at this hospital as the first female surgeon in the US Army. Dr. Walker put that experience to use in the war, fulfilling her destiny.
Immediately, Mary found herself near the battle front at Warrenton and Fredericksburg, Virginia volunteering as a nurse. It wasn’t until after the first Bull Run Battle that she could utilize her many skills as a doctor. Mary worked ceaselessly receiving only a tent and food for her efforts. Without a commission, Dr. Walker lacked the recognition and voice regarding the frequency of amputations conducted by the Army physicians. Her comments irritated her fellow colleagues and did little to improve her quest for a commission.
In the fall of 1864 Dr. Walker was appointed as Assistant Surgeon for the Ohio 52nd Infantry. She was assigned to care for female prisoners. Without regard for her own safety Dr. Walker traveled to where she was needed paying little attention to battle lines between the Union and the Confederate territory. On April 10 of that year after assisting with a Confederate soldier’s amputation she was captured and imprisoned and starved in a filthy prison in Richmond Virginia for five months. She was released in a POW exchange on August 12, 1864; as a result of her incarceration she suffered vision problems which hindered her efforts of practicing medicine. On her release from prison Mary Walker accepted a position of acting Assistant Surgeon with the Army. She was not popular with the patient’s or the prison officials because of her dress and attitude. The Confederate women prisoners who believed that women should not be doctors were offended by the pants and full knee-length tunic Walker wore.
On November 11, 1865 President Johnson, on the recommendation of Generals Sherman and Thomas, awarded her the Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service. She is the only woman ever to receive The Medal Of Honor, her Country’s highest military award.
Dr. Mary Walker wore her MOH each day for the rest of her life. In 1917 her MOH was rescinded when Congress revised the standards to include “Actual Combat with an enemy. Dr. Walker refused to give her Medal of Honor back and wore it until her death in 1919.
In 1977 her medal was reinstated citing her “distinguished gallantry, self- sacrifice, Patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex.
This is from Army DoD News: