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Mary Edwards Walker: The Only Female to Have Been Awarded the Medal of Honor

Readmikenow enjoys writing about unique and interesting people. He likes to learn about individuals who live or have lived unusual lives.

Mary Walker with Medal of Honor

Mary Walker with Medal of Honor

Mary Edwards Walker earned a medical degree in 1855. She attended Syracuse Medical College in New York. After graduating, she was married and began practicing medicine.

When the Civil War started, she volunteered to serve in a Union Army Hospital in Washington, D.C. Because Walker was a female, she was considered unfit for duty by the Union Examining Board. She was told she could serve as a nurse. Walker initially refused but did agree to volunteer for the Union Army as a civilian surgeon.

Early Years

Mary Edwards Walker was born on November 26, 1832, in Oswego, New York. Her mother's name was Vesta and her father's name was Alvah. She was the youngest of seven children. Walker was raised by parents in a non-traditional home. It promoted her independent spirit. The Walker family was known for being free thinkers who regularly questioned restrictions and regulations. Mary Walker worked on the family farm and refused to wear traditional women's clothing when working. Walker's mother supported her decision.

Education

Walker's parents believed their daughters should be just as well educated as their sons. Her elementary education involved going to a school in the local area that had been started by her parents. After primary school, Walker and her sisters attended Falley Seminary. It was located in Fulton, New York. It was a school that emphasized reform of gender roles in society. Mary was determined to defy the traditional beliefs about women. As a young woman, Walker taught school in Minetto, New York. During this time, she saved enough money to pay for her education at Syracuse Medical College. She completed the course of study to become a doctor and graduated with honors. She was the only woman in the graduating class of 1855.

Mary Walker after finishing medical school

Mary Walker after finishing medical school

Marriage

After graduating from medical school, Walker married Albert Miller. He was a fellow medical school student. At their wedding ceremony, Walker wore a short skirt and had trousers on underneath it. She would not have the word “obey” in her wedding vows. Walker also kept her maiden name after the marriage. She was recognized for her nonconformity. Soon after their marriage, Walker and her husband moved to Rome, New York. They set up a joint medical practice. It did not do well. This was a time when female physicians were not very respected or trusted. Walker and her husband soon divorced because of her husband's extra-marital affairs.

Civil War

When the American Civil War began, Walker volunteered to serve as a surgeon offering her years of medical experience. There were no female surgeons in the U.S. Army. They decided to let her work as a nurse. Walker refused, but was able to be involved with the First Battle of Bull Run. She then worked in Washington, D.C. at the Patent Office Hospital. Walker was then permitted to serve as a field surgeon without pay at the Union front lines. In this role, she served during the Battle of Chickamauga, Battle of Chattanooga as well as the Battle of Fredericksburg. Walker was the first and only female surgeon to serve in the Union Army. She refused to wear traditional women's clothing while treating soldiers in the front lines. Walker wore men's clothes. She told those around her it made things easier for the high demands associated with working as a field surgeon in the front lines.

Mary Walker wearing Union Army uniform

Mary Walker wearing Union Army uniform

Employed as a Surgeon

Walker wanted to help the Union Army win in any way she could. Walker wrote to the War Department in 1862. She requested to be employed as a spy. Her request was declined. In 1863, Walker was then given employment in the Union's Army of the Cumberland. She became the first female U.S. Army surgeon. Walker was a Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon. This meant she was employed by the U.S. Army as a civilian. She would eventually become part of the 52 Ohio Infantry. There Walker was appointed as an assistant surgeon. She was in constant conflict with the Union Army. Walker frequently crossed battle lines to treat civilians as well as members of the Confederate Army who had been injured.

Captured

In April 1864, Walker was captured by Confederate troops. She was charged with being a spy. Her arrest came right after she had assisted a Confederate doctor in performing an amputation. Walker was sent to the notorious Castle Thunder Prison in Richmond, Virginia. She remained imprisoned there for 6 months until August 1864. Her release was part of an exchange of prisoners. During her time in the Confederate prison, Walker refused to wear the clothing that was given to her. She was told these clothes were more becoming of her sex.

Medal of Honor

After the war, Walker attempted to obtain a retroactive commission. This would have validated her service during the war. President Andrew Johnson requested Edwin Stanton, who was the Secretary of War, to determine the legality of the situation. The Army's Judge Advocate General was consulted. They concluded there wasn't any precedent available to commission a female. The determination caused President Johnson to personally award Mary Edwards Walker the Medal of Honor. She was never formally recommended for the award. The reason being that she was not commissioned.

Mary Walker wearing men's style clothing

Mary Walker wearing men's style clothing

Pension

After the Civil War, Walker was given a disability pension. During the time she was imprisoned by the Confederates, she experienced partial muscular atrophy. In June 1865, the pension was a monthly payment of $8.50. It increased to $20 a month by 1899.

Post Civil War

Walker became a lecturer, and writer once the Civil War was over. She wrote and talked about such issues as women's rights, health care, temperance as well as dress reform. Walker was often arrested for wearing men's clothes. She told everyone who complained, it was her right to dress in the type of clothing she believed appropriate for her.

Mary Walker's Medal of Honor

Mary Walker's Medal of Honor

Medal of Honor Revocation and Restoration

In 1916, the Army's Medal of Honor Board was instructed by U.S. Congress to review the eligibility of those who received the Medal of Honor. It was believed that many undesirable awards were given because previously there were little or no regulations pertaining to who received the medal. These types of regulations were first published in 1897. It was determined that many recipients got a Medal of Honor for reasons other than participation in combat. As a result, over 900 names were removed from the roles of those who had been awarded the Medal of Honor. Walker was one of them. In 1977, sixty years after it had been revoked, President Jimmy Carter restored Walker's name to the ranks of those who had received the Medal of Honor. Walker's Medal of Honor is now owned by the Oswego County Historical Society.

Death

On February 21, 1919, Mary Walker died after a long time battling illness. She was 86 years old. Walker was buried in Oswego, New York, at the Rural Cemetery. There was an American flag over her casket. She had on a black suit instead of a dress. Her death in 1919 occurred a year prior to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. This law gave women the right to vote.

Bronze statue of Mary Walker

Bronze statue of Mary Walker

Legacy

A Liberty ship was named after Walker during World War II. It was called the SS Mary Walker. SUNY medical facilities in Oswego, New York are named after her. They are called the Mary Walker Health Center. A U.S. Army Reserve center in Michigan is named after her. A bronze statue of Mary Walker weighing 900 pounds was placed in front of the Town Hall in Oswego, New York in May 2012.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Readmikenow (author) on August 28, 2020:

Mary, thanks. I also found her quite inspirational.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on August 28, 2020:

Truly admirable. It is the effort of women like her, which brought us many of the things we enjoy today. I have not heard of her, so thank you for publishing this.

Readmikenow (author) on August 28, 2020:

Flourish, thanks. I agree.

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 27, 2020:

Her heroism is remarkable and the gender issues she struggled with are right out of today’s headlines. She was born in the wrong century!

Readmikenow (author) on August 27, 2020:

Liz, thanks!

Liz Westwood from UK on August 27, 2020:

I had not come across the story of Mary Walker until I read this article. You have written an interesting and well-illustrated biographical account of her life.