Mary Edwards Walker — Only Female Medal of Honor Recipient

Mary Edwards Walker (1832 – 1919) was an American feminist, abolitionist, and surgeon who became the only woman, and one of only eight civilians, to receive the Medal of Honor.

Mary Edwards Walker I

She worked as a teacher to pay her way through Geneva Medical College (now Hobart College), where she graduated as a medical doctor in 1855, the only woman in her class. She married fellow medical school student Albert Miller set up a joint practice in Rome, New York. It failed to take off, largely because female physicians were generally not trusted or respected at that time. Walker briefly attended Bowen Collegiate Institute (later named Lenox College) in 1860, until she was suspended after refusing to quit the all-male school debating society.

At the start of the Civil War, she volunteered for the Union Army as a civilian. Despite her credentials as a surgeon, she was initially 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), the Patent Office Hospital in Washington, D.C., and as an unpaid field surgeon near the Union front lines, including the Battle of Fredericksburg and in Chattanooga after the Battle of Chickamauga.

In September 1862, Walker offered to serve as a spy for the Union, but was denied. A year later, she was finally employed as a “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)” by the Army, becoming the first-ever female surgeon employed by the U.S. Army Surgeon. She was later appointed assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry.

During this service, she frequently crossed battle lines to treat civilians. She had no fear of repercussions and cited her duty as a doctor to provide medical care to all who needed it. On April 10, 1864 she was captured by Confederate troops and arrested as a spy, just after she finished helping a Confederate doctor perform an amputation. She was imprisoned until August 12, 1864 when she was released as part of a prisoner exchange. She was left with partial muscular atrophy due to the conditions.

After the war, Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and George Henry Thomas recommended Walker for the Medal of Honor, and in November 11, 1865, President Andrew Johnson signed a bill to present it to her.

Walker’s Medal of Honor citation reads as follows:

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.

The incident did not dissuade Walker from continuing her service; she went on to serve during the Battle of Atlanta, became supervisor of a female prison in Louisville, Kentucky, and headed an orphanage in Tennessee. After the war, she became a writer and lecturer advocating healthcare, temperance, women’s rights and other social causes. She was frequently arrested for wearing masculine clothing and insisted on her right to wear what she wanted.

Walker in 1911 dressed in a man's top coat and hat.

Walker in 1911 dressed in a man’s top coat and hat.

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