Among the 3,500+ Medal of Honor awards earned by multitudes of brave servicemen in the American armed forces since the Civil War, only one woman has been granted the prestigious honor: Meet Mary Edward Walker, most commonly known as Dr. Mary Walker.
A contract surgeon, Walker devoted her life to treating the wounded soldiers of the US Army throughout the Civil War and later helped define the significance of having medical professionals on the battlefield. However, she faced quite a hurdle and, for years, fought for a place in the Army as a surgeon, which, at that time, didn’t allow women.
Despite pushing through the boundaries, Walker remained steadfast in her dedication to serving her nation and paving the way for American women with the same fervor to become part of the military. Her efforts were all worth it, and in the end, despite her medal being briefly rescinded in 1917 (just two years before her death), President Jimmy Carter restored it 60 years later.
Born on 26 November 1832 to a progressive household—that encouraged independence, education, justice, and above all, women’s rights—Walker grew up in Oswego, New York, alongside her supportive parents and six older siblings. Embracing her parents’ nontraditional beliefs, she passionately pursued her education, and by 1855, Walker graduated from Syracuse Medical College as a medical doctor. She was the only female in her batch to do so.
She went into private practice shortly after, until the Civil War broke out in 1861, when she eagerly wanted to join the cause. Walker aspired to be a surgeon for the Army but, to her dismay, was met with disapproval. Why? Because she was a woman. Instead, they offered her to be a nurse, but Walker didn’t want that as she was vastly overqualified for the position.
If you think she’d go home after receiving a rejection, you’re wrong. Walker went on to volunteer her services for the Union Army instead, hopping from one makeshift hospital to another—saw action during the First Battle of Bull Run. In addition, Walker founded a Women’s Relief Organization to accommodate families of the wounded.
Pioneering for Women in the Army
Though without regular pay, Walker continued to dedicate her services and treated severely wounded soldiers near the front lines. Finally, in 1863, she was appointed a paid position equivalent to a lieutenant or captain in the Army as the first woman assigned as a War Department surgeon. She also served as a civilian-contracted assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry. During her service, the fearless physician often crossed battle lines into enemy grounds to treat civilians.
What’s so badass about this is that Walker does this often alone, with an underlying agenda of intel gathering. She’d snoop around, eavesdrop for any information on troop movements from the enemy, and bring this information back to her commanding officer. Her luck eventually ran out, and she was captured by Confederate forces in the late spring of 1864. Walker never admitted to the accusations of espionage.
Unfortunately, her health deteriorated during her incarceration. When she was finally released through a prisoner exchange, she could no longer practice surgery due to her weakened lungs and poor eyesight.
Medal of Honor: First and ONLY Female
Her fight for women’s rights in the Army continued even after the war had ended. Walker sought a “retroactive” commission to validate her years of service. With no other option, President Andrew Johnson instead opted to grant Walker the Medal of Honor in lieu of the brevet she requested.
Below is Walker’s Medal of Honor citation awarded by Johnson on 11 November 1865.
Where as 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, Kentucky, 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.
This, however, has created confusion regarding “who’s who” should receive the highest valor award, prompting Congress to review the guidelines and reform the parameters of eligibility and requirements in determining the recipient of the gallantry medal. By 1917, new policies had been established, removing more than 900 Medal of Honor recipients, including Walker.
As the headstrong woman she was, Walker refused to return the medal and instead paraded it—she wore that medal every day until her dying breath on 21 February 1919. It wasn’t until 60 years later that President Jimmy Carter restored her award with the efforts of her descendants.
Aside from pioneering for women in the Army, Walker also strongly advocated for women’s rights as a civilian. Since she could no longer practice surgery, “she became a writer and lecturer, advocating for health care, dress, and election reform for women,” as well as equal pay. Her fearlessness, boldness, and strong-willed attitude have inspired generations of women who aspire to join the military or simply yearn for the same equal rights as men.
Notwithstanding the criticisms, rejections, harassment, and even arrests she endured throughout her lifetime, Walker maintained her willingness and vision of what and who she was. Moreover, she daringly placed herself on the treacherous line to go above and beyond her duty.
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