Dr. Mary E. Walker always stood out in a crowd. She was born in 1832, in Oswego Town near Oswego, New York. As a child, she was distinguished for her strength of mind and her decision of character. She grew up an independent young woman. She always had an inclination to be useful in the world. A woman of great energy, in her early years, she wore bloomers, the pantaloon style garb of the radical feminists of the age. When she graduated, the only female in her class from Syracuse Medical College in 1855, she became one of the few women physicians in the country.
At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Dr. Walker, then 29, journeyed to Washington D.C. and applied for an appointment as an Army surgeon, much to the shock of the Medical Department, which rejected her with considerable verbosity.
Not one to be discouraged, she stayed in Washington, serving as an unpaid volunteer in various camps and, when the patent office was converted into a hospital, she served as assistant surgeon and worked without pay. During that time, she was instrumental in establishing an organization that aided needy women who came to Washington to visit wounded relatives.
Dr. Walker met with considerable abuse over her persistent demands to be made a surgeon but also earned considerable respect for her many good works. Meanwhile, she abandoned bloomers and adopted a modified version of male attire, with a calf length skirt worn over trousers, keeping her hair relatively long and curled so that anyone could know she was a woman.
In November 1862, Dr. Walker presented herself at the Virginia headquarters of MG Ambrose Burnside and was taken on as a field surgeon, although still on a volunteer basis. She treated the wounded at Warrenton and in Fredericksburg in December 1862.
Almost a year later, she was in Chattanooga, tending the casualties of the battle of Chickamauga. After the battle, she again requested a commission as an Army doctor. In September 1863, MG George H. Thomas appointed her as an assistant surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland, assigning her to the 52d Ohio Regiment. Many stories were told of her bravery under fire. However, she served in this capacity for only a short time.
In April 1864, she was captured by Confederate troops, having remained behind to tend wounded upon a Union retirement. Charged with being a spy and arrested, her male attire constituting the principal evidence against her, Dr. Walker spent four months in various prisons, subject to much abuse for her unladylike occupation and attire, until she was exchanged for a Confederate surgeon in August 1864.
In October of the same year, the Medical Department granted Dr. Walker a contract as an acting assistant surgeon. Despite her requests for battlefield duty, she was not again sent into the field. She spent the rest of the war as superintendent at a Louisville, Ky., female prison hospital and a Clarksville, Tenn., orphanage.
Released from government contract at the end of the war, Dr. Walker lobbied for a brevet promotion to major for her services. Secretary of War Stanton would not grant the request. President Andrew Johnson asked for another way to recognize her service. A Medal of Honor was presented to Dr. Walker in January 1866. She wore it every day for the rest of her life.
After the war, Dr. Walker remained active in the women’s rights movement and crusaded against immorality, alcohol and tobacco and for clothing and election reform. One of her more unusual positions was that there was no need for a women’s suffrage act, as women already had the vote as American citizens.
Her taste in clothes caused frequent arrests on such charges as impersonating a man. At one trial, she asserted her right to, “Dress as I please in free America on whose tented fields I have served for four years in the cause of human freedom.” The judge dismissed the case and ordered the police never to arrest Dr. Walker on that charge again. She left the courtroom to hearty applause.
In 1916, Congress revised the Medal of Honor standards to include only actual combat with an enemy. Several months later, in 1917, the Board of Medal Awards, after reviewing the merits of the awardees of the Civil War awards, ruled Dr. Walker’s medal, as well as those of 910 other recipients, as unwarranted and revoked.
She died on 21 February 1919 at the age of 86. However, Dr. Walker was not forgotten. Nearly 60 years after her death, at the urging of a descendent, the Army Board for Correction of Military Records reviewed the case. On 19 June 1977, Army Secretary Clifford L. Alexander approved the recommendation by the board to restore the Medal of Honor to Dr. Mary E. Walker. She remains the sole female recipient of the Medal of Honor.
Dr. Mary E. Walker Award Citation
UNITED STATES ARMY
MILITARY DISTRICT OF WASHINGTON
Dr. Mary E. Walker Award
Is Presented To
as an outstanding military spouse for demonstrating dedicated and exemplary volunteerism, that improved the quality of life for soldiers and their families.
Dr. Mary E. Walker
Dr. Mary E. Walker is the only woman in the United States history to receive the Medal of Honor. She became one of the first women physicians in the country in 1855. At the outbreak of war in 1861, Dr. Walker was denied a commission as an Army surgeon because of her gender. She served as an unpaid volunteer in Washington, in various military camps, and in a hospital for Indiana troops. She was instrumental in establishing an organization which aided needy women who came to Washington to visit wounded relatives. She served as a field surgeon on a volunteer basis, rendering assistance at tent hospitals in Virginia. She was eventually appointed as an assistant surgeon and assigned to the 52d Ohio Regiment. With immense courage and bravery rarely matched, Dr. Walker demonstrated her dedication to the American cause at great personal risk. She consistently discounted personal injuries and great hardships to care for others. She was captured and held a prisoner of war for four months before being freed in a prisoner exchange. Through her actions, Dr. Mary E. Walker set the standards for helping to improve soldiers’ quality of life for generations.