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Mary Edwards Walker: Civil War Surgeon and the Only Female Medal of Honor Recipient

Mary Edwards Walker
Mary Edwards Walker was a surgeon with the Union Army during the Civil War. She is to date, the only female to ever be receive the Medal of Honor. She wore her medal every day for the rest of her life. Corbis via Getty Images

In case you needed any more ammunition in future arguments for feminism, consider this. In the 159-year history of the Medal of Honor — the United States' highest military award for valor in combat — more than 3,500 people have received the prestigious prize; only one of them so far has been a woman: Mary Edwards Walker.

Born in Oswego, New York, in 1832, Walker has achieved legendary status as a pioneering surgeon, women's rights advocate and abolitionist who was the first female U.S. Army surgeon during the Civil War. Walker was the fifth daughter born to Dr. Alvah and Vesta Whitcomb Walker, abolitionists who encouraged their girls to be freethinkers.

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Walker Eschewed the Norm

Rather than conform to the societal and style norms of the era, Walker eschewed skirts and corsets and preferred "bloomer" pants. But her independent ideas weren't confined to fashion (although later media reports couldn't seem to stop obsessing about her wardrobe).

Despite the fact that women were discouraged from entering the traditionally male medical field, Walker knew she wanted to be a doctor and enrolled at Syracuse Medical College (now Upstate Medical University), graduating in 1855 with a Doctor of Medicine degree (she was only the second woman to ever graduate from the school after Elizabeth Blackwell). Walker soon started a private practice in Columbus, Ohio, before returning to New York where she married fellow physician Albert Miller. A few years later, the Civil War erupted.

Soon after the war broke out in 1861, Walker tried to join the Union's efforts as a surgeon in Washington, D.C., but was turned away because of her sex. She wasn't deterred, taking an unpaid position as the only female volunteer surgeon in the U.S. Patent Office Hospital. She found time in 1862 to earn a degree from the New York Hygeio-Therapeutic College and when she returned to volunteering, she worked on the battlefield in tent hospitals in Warrenton and Fredericksburg, Virginia. The following fall, Walker was appointed assistant surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland in Tennessee.

In April 1864, Walker was captured as a spy by Confederate troops after she'd crossed battle lines to help a Confederate doctor with surgery. "Mary was imprisoned at Richmond's Castle Thunder, which was a prison primarily for Richmond's own — unruly civilians, prostitutes, Unionists and deserters," Kelly R. Hancock, public programs manager at the American Civil War Museum, writes via email. "Since Mary Walker was a woman and Castle Thunder had one of its warehouses designated for women prisoners, Mary was kept there for four months from April 21 to Aug. 12, when she was released in a prisoner of war exchange."

According to Hancock, Richmond's prisons were anything but pleasant. "They were crowded, poorly ventilated and disease ridden," she says. "In a city, in which their own citizens were having trouble putting food on the table, prisons received scant rations."

Mary Edwards Walker
In April 1864, Walker was captured as a spy by Confederate troops and was imprisoned at Richmond's Castle Thunder (seen here), a prison for unruly civilians, prostitutes, Unionists and deserters.
Library of Congress

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Her Critics Were Ruthless

Hancock says newspapers later described Walker as being "worse for wear" when she was released. "What strikes me most about her time in Richmond is that every time she is mentioned in the newspapers, the press comments on her appearance — especially on her dress," Hancock says. "The fact that she was dressed like a man or in 'man's attire' was extremely shocking. Mary refuted the claims that she was wearing male clothing because she was not. She was wearing her own clothing."

Mary Edwards Walker
Walker (right) is seen here with feminist and lawyer Belva Lockwood, who was the first woman to argue in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Library of Congress

Not only was the media critical of Walker's clothing, but reporters were merciless about her overall appearance. "The press was also very critical of her looks, calling her 'ugly' and 'skinny,' which at the time was not a compliment," Hancock says. "I think this disparagement is primarily due to the resentment over her stepping outside of what was socially acceptable for a woman to be and do."

Walker was released from prison in August 1864 and just one month later became the assistant surgeon of the Ohio 52nd Infantry. Soon after that, she began supervising a hospital for female prisoners and later oversaw operations at an orphanage. In 1865, Walker formally retired from government service and later that year, President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service, making her the first female recipient.

"As far as why she is still the only woman to receive a Medal of Honor, I think this is largely due to the fact that Congress changed the requirements for the medal, making it available only to people in the armed services who have been in active combat," Hancock says. "Until 2015, there was a ban on women serving in active combat, and women were not integrated into combat positions until January 2016. That was only four years ago. There just has not been enough time or opportunity for another woman to be awarded a Medal of Honor."

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She Advocated for Women's Rights

In addition to her groundbreaking work as a physician, Walker is known for her advocacy around women's rights. She was, of course, an outspoken proponent of "dress reform" and was even arrested in New Orleans in 1870 for dressing "like a man" (although as Hancock points out, Walker was wearing her own clothes). Walker was also a suffragist, campaigned for the U.S. Senate in 1881, and ran as a Democratic candidate for Congress in 1890. Despite her losses, she testified in front of the U.S. House of Representatives in support of women's right to vote.

In 1917, the terms designating eligibility for Medal of Honor were reappraised and Walker's name, along with others, was removed from the list of awardees, and it took until 1977 for a Congressional reappraisal of her achievements to restore the honor. In true Walker fashion, when the recognition was initially rescinded, she refused to surrender the medal (and she continued to wear it for the remainder of her life).

Walker died Feb. 21, 1919, in her hometown of Oswego. Her legacy lives on today and her spirit is captured in quotes like this one from 1897:

I am the original new woman...Why, before Lucy Stone, Mrs. Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were — before they were, I am. In the early '40s, when they began their work in dress reform, I was already wearing pants ... I have made it possible for the bicycle girl to wear the abbreviated skirt, and I have prepared the way for the girl in knickerbockers.
Mary Edwards Walker
The media gave Walker a lot of grief for her clothes, saying often that she was dressed like a man or in "man's attire." Walker's response was always that she was not wearing men's clothes; she was wearing her clothes.
Library of Congress

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