November 11th: Doctor Mary Edwards Walker Receives the Medal of Honor
To call Mary Edwards Walker admirable is as inadequate a description as calling her unique. Yet both adjectives are among the many that accurately apply to the only woman yet to be awarded the Medal of Honor. She was a pioneer for women’s rights with a then-shocking sense of fashion and an abiding desire to save and preserve the lives of all human beings. So it’s quite a shame she died a mere two years after her medal was revoked. And 58 years before the Army gave it back to her.
Mary Edwards Walker, MD.
Born in the small town of Oswego, New York on November 26th, 1832 she was the youngest of Alvah and Vesta Walker’s seven children. The Walkers raised their children in an extremely progressive household, particularly by early 19th century standards. The women shared in the manual labor on the family’s farm and the men did their part in the housework. And Vesta encouraged her youngest daughter’s preference for men’s clothing as it made farm work far easier than corsets and hoop skirts. A pant's wearing women's suffragist from childhood, Mary’s free spirited attitude and forward thinking style was further compounded when she began attending the local elementary school, because her parents had founded it.
Plaque at the birthplace of Mary Edward Walker in Oswego, New York.
Mary, along with two of her sisters, went on to attend Falley Seminary for secondary school. It was during her time there when her interest in medical science arose, starting with an interest in several books on physiology and anatomy belonging to her father. When she finished school she taught at a small school for a few years in order to save up enough money to further her goal of a medical profession. And she took a big, important step on that path in 1855 when she graduated with honors from Syracuse Medical College. Mary was the only woman in her class.
Photograph from a 19th century medical school class.
One of her classmates, Albert Miller, became her husband later that year but she kept her last name, refused to include the”obey” part of the old-style marriage vows, and wore pants under her skirt at the ceremony. Together, they set up a medical practice in the small city of Rome, New York. Unfortunately, not many people were particularly comfortable with a woman doctor and the business struggled. Her marriage to Miller soon ended in divorce over his infidelity. Mary ended up moving to Iowa in the hopes of attaining another degree, but the Bowen Collegiate Institute (now Lenox College) in Hopkinton kicked her out for joining the school’s previously all-male debate society in 1860.
Bowen Collegiate Institute, 1865.
Doctor Walker did not have to wait long for her next chance to prove her backbone or medical abilities. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, she immediately volunteered for service as a surgeon with the Union Army. She was, as perhaps expected, rejected for being a woman. But Mary refused to let something as idiotic as sexism keep her from saving lives and decided to serve as civilian volunteer. Initially allowed to practice only as a nurse, despite her qualification as a full-fledged doctor, she treated wounded troops under fire at the First Battle of Bull Run and at a hospital in Washington, D.C.
The US Patent Office was used as a barracks and hospital during the Civil War. It was here that Dr. Walker worked briefly as a nurse during the early months of the conflict.
When the Army finally allowed her to work as a surgeon as the war went on, it was still only as an unpaid civilian. She operated on troops and saved countless lives, always working near the front lines, throughout numerous major battles including Fredericksburg, Chattanooga, and Chickamauga. But even that wasn’t enough of a challenger for her, so she asked the War Department if they’d hire her as a spy. They turned down the gutsy offer, but did finally give her a paid position and title as a “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)” with the Army of the Cumberland in September, 1863. As assistant surgeon for the 52nd Ohio Infantry Regiment, she continued ply her medical skills, both on the men of her own side, local civilians, and even wounded Confederates who she willingly crossed enemy lines to aid.
Walker also widely publicized the story of Frances Walker (picture above), a woman who disguised as a man, joined the Union Army, fought in numerous battles, was captured, tried to escape, had her gender discovered after being wounded in the attempt, and responded to a personal from Jefferson Davis of a commision in the Confederate Army by saying she'd rather be hanged than fight against the Union. So we'll have to do an article about her awesome life in the future.
It was her commitment to saving lives above all else that threw a wrench into her service. On April 10th, 1864, after helping a Confederate surgeon perform an amputation, Confederate troops arrested her as a spy. She was held in a prison camp for just over four months, during which time her captors only provided her with “women’s” clothing, which Mary flat out refused to wear. She was released in a prisoner exchange on August 12th, but during her months of captivity she suffered muscular atrophy severe enough that it affected her throughout her life. For her services in the field numerous officers, including General William T. Sherman, recommended her for official commendation.
General William Tecumseh Sherman. If he said someone deserved recognition for action in combat, you better believe they deserved it.
With the war’s end in 1865, Doctor Walker understandably wanted some form of official recognition from the military for her service. When the Army’s Judge Advocate General decreed they could not award a woman a retroactive officers commision or brevet, President Andrew Johnson went over/around him and personally awarded her the Medal of Honor on November 11th, 1865. With the nation’s highest military honor to her name and a government pension for her atrophy issues, another doctor might have been content to go back to private practice and live a life of relative ease. Unsurprisingly, Mary was not such a person.
Doctor Walker posing for a photgraph in later life.
For most of the next 50 years she worked nonstop as an outspoken writer and lecturer for women’s rights and health care issues. She was frequently arrested simply for wearing “men’s” clothing, which was something women could actually be arrested for back then. But she kept right on wearing trousers and coats, adding a top hat as well, and told critics, “I don't wear men's clothes, I wear my own clothes.” One of the early national figures of the Women’s Suffrage movement, she opined that the Constitution already gave women the right to vote and that preventing them from doing so was illegal. Her diehard preference for this argument for suffrage went against the campaign to pass an amendment giving women the vote, so she eventually became alienated from the larger movement in America. Nevertheless, she stood by her affirmation that women already had the right to vote throughout her life and even testified on suffrage committees in front of Congress in 1912 and 1914.
Women's suffrage advocates, sometime in the early 20th century.
In 1917, Doctor Walker suffered perhaps the greatest personal injustice of her life. The Army, after reviewing its list of Medal of Honor winners, struck 911 names from it. Most of these were Civil War veterans who had received the award simply for reenlisting. But several had theirs revoked because, despite the combat heroism of the recipients, they were not uniformed military personnel. Among them was Mary, although two other civilian surgeons awarded Medals of Honor were not. Both of them, of course, were men. One was none other than then-ex-Army Chief of Staff Major General Leonard Wood, who received the award for actions from before he joined the Army. So the decision against Mary's award was anything but fair. Despite this inequity, Mary was not made to return her medal and continued to wear it for the rest of her life.
Doctor Walker in 1911, demonstrating that rocking an awesome top hat knows no gender.
Unfortunately, she did not long outlive the Army’s decision. At age 86, Walker succumbed to a lengthy illness and passed away on February 21st, 1919 in her hometown. She was buried in a black suit and the American flag covered her casket during the funeral, commemorating her courageous service to a country that would not give women the right to vote until August of the following year. In 1977, the Army’s Board for Correction of Military Records made the decision to undo the 1917 decision and returned the Medal of Honor to Doctor Mary Edward Walker, Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian), United States Army.
Statue of Mary Edwards Walker in front of the Oswego Town Hall. The front of the lecturn features a sadly prescient quotation from her: "I have got to die before people will know who I am and what I have done. It is a shame that people who lead reforms in this world are not appreciated until after they are dead; then the world pays its tribute."