This month, in honor of Veteran’s Day, I pay tribute to Dr. Mary E. Walker. Additionally, in light of the recently-celebrated Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, I express gratitude to Walker for her efforts to bring more justice into our world. I also am grateful for the scholars who have preserved her legacy for today’s audiences.
A casual conversation with my husband a few years ago brought Walker to my conscious awareness. We had been talking about L. Maria Child, a well-known author, activist, and phenomenal woman from 19th-century United States. My doctoral dissertation and forthcoming book explore different aspects of her life. As a consequence of my many years immersed in research and writing about Maria, my husband wondered about her colleagues. He especially had curiosity about the Civil War era due to his keen interest in military history.
My husband’s query prompted his internet search on Medal of Honor awardees. Up popped Dr. Walker’s name in conjunction with that time period. We found out that she was the sole woman from the Civil War to receive this prestigious award, our nation’s highest military honor. Further investigation revealed that, to date, she remains the only woman in the United States to be honored in this manner. This places her in a unique position in U.S. history. While her entire life is fascinating, her military service to our nation is a remarkable story as is her journey with her Medal of Honor. This sojourn shows her intelligence, perseverance, and courage. Once she made up her mind, nothing could stop her.
A Few Tidbits from Dr. Walker’s Early Life
Upstate New York provides the backdrop to Dr. Walker’s story. That geographic location in the northeast United States especially draws me these days. My husband is from that area. We have numerous family members still living there. Since social reform movements of her day are my specialty area as an historian, I enjoy learning more about the area, especially remarkable 19th-century women like her.
Walker was born in Oswego Town in 1832. One of her biographers, Justin D. White, described her parents’ odd choice of her name: “Named for her paternal aunt, the seemingly common name was a departure from the more unique and unusual names the Walkers had chosen for their other children. Mary, however ordinary in name, was destined to live an extraordinary life” (47)*.
As a young adult, she initially chose teaching, one of the acceptable careers for women of her time. Walker, however, dreamed of being a doctor. In audacious moves on her part and that of the school, she applied to the eclectic Syracuse Medical College in New York. They accepted her. Consequently, in 1855 at the young age of 21, she became the second female physician in the United States (Elizabeth Blackwell is the first). That same year she married fellow student and new physician, Albert Miller. The marriage proved short-lived. They separated once his infidelities came to light.
Voluntary War-Time Service
Just six years later on April 12, 1861, the horrendous Civil War started in the United
States. Walker immediately traveled to Washington, D.C. to enlist for military service. To her deep disappointment, the Union Army repeatedly denied her application for a commission as an Army surgeon. She did not give up. She volunteered in D.C. at the Patent Office Hospital. From there, she moved forward to direct action on the front. She ended up helping out in some of this war’s most horrific battle fields.
In 1862, she arrived in Warrentown, Virginia to aid the victims of the Battle of Antietam. One of the bloodiest conflagrations, Dr. Walker realized the wounded needed better care than could be provided at the battle location. With her usual perseverance, she received permission from the commander to transport the most severely wounded to Washington, D.C.
December 1862 found Dr. Walker in the fields of Fredericksburg, Virginia. She served the soldiers in a tent hospital. At this point she fashioned herself a uniform, bloomers and all. Resembling a Union Army surgeon’s outfit, she proudly wore her ad hoc creation for which she did not have official permission. This action continued a trend in her life where she routinely wore “men’s” clothing and took an active part in the dress reform movement of her day. On occasion, she was arrested for doing so. Situations such as these added to her reputation as being eccentric.
Dr. Walker expanded her Civil War service to the military families. In 1863, while in D.C. again, she founded a boarding house for wives and children arriving in the city to search for their husbands and fathers. A second home followed. She also assisted in the founding of the Women’s Relief Association.
Civilian Contract Surgeon
Despite these inroads into actively participating in the war effort, Walker remained frustrated. She yearned to move beyond volunteer status. She desired an official military appointment. She went as far as to appeal directly to President Abraham Lincoln. While responding personally, he did not intercede on her behalf. He put his trust in the military leadership regarding this matter (57).
She remained adamant and kept moving forward with this deep desire to have official status as a military surgeon. Her efforts drew the support of three influential persons: Surgeon General R. C. Wood, General George Thomas, and Major General William T. Sherman. In early 1864, after two years of committed, faithful service, her wish was partially granted. She received a commission as a civilian contract surgeon and gained the title, Acting Assistant Surgeon. Working at the military equivalent of First Lieutenant, she was the only woman to serve the Civil War in this capacity.
She eagerly went to her first assignment with the 52nd Ohio Volunteers. Disappointingly for her, that site did not have many ill soldiers. Additionally, much resentment was directed toward her as a female physician. The hostile reception continued throughout her time with them as well as followed her to other places. In her usual fashion, she did not allow the attitudes and actions of others to stop her from practicing medicine in the Civil War. She simply continued her service to non-military personnel, to sick civilians beyond the army camp.
Political Prisoner of the Confederacy
As Walker searched for additional civilian patients in April 1864 (just two months after
receiving her commission), she accidentally found herself in enemy territory near Chattanooga, Tennessee. She seemed to sport the attitude, “a patient is a patient, whether Union or Confederate.” Not everyone agreed with her largess. While treating Southerners, a Confederate soldier found her and took her prisoner. She spent four months as a political prisoner at the Castle Thunder Prison near Richmond, Virginia. Permanent consequences happened to her while there.
As in the case of other Confederate prisons, conditions were not good. This particular place gained notoriety for cruelty. The Confederate House of Representatives had investigated them the year before in 1863. Even though officials heard testimony of the violence, they made no action to stop it. Castle Thunder held almost 100 female prisoners throughout the war. The majority were political ones. Walker was the most well known.
Personally, the poor nutrition during her imprisonment led to significant weight loss and weakened eyesight. The latter turned into a persistent condition severely limiting her later ability to practice medication (partial muscular atrophy). Nonetheless, Walker’s reformist impulses came to the fore. She advocated for better conditions, including adequate food and medical supplies (60-61). The prison responded with a few changes in the diet they offered.
After what must have felt like a very long four months, Walker’s release came in the guise of a prisoner exchange on August 12, 1864. The powers-that-be exchanged her and 24 other Union doctors for 17 Confederate surgeons. In addition to securing her freedom, Walker took pleasure in a particular aspect of the situation. Profiler Maggie MacLean explained: “She was proud that her exchange was for a Confederate surgeon with the rank of major.” Upon her release, Walker returned to the 52nd Ohio as a contract surgeon.
Official Military Service: Acting Assistant Surgeon
A few months later, in October 1864, Walker’s dogged perseverance for a military post paid off. Her second dream came true: she finally received her official army commission as Acting Assistant Surgeon. She completed her military service away from the front lines. Initially, she served six months as director of in the Louisville Women’s Prison Hospital. She completed her war assignment at an orphan asylum in Clarksville, Tennessee. Her official discharge from the army took place on June 15, 1865, two months after the Civil War ended (April 9, 1865).
Medal of Honor Recipient
In a surprising twist, the United States publicly recognized Dr. Walker’s service to her country. She received the Congressional Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service during the Civil War. Two of the men who facilitated her civilian commission, Major General Sherman and General Thomas, recommended her. On November 11, 1865 (the date that would later mark Armistice Day and Veterans Day), President Andrew Johnson signed the bill to present this award to her. This became her proudest moment.
In the post-war years leading into the early 20th century, her practice of medicine was restricted due to her wartime imprisonment and permanent damage to her eyesight. She pressed on as an ardent advocate and reformer. Traveling throughout the United States and beyond, Walker was a lecturer, writer, and reformer for women’s rights, dress reform, and health issues.
Astounding 20th-Century Revocation and Reinstatement
An astounding decision about Dr. Walker’s Medal came down in 1917. Across the board, the award criteria were revised. The Board of Medals went one step further and actually revoked 911 Medals of Honor, Mary’s and those for 910 men (77). Until her dying day, she refused to accept the Board’s decision.
Even with her defiance, this was a huge blow to Dr. Walker. Biographer White explained: “The committee requested the return of her original 1865 medal and another medal that had been issued in 1907 with a new design. She refused to return either of the medals and declared, ‘One of them I will wear everyday, and the other I will wear on occasion’” (77). Indeed, she never returned her medals and wore one of them on a daily basis, just like she promised.
Thankfully, the revocation did not have the last word. In 1977, due to the untiring efforts of Walker’s grandniece Helen Hay Wilson, the Army Board restored her Medal of Honor. They acknowledged Dr. Walker had been a victim of sexual discrimination. This action reaffirmed the original citation for “distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country.”
Dr. Walker Memorialized
Several activities in the 20th and 21st centuries honor Dr. Walker. I witnessed two of them. In the year 2000, the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York inducted Dr. Walker. Their prestigious line-up honors and celebrates achievements of distinguished American women. In August 2015, I visited the Hall and proudly viewed the poster dedicated to her.
On May 13, 2012, Oswego Town unveiled a commissioned statue of Dr. Walker, their most famous citizen. Artist Sharon BuMann sculpted the 900-pound bronze memorial. Journalist Debra J. Groom described it:
The statue of Walker consists of a six-foot-tall replica of her dressed as she was during the war — a dress with pants underneath. She is wearing her Medal of Honor. On the ground near the lectern is her medical bag. The lectern shows the medical symbol, a biography and the quote from Walker. On the lectern lies a copy of her book, “Hit,” and a quill for writing. BuMann said the statue shows Walker at about age 40. She was 86 when she died in 1919, one year before women achieved the right to vote.
On that same trip, my husband and I visited Oswego Town and saw the statue ourselves.
Along with the city, we are grateful for this special recognition of an extraordinary woman who earned her Medal of Honor and rightly retained it. Her dogged persistence in the face of so many obstacles provides inspiration and hope for us.
*One of the primary sources for this sketch is: Justin D. White, “Dr. Mary Walker: ‘A missionary spirit,’” in Three 19th-Century Women Doctors (Syracuse, New York: Hofmann Press, 2007). When page numbers are used, they refer to this work.