CMH Remembers: 2016 Women's History Month
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker
26 November 1832 – 21 February 1919
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, 1832-1919
February 21 2016, CMH
by Glenn Williams
She lived in deeds…
Born to an Abolitionist family in Oswego County, New York, Mary Edwards Walker enrolled in Syracuse Medical College, and graduated with a doctor of medicine degree in 1855. She entered private practice, married another physician, Albert Miller, and moved to Rome, New York. At the beginning of the American Civil War in 1861, Mary went to Washington, D.C, to offer her services to the government as a physician.
"She has devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded, both in the field and hospitals."
- Medal of Honor citation
Unable to obtain an appointment in the Army as a surgeon due to her sex, and declining employment as a nurse, Dr. Walker accepted an unpaid volunteer position in the temporary military hospital housed in the U.S. Patent Office, and worked without official standing in field hospitals in Virginia. She also organized the Women's Relief Organization to aid the wives and mothers of wounded soldiers who came to visit Washington area hospitals. In 1863, with letters of recommendation attesting to her medical competence in hand, Mary travelled to Tennessee.
"She has rendered valuable service to the Government, and her efforts have been earnest and untiring in a variety of ways. An honorable recognition … should be made."
– President Andrew Johnson, 1865.
In September 1863, Dr. Walker obtained employment with the War Department, like many male physicians, as a "Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon" – equivalent in pay and authority to a lieutenant or captain depending on length of service and experience. While assigned to the U.S. Army of the Cumberland medical department, and briefly replacing the regimental surgeon of the 52d Ohio Infantry, Mary conspicuously dressed in a modified uniform of her own design: a blue dress resembling an officer's frock coat, blue trousers with gold piping on the seam, felt hat, and the green sash of a surgeon. Captured by Confederates in April 1864, she spent four months as a prisoner of war before she and other Union doctors were exchanged for Confederate medical officers. On her return, the War Department assigned Mary as medical director in a hospital for women prisoners in Louisville, Kentucky, until she left government employment. Commended by Major Generals William T. Sherman and George H. Thomas for meritorious service, President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor on November 11, 1865.
"We live in deeds, not years."
– Mary Walker, title page of Hit
Following the Civil War, Mary left the practice of medicine and became an author, lecturer, and active Women's Suffrage campaigner. Her most famous book is Hit: Essays on Women's Rights, published in 1870. A Board of Medal Awards rescinded her Medal of Honor, along with 910 others, in 1917, determining it was "unwarranted" due to her status as a civilian employee, and not a member of the armed forces. Despite the revocation, Mary continued to wear the medal for the rest of her life. President Carter reinstated Mary Walker's Medal of Honor in 1977.
Army Values: Loyalty, Honor, Selfless Service
WALKER, DR. MARY E.
- Rank and organization: Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian), U. S. Army
- Places and dates: Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861; Patent Office Hospital, Washington, D.C., October 1861; Chattanooga, Tenn., following Battle of Chickamauga, September 1863; Prisoner of War, April 10, 1864-August 12, 1864, Richmond, Va.; Battle of Atlanta, September 1864
- Entered service at: Louisville, Ky.
Citation: Whereas 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, Ky., 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. Given under my hand in the city of Washington, D.C., this 11th day of November, A.D. 1865. Andrew Johnson, President (Medal rescinded 1917 along with 910 others, restored by President Carter 10 June 1977.)
Given under my hand in the city of Washington, D.C., this 11th day of November, A.D. 1865.
Andrew Johnson, President
- Medal rescinded 1917 along with 910 others, restored by President Carter 10 June 1977
Mary Walker Papers, Syracuse College Research Center, Syracuse University Library.
Mercedes, Graf, | A Woman of Honor: Dr. Walker and the Civil War, Gettysburg: Thomas Publications, 2006.
Walker, Dale | Mary Edwards Walker: Above and Beyond, New York: Macmillan, 2005
Walker, Mary E. | Hit: Essays on Women's Rights, New York: American News Company, 1871.
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, around 1911 - Source: Library of Congress