What do you think of when you hear the phrase “Civil War hero?” For a lot of people, it’s probably a stone monument you’ve seen in a National park. Or maybe the black and white image from a school textbook of Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant or Stonewall Jackson.
What about Mary Edwards Walker, MD? The more I learn about this remarkable woman, the more her name and image comes to mind when I think of Civil War heroes. Some of the titles I found while researching her life: American feminist, abolitionist, prohibitionist, alleged spy, prisoner of war, surgeon—and the only woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Sounds like my kind of heroine!
Born in Oswego, NY (not far from my hometown) in 1832, she was the daughter of a country doctor. Her father was a bit of a free-thinker –he was an abolitionist; believed in educating women and in equality of the sexes. He also believed that women were hampered by their tight-fitting clothing.
Not surprisingly, Mary was a Women’s Rights enthusiast and very outspoken on the issue of women’s dress reform. In the mid-19th century, as women were striving for a more public and professional role in society, many feminists argued that women’s clothing – tight corsets and long, heavy skirts—limited a woman’s mobility, and was bad for her health overall. Mary wholeheartedly supported this belief as well as the Bloomer movement spearheaded by Amelia Bloomer, inventor of the “Turkish pantaloon” that bears her last name. (The pants did become popular at the turn of the 19th century, as women took to bicycling—but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.) Mary embraced the bloomer costume, as it was known, a dress and trouser combination that preserved feminine modestly while allowing greater freedom of movement. Many feminists abandoned the style of dress when the clothing caused more of a stir than the reform idea behind it. Not Mary. In fact, later in her life, she began to dress entirely in men’s clothing.
In June, 1855 Mary –the only woman in her class—joined the tiny rank of women’s doctors in the nation when she graduated from Syracuse Medical College, the nation’s first medical school and one which accepted men and women equally. Mary graduated at the age of 21 after three 13-week semesters of medical training.
In 1856 she married fellow physician Albert Miller. She wore trousers and a man’s coat for her wedding and kept her own last name. They set up a medical practice together in Rome, NY, but the public was not ready to accept a woman physician, and the practice never really took off. The couple divorced after 13 years of marriage, due to Albert’s philandering. It has been said that he offered his wife the same freedom’s within their marriage if she would stay with him, but in Mary’s typical outspoken style, she told him she’d rather be a divorcee than an adulteress.
When the Civil War broke out, she traveled to Washington to join the Union Army. She was denied a commission as a medical officer, but volunteered anyway, serving as an acting assistant surgeon—the first female surgeon in the US Army. Unpaid in her role as volunteer, she first worked in the US Patent Office Hospital in Washington , and later as a field surgeon near the Union front lines including Fredericksburg, and Chattanooga.
In 1863, Walker was finally appointed assistant surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland. For this she made herself a modified officer’s uniform to wear while working with solders in field hospitals. She was then appointed assistant surgeon on the 52nd Ohio Infantry. It is widely believed (but never has been confirmed) that during this period she also served as a spy. She regularly crossed Confederate lines to treat civilians and was taken prisoner in 1864 by Confederate troops and imprisoned in Richmond for four months until she was exchanged, along with two other Union doctors, for 17 Confederate surgeons.
She was released back to the 52nd Ohio, but spent the rest of the war practicing at a Louisville female prison and orphan’s asylum in Tennessee. She was paid $766.16 for her war service. Afterward, she received a monthly pension of $8.50. This was later raised to $20, but was still far less than even wartime widows’ pensions.
On November 11, 1864, President Johnson signed a bill to present Dr. Mary Edwards Walker with the Congressional Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service, in recognition of her contributions to the war efforts.
In 1917, her Congressional Medal of Honor, along with the medals of 900 others—was taken away when Congress revised the Medal of Honor standards to include “actual combat with the enemy.” According to some records, when representatives arrived at her door to retrieve the medal, Mary now in her 80s, ran them off with a loaded shotgun. She wore the medal every day until her death in 1919.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter restored Mary’s medal posthumously, recognizing her distinguished gallantry, self sacrifice, patriotism, dedication, and unflinching loyalty to her country.
In WWII, a Liberty Ship was named for her, the SS Mary Walker.
In 1982, the US Postal Service issued at 20 cent stamp in her honor.
The medical facilities at SUNY Oswego are named in her honor. On the same grounds a plaque explains her importance in the Oswego community.
There is a United States Army Reserve center named for her in Walker, Michigan.
For more information on the life of Mary Edward’s Walker, I recommend: Civil War Doctor: the Life of Mary Edwards Walker by Carla Joinson http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Civil-War-Doctor/Carla-Joinson/e/9781599350288/?itm=1 and Yankee Women, Gender Battles in the Civil War by Elizabeth Leonard. http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Yankee-Women/Elizabeth-D-Leonard/e/9780393313727/?itm=2