Dr. Mary Walker, who helped change the face of medicine during
the Civil War, was born in Oswego, New York, to abolitionist parents
who encouraged her to pursue an education. She really embraced that
idea and, in 1855, graduated as a medical doctor from Syracuse
Walker went into private practice for a few
years, but then the Civil War broke out in 1861. She wanted to join
the Army as a surgeon but wasn’t allowed because she was a woman.
Because of her credentials, she didn’t want to be a nurse, either,
so she chose to volunteer for the Union Army.
for free at the temporary hospital set up at the U.S. Patent Office
in Washington, D.C. She also organized the Women’s Relief
Organization to help the families of the wounded who came to visit
them at local hospitals.
In 1862, Walker moved on to
Virginia, this time treating the wounded at field hospitals
throughout the state. In 1863, her medical credentials were finally
accepted, so she moved to Tennessee, where she was appointed as a
War Department surgeon. Her position was paid, and it was the
equivalent of a lieutenant or captain.
Dr. Mary Walker,
the only female Medal of Honor recipient, proudly wearing it in a
portrait. She was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Andrew
Johnson in November 1865 for her heroic medical efforts
during the Civil War. (U.S. Army photo Ca. 1866 - exact date unknown)
Walker was captured in April 1864 by the South and held
as a prisoner of war for about four months. She and other
Union doctors were eventually exchanged in a prisoner-of-war
swap for Confederate medical officers. According to the
National Library of Medicine, sources say Walker had been
captured intentionally so she could spy for the North, but
little evidence has supported that claim.
after being released by the Confederates, Walker returned to
her craft as an assigned medical director at a hospital for
women prisoners in Kentucky.
Aside from her wartime
efforts, Walker was also an outspoken advocate for women’s
As the war raged on, feminists also struggled
to further their cause, which included being able to wear
clothing that enabled better mobility. Walker chose to wear
what was known as the “Bloomer costume” as a modified
uniform all throughout the war. It was a dress-and-trouser
combination that had gone out of favor long before the war
began, but she didn’t care ... she wore it anyway.
Walker eventually switched to wearing
men’s clothes, and was even arrested for impersonating a man
several times. In her defense, she argued that she was given
special permission by the government to dress that way.
In November 1865,
having left government service for good, Walker was awarded
the Medal of Honor by President Andrew Johnson, even though
she was a civilian who had never been a commissioned officer
in military service.
That civilian status is why
Walker’s medal was rescinded in 1917 ... two years before
she died ... along with 910 others. Walker refused to return
the medal, though, and continued to wear it until she died
two years later.
Sixty years after that, in 1977,
President Jimmy Carter restored the honor in her name,
due to efforts made by her family.
By Katie Lange
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