Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919) - Feminist,
abolitionist, prohibitionist, alleged spy, prisoner of war and surgeon,
Mary is the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor.
Mary was born in Oswego, New York on November 26, 1832, the
daughter of Alvah and Vesta Walker. One of six children, she was the
youngest of five daughters and had one younger brother. Her father, Alvah,
was a country doctor, an abolitionist, a free thinking participant in many
reform movements, and believed strongly in education and equality for his
children. He also believed that his daughters were hampered by the
tight-fitting women's clothing of the day, so, when Mary and her sisters
worked on the family farm as a children, they wore boy’s clothing.
Alvah built Oswego’s first schoolhouse on his land, and
Mary’s mother, Vesta was the teacher. Mary and her siblings attended the
school as well as other local children. Later, she would attend the Falley
Seminary in Fulton, New York and follow in her mother’s footsteps,
teaching school in Minetto, New York in 1852.
But, Mary’s dream was to become a doctor and
after carefully saving the money she earned as a teacher, she enrolled in
Syracuse Medical College in December, 1853. At the age of 21, she
graduated in June, 1855. She was the only woman in her class, and
the second female doctor in the nation.
Like her free-thinking father, Mary became an early
enthusiast in reform movements including Women’s Rights, dress reform, and
abolition. When she married another physician, Albert Miller, in 1856, she
wore trousers and a man's coat and kept her own name. The couple soon set
up a medical practice in Rome, New York but the practice floundered
because the public was not ready to accept a woman physician.
When the Civil War broke out, she was quick to
volunteer her services to the Union Army. She was denied a commission as a
medical officer, but, volunteered anyway, first serving as a nurse, as the
Army had no female surgeons. During this time, she primarily worked as an
unpaid volunteer in the US Patent Office Hospital in Washington D.C. and
served at the First Battle of Bull Run.
She then began working as an unpaid field surgeon near the
Union front lines -- the first female surgeon in the US Army. In this
capacity, she served near the Union front lines for almost two years,
including the Battle of Fredericksburg and in the Battle of Chickamauga.
Finally, she was awarded a commission as a "Contract Acting Assistant
Surgeon (civilian)" by the Army of the Cumberland in September, 1863.
During this service, she frequently crossed battle lines, and on April 10,
1864 she was captured by Confederate troops and arrested as a spy. She was
sent as a prisoner of war to Richmond, Virginia until released in a
prisoner exchange on August 12, 1864. She went on to serve during the
Battle of Atlanta.
On November 11, 1865, President Andrew Johnson signed a
bill to present Dr. Mary Edwards Walker with the Congressional Medal of
Honor, the United States military's highest decoration for bravery. She is
the only woman to receive the medal and only one of eight civilians to
After the war, she was divorced in 1869 and worked as a
supervisor of a female prison in Louisville, Kentucky, and head of an
orphanage in Tennessee. She also became a writer and a lecturer supporting
various reform such issues as health care, temperance, women's rights and
dress reform for women. During this time she wrote two books and
participated with other leaders, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth
Cady Stanton, in the women's suffrage movement.
Sadly, in 1917, her Congressional Medal, along with the
medals of 910 others was taken away when Congress revised the Medal of
Honor standards to include only “actual combat with an enemy” However,
Mary refused to give the medal back, wearing it every day until her death
in 1919. Sixty years later, an Army board reinstated Walker's medal
posthumously in 1977, citing her "distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice,
patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the
apparent discrimination because of her sex."