An Unsung Hero
Stories about Medal of Honor recipients are always intriguing and inspiring, but it’s interesting to note that of the more than 3,500 awarded, only one was to a woman.
Mary Edwards Walker was born in 1832 in Oswego, N.Y., the youngest of seven children. Prior to the American Civil War, Walker earned her medical degree from Syracuse Medical College, and was, of course, the only female in her class. She then married and started a medical practice.
When the Civil War broke out, Dr. Walker petitioned the government to grant her a commission as a Union Army surgeon, which was said to have been rejected with “considerable verbosity.” She then resorted to volunteering in various hospitals.
An extraordinary woman who was way ahead of her time, Dr. Walker did not like wearing dresses. She firmly believed that pants were more comfortable, hygienic, and enabled better mobility while performing her duties. After experimenting, she found that a mid-length skirt over trousers was the most appropriate attire for her occupation.
Dr. Walker continued to volunteer in hospitals during the Civil War until she made a second petition in January 1864, this time directly to President Lincoln.
Thought reluctant, Lincoln granted her request, provided that the men of the Medical Department consented. Dr. Walker then traveled to Chattanooga, Tennessee in March 1864, and reported for duty to General George Thomas, commander of the Army of the Cumberland.
Dr. Walker met with considerable abuse over her persistent demands to be made a surgeon. Stories of affairs and other sordid activities followed her, manufactured by those who did not wish to serve with a female doctor.
Walker did not allow the constant maltreatment to deter her, and neither did she hesitate to care for the wounded of both sides. This led to her capture by Confederate forces on April 10, 1864, after she stopped to help a Confederate doctor perform an amputation.
Labeled as a spy because she was dressed in men’s attire, she spent four months in a Confederate prison before being exchanged for another surgeon. While she was imprisoned, she was given clothes that were more “becoming of her sex,” but refused to wear them.
After the war, Walker wrote and lectured on behalf of temperance, women’s rights, health care, and dress reform. She often wore men’s clothing and was arrested several times for impersonating a man. She replied of her attire:
“I don’t wear men’s clothes. I wear my own clothes.”
At one trial for just such an arrest, she asserted her right to, “Dress as I please in free America on whose tented fields I have served for four years in the cause of human freedom.” The judge dismissed the case and ordered the police never to arrest Dr. Walker on that charge again. She left the courtroom to hearty applause.
Shortly after the end of the war, Walker became the first woman to be awarded the Medal of Honor, and is said to have worn it every day for the rest of her life.
In 1919, however, the Board of Medals revoked her award and the awards of 910 other individuals. The eighty-seven-year old physician said, “You can have it over my dead body.” (The medals did not have to be returned; the 911 names were simply deleted from the official list of recipients.)
She died six days later, a year before the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed women the right to vote. She was buried in her black suit rather than a dress.
The Medal was restored posthumously in 1977.