Dr. Mary Walker
Civil War


Dr Mary Edwards Walker led an unconventional life for a women of the mid-nineteenth century. She became a doctor when few women were even credentialed in nursing, divorced in an era when women's positions were primarily defined by wifehood and motherhood, advocated dress reform for women and even wore men's full-dress clothing to lecture on women's rights. She often challenged medical orthodoxy—discouraging surgeons, for example from extensive practice of amputation.

Dr. Walker is also the only woman ever awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Born in Oswego New York in 1832, her father urged her to pursue a medical career and in 1855, she graduated from Syracuse Medical College and married a fellow-graduate, but later divorced.

As the Civil War broke out, Dr. Walker traveled to Washington to petition for a commission in the Army as a surgeon. Denied the commisison, she served for several months as a contract surgeon. When she Walker was finally appointed assistant surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland, she made herself a slightly modified officer's uniform that gave her more mobility when treating soldiers and working in field hospitals than women's clothing of the day.

  Dr. Mary Walker wearing the Congressional Medal of Honor, advocated dress reform for women and frequently adapted men's clothing for professional and personal comfort and utility.  

Dr. Walker was then appointed assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry. She continually crossed Confederate lines to treat civilians. Although she later fought rumors that she was not a qualified doctor, but a Union spy, it is presumed that she passed information during that time. Dr. Walker was taken prisoner in 1864 by Confederate troops and imprisoned in Richmond for four months until she was exchanged, with two dozen other Union doctors, for 17 Confederate surgeons.

After the war, President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Congressional Medal of Honor. Her citation reads, in part,

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 Chickomauga, September 1863; Prisoner of War, April 10, 1864_August 12, 1864, Richmond, Va.; Battle of Atlanta, September 1864. Entered service at: Louisville, Ky. Born: 26 November 1832, OswegoCounty, N.Y.

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 soliders, 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 existinglaws, 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.

Dr. Mary Walker in 1913  

In 1917, when criteria for awarding the Congressional Medal of Honor changed, Dr. Walker's award was rescinded along with more than 900 others. She refused to return it, however, and wore it always. President Jimmy Carter restored the award to her in 1977. As a result of her service to the Union during the Civil War, Mary Walker was paid $766.16 and provided a monthly pension lower than those of most war widows.