Mary Edwards Walker 1832-1919
Congressional Medal of Honor
Women in Military Service
Mary Edwards Walker, one of the nation's 1.8 million women veterans, was the only one to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor, for her service during the Civil War. She, along with thousands of other women, were honored in the newly-dedicated Women in Military Service for America Memorial in October 1997.
Controversy surrounded Mary Edwards Walker throughout her life. She was born on November 26, 1832 in the Town of Oswego, New York, into an abolitionist family. Her birthplace on the Bunker Hill Road is marked with a historical marker. Her father, a
country doctor, was a free thinking participant in many of the reform movements that thrived in upstate New York in the mid 1800s. He believed strongly in education and equality for his five daughters Mary, Aurora, Luna, Vesta, and Cynthia (there was one son, Alvah). He also believed they were hampered by the tight-fitting women's clothing of the day.
His daughter, Mary, became an early enthusiast for Women's Rights, and passionately espoused the issue of dress reform. The most famous proponent of dress reform was Amelia Bloomer, a native of Homer, New York, whose defended a colleague's right to wear "Turkish pantaloons" in her Ladies' Temperance Newspaper, the Lily . "Bloomers," as they became known, did achieve some popular acceptance towards the end of the 19th century as women took up the new sport of bicycling. Mary Edwards Walker discarded the unusual restrictive women's clothing of the day. Later in her life she donned full men's evening dress to lecture on Women's Rights.
In June 1855 Mary, the only woman in her class, joined the tiny number of women doctors in the nation when she graduated from the eclectic Syracuse Medical College, the nation's first medical school and one which accepted women and men on an equal basis. She gratuated at age 21 after three 13-week semesters of medical training which she paid $55 each for.
In 1856 she married another physician, Albert Miller, wearing trousers and a man's coat and kept her own name. Together they set up a medical practice in Rome, NY, but the public was not ready to accept a woman physician, and their practice floundered. They were divorced 13 years later.
When war broke out, she came to Washington and tried to join the Union Army. Denied a commission as a medical officer, she volunteered anyway, serving as an acting assistant surgeon -- the first female surgeon in the US Army. As an unpaid volunteer, she worked in the US Patent Office Hospital in Washington. Later, she worked as a field surgeon near the Union front lines for almost two years (including Fredericksburg and in Chattanooga after the Battle of Chickamauga).
In September 1863, Walker was finally appointed assistant surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland for which she made herself a slightly modified officer's uniform to wear, in response to the demands of traveling with the soldiers and working in field hospitals. She was then appointed assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry. During this assignment it is generally accepted that she also served as a spy. She continually crossed Confederate lines to treat civilians. She 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.
She was released back to the 52nd Ohio as a contract surgeon, but spent the rest of the war practicing at a Louisville female prison and an orphan's asylum in Tennessee. She was paid $766.16 for her wartime service. Afterward, she got a monthly pension
of $8.50, later raised to $20, but still less than some widows' pensions.
On November 11, 1865, President Johnson signed a bill to present Dr. Mary Edwards Walker with the Congressional Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service, in order to recognize her contributions to the war effort without awarding her an army commission. She was the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor, her country's highest military award.
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 She refused to give back her Medal of Honor, wearing it every day until her death in 1919. A relative told the New York Times: "Dr. Mary lost the medal simply because she was a hundred years ahead of her time and no one could stomach it." 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."
After the war, Mary Edwards Walker became a writer and lecturer, touring here and abroad on women's rights, dress reform, health and temperance issues. Tobacco, she said, resulted in paralysis and insanity. Women's clothing, she said, was immodest and inconvenient. She was elected president of the National Dress Reform Association in 1866. Walker prided herself by being arrested numerous times for wearing full male dress, including wing collar, bow tie, and top hat. She was also something of an inventor, coming up with the idea of using a return postcard for registered mail. She wrote extensively, including a combination biography and commentary called Hit and a second book, Unmasked, or the Science of Immortality. She died in the Town of Oswego on February 21, 1919 and is buried in the Rural Cemetery on the Cemetery Road.
A 20¢ stamp honoring Dr. Mary Walker was issued in Oswego, NY on June 10, 1982. The stamp commemorates the first woman to have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and the second woman to graduate from a medical school in the United States.
Special thanks to Theresa A. Cooper, President of the Town of Oswego Historical Society and Town Clerk for supplying additional information for this Profile.
The full text of her entry at the U.S. Army Center of Military History of Medal of Honor Citations follows:
WALKER, DR. MARY E.
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, Oswego County, 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 llntirin~ 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 existing laws, 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.
A Woman of Honor:
Dr. Walker and the Civil War
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Hit: Essays on Women's Rights
by Mary Edwards, M.D. Walker
The only woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for her service during the Civil War, Dr. Mary E. Walker (1832-1919) was a surgeon, a public lecturer, and an outspoken champion of women's rights. One of the first women in the country to be awarded a medical degree, she served as an assistant surgeon for the Fifty-second Ohio Infantry
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Dr. Mary Walker was an outspoken advocate for women's rights, and the first woman ever awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. In a period of confusion about the rightful recipients of the award, the medal was revoked two years before her death. Dr. Walker remained proud of her service and her contributions to the campaign for women's rights,
and 1977 Congressional reappraisal of her achievements led to the restoration of the honor.
Mary Walker was born in Oswego, in upstate New York, in 1832. She was the fifth daughter of Alvah and Vesta Whitcomb Walker, and all children were encouraged to pursue their education. She and her sisters originally went into teaching after completing their studies, but Mary Walker enrolled in Syracuse Medical College at the end of her teenage years. She graduated with a doctor of medicine degree in 1855.
Dr. Walker went into private practice and married Albert Miller, also a physician, and the couple moved to Rome, New York. At the outbreak of the Civil War, she volunteered in Washington to join the Union effort, and worked as a nurse in a temporary hospital set up in the capital. In 1862, Dr. Walker went to Virginia to provide medical care to the wounded, and in 1863 she was briefly appointed surgeon in an Ohio Regiment. The stories that surround this period of her life are undocumented, but in the summer of 1864, she was apparently a prisoner of war exchanged for a Confederate soldier. Some sources suggest she allowed herself to be captured in order to spy for the Union army, but there is little evidence to support this claim. In September of 1864, Dr. Walker was contracted as acting assistant surgeon with the Ohio 52nd Infantry.
In 1865 Dr. Walker was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for her work during the Civil War. She was the first woman to receive the award, although her name was removed from the honor list of awardees in 1917, along with others, when the terms used to designate eligibility for the award were reappraised. She refused to surrender the medal, however, and continue to wear it for the rest of her life. In 1977, thanks to the efforts of her family and a Congressional reappraisal of her achievements, the honor was restored.
In the mid-nineteenth century, as women were campaigning for a more public and professional role in society, clothing became a central issue in the struggle for women's rights. Feminists argued that tight corsets and long heavy skirts were bad for women's health and even designed to limit the possible activities that women could undertake. Amelia Bloomer, a campaigner for women's rights and a publisher, took to wearing a homemade dress and trouser combination that provided greater movement without compromising 'female modesty.' The Bloomer costume, as it came to be known, was quickly taken up by other feminists, and abandoned almost as quickly once it became obvious that the clothing was causing more of a stir than the politics. Many women experienced harassment when wearing the costume out in public, and the newspapers were filled with derogatory cartoons lampooning the outfit and its proponents. Twenty years later, as the suffragette movement's call for votes for women drew national attention, dress reform again became a topic of public debate, but this time, feminists were wary of the bloomer controversy and tended to disassociate themselves from women wearing any version of the costume. Dr. Mary Walker wore the bloomer dress until the late 1870s, when she began dressing in men's clothes. She was arrested for impersonating a man several times, although she argued that Congress had awarded her special permission to dress in this way.
Despite the controversy surrounding her career and her politics, Dr. Mary Walker was proud of her accomplishments as a physician and an advocate for women's rights. As she concluded in 1897, "I am the original new woman...Why, before Lucy Stone, Mrs. Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were—before they were, I am. In the early '40's, when they began their work in dress reform, I was already wearing pants...I have made it possible for the bicycle girl to wear the abbreviated skirt, and I have prepared the way for the girl in knickerbockers." National Library of Medicine
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