Mary Walker: A Woman of Honor

April 1, 2013 in Analysis & Editorial, Women

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker in Man's Top Coat and Hat, Circa 1911Mary Walker (Nov. 26, 1832 to Feb. 21, 1919) was an American feminist, abolitionist, prohibitionist, alleged spy, prisoner of war and surgeon. She is most notably distinguished for being the only woman as of this writing to have received the United States Medal of Honor.

Although never proved, it is generally accepted Walker was a valued spy during the Civil War. She was recommended for her service both by Major Generals Sherman and Thomas. President Andrew Johnson signed a bill on Nov. 11, 1865 to the effect. Walker was presented with the Medal of Honor for meritorious service.

In 1917, the federal government tried to clean up many of the errors that had been made in issuing medals. Walker’s medal was revoked for “unusual circumstances”. However, she refused to turn the Medal of Honor back to the U.S. Army as requested. She instead wore it proudly every day for the remainder of her life, working tirelessly in advancing the cause of women’s rights, until her death in 1919.

In 1977, thanks to the unyielding efforts of her granddaughter, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill reinstating Walker’s medal. This ensures her rightful place as a true hero of the American Civil War. She should forever be known as a woman of honor.

Walker was born in Oswego, New York. She graduated with a doctorate in medicine from SyracuseMedicalCollege in 1855. This was a time in our history when women were considered little more than chattel. The prevailing thought of the era was that the power of a woman was in her dependence.

Young Walker, along with her husband, a former classmate Albert Miller, owned a failing medical practice in Rome, New York. This was when most people were not ready for a woman physician.

Known as Mary Walker, foregoing the tradition of assuming her husband’s name, she traveled to Washington, D.C. to join the Union army at the onset of the Civil War. Denied a commission as a medical officer, Mary chose to serve as an unpaid volunteer surgeon at the U.S. Patent Office Hospital in Washington. In September 1863, Walker became the first female U.S. Army surgeon following her commission as a “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)” by the Army of the Cumberland.

While serving as an assistant surgeon with the 52nd Ohio Infantry, Walker routinely crossed enemy lines to treat civilians. On one such trip in 1864, she was detained by Confederate troops and arrested for spying. After spending four months in Castle Thunder prison near Richmond, Va., Walker was freed in a prisoner exchange. Reportedly she was extremely proud and pleased as she was traded for a Confederate surgeon with the rank of major.

During the remainder of the Civil War, Walker served at the Louisville Women’s Prison Hospital and an orphans’ asylum in Clarksville, Tennessee.