Doctor, feminist and Medal Of Honor recipient: Mary Walker's remarkable life

Julia LeDoux
November 06, 2019 - 3:49 pm
Mary Walker

Army.mil

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There is only one woman among the nation’s nearly 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients, and she wasn't even in the military.

Furthermore, she had her medal rescinded shortly before she died in 1919 only to have it restored 60 years later.

Dr. Mary Walker was born in Oswego, New York on Nov. 26, 1832. Her parents were abolitionists who encouraged her to pursue an education, which Walker did. She graduated as a medical doctor from Syracuse Medical College in 1855.

Walker went into private practice for a few years, but when the Civil War broke out in 1861 she wanted to join the Army as a surgeon. Walker wasn’t allowed to because she was a woman. Due to her credentials, she didn't want to be a nurse, either. Walker chose to work for free at a temporary hospital set up at the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., where she organized the Women’s Relief Organization to assist the families of the wounded who came to visit them while in the hospital. 

Mary Walker
Army.mil

By 1862, Walker was treating the wounded at field hospitals throughout Virginia. When her medical credentials were accepted in 1863, she moved to Tennessee, where was appointed as a War Department surgeon. She also received a salary equivalent to that of a lieutenant or captain.

Captured by the Confederate Army in April 1864, Walker was held as a prisoner of war for nearly four months before being exchanged in a prisoner swap for Confederate medical doctors.  Interestingly, some historical sources say Walker had been intentionally captured so she could spy for the Union, but there isn’t a lot of evidence to support that claim.

What’s not in dispute is Walker’s outspoken support for women’s rights, which included being able to wear clothes that allowed better freedom of movement. Throughout the war, Walker opted to wear what was known as the Bloomer costume – a dress-and-pants combo. Later in life, she eventually switched over to wearing men’s clothes and was arrested for impersonating a man several times. She argued that the government had given her special permission to dress that way.

Mary Walker
National Park Service

On Nov. 11, 1865, President Andrew Johnson awarded Walker the Medal of Honor, even though she was a civilian who had never been in the military. In part, Walker's MOH citation reads that she "rendered valuable service to the Government, and her efforts have been earnest and untiring in a variety of ways.”

In 1917, Walker and 910 others had their MOHs rescinded due to their civilian status. Walker refused to return her medal and continued to wear it until her death in 1919.  After lobbying by her family, President Jimmy Carter restored the honor to Walker on June 11, 1977.

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Reach Julia LeDoux: Julia@connectingvets.com

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