Civil War Surgeon Only Woman in History to Receive the Medal of Honor
The story of abolitionist, prisoner of war and physician Mary Edwards Walker
In the 161 years since the country's most prestigious military decoration was instituted, the Medal of Honor has been presented to over 3,500 service members but only one has been a woman, Mary Edwards Walker, M.D.
At the start of the Civil War, Walker, one of the few practicing female doctors at the time, arrived in Washington, D.C., seeking a position as a surgeon for the U.S. Army. She went to meet with Secretary of War Simon Cameron wearing a bloomer-style outfit, which incorporated trousers and represented her interest in equal rights for women.
"She did not present herself looking the way a very traditional 19th-century woman would look. So that I think doubly startled Cameron,” said Theresa Kaminski, professor emeritus of history at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and author of Dr. Mary Walker's Civil War. “He refused her right away. He said that women didn't belong in the Army. He could barely tolerate the notion of women as doctors."
Instead of returning home to upstate New York, Walker went from hospital to hospital in Washington to volunteer her services. She finally found a doctor, J. N. Green, M.D., at the Indiana Hospital (located in Washington's Patent Office Building), who accepted her proposition. Green offer to pay her out of his own salary, but she declined and only asked for a place to sleep.
"The soldiers seem to hold her in pretty high regard. And the officers that she encountered generally felt the same way, as long as they weren't military officers,” Kaminski said. “She had more trouble with the male doctors than she did with the regular officers of the U.S. Army."
A closer look at Walker's tour of duty
As a person who believed in gender equality, not a widely held opinion at the time, Walker's clothing was not just a statement but a form of convenience for the work she wanted to do. The uniform that she made for herself mimicked what a commissioned union medical officer would wear.
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"I think part of it was the practicality. And maybe another part of it was a way of her pushing gender equality, saying that men and women should be able to pretty much wear what they wanted to wear without clothing being labeled,” Kaminski said.
While Walker was able to successfully push boundaries with her style of dress and occupation, she was never able to become a commissioned officer within the Army. However, she did secure a paid position as a civilian-contracted assistant surgeon.
In the spring of 1864, Walker was stationed at Lee and Gordon's Mills in Chickamauga, Georgia, an area held by U.S. troops that was very close to Confederate territory.
"She was encouraged to go out and treat southern civilians who hadn't had access to medical care in a long time,” Kaminski said. “She would go out into the countryside, often on her own, knowing how dangerous it was to treat civilians who were in need."
While out on her own she would listen for any information on troop movements and brought the intel back to her commanding officer, who presumably passed it up the chain of command.
During one of her forays into enemy territory, Walker was captured by Confederate soldiers and held as a prisoner of war at a female military prison in Virginia. Her imprisonment caused negative effects on her health, including problems with her eye, which prevented her from continuing to perform surgery after the war ended.
Receiving the military's top honor
Walker and her supporters brought her desire to be a commissioned officer to the attention of President Abraham Lincoln. However, after Lincoln's assassination, President Andrew Johnson did not feel that it was in his power to provide her a commission in the military. Instead, he awarded her a Medal of Honor.
"The grounds upon which the Medal of Honor could be awarded were broader than they are today and rather ambiguous in a number of cases,” said Ed Lengel, chief historian for the National Medal of Honor Museum. “It did not necessarily have to be combat service to qualify for the award, i.e., not just wartime service, but service actually under fire. Although, in many cases, Mary Walker came close to that."
After the Civil War, many service members wrote their congressmen stating that they deserved the award, which pushed the military to tighten its eligibility parameters on who could qualify to receive the top military decoration.
"Pressure could be applied within the military to get a medal awarded to them simply by pulling strings. So there were quite a few egregious cases,” said Lengel.
By the beginning of the U.S. entry into World War I in 1917, a review of Medal of Honor awards resulted in 911 individuals being stripped of their award, including Walker. However, she was among the few who refused to return the medal and continued to wear it until her death in 1919.
Behind the scenes, a campaign was launched in the 1920s to get Walker's medal restored. The efforts intensified in the 1970s, including a local campaign in her hometown of Oswego, New York. Eventually, the reinstatement of her medal was supported through a bipartisan effort in Congress and posthumously restored by President Jimmy Carter in 1977.
Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency's Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.
Editor’s note: This article, originally published March 21, 2021, has been updated with new information.