Dr. Mary Edwards Walker
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor, was a pioneering female surgeon during the Civil War. Born to abolitionist parents in Oswego, New York, in 1832, Walker graduated from Syracuse Medical College as a medical doctor in 1855.
Rejected by the Army as a surgeon because of her gender, Walker volunteered at the makeshift military hospital in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington and organized the Women’s Relief Organization to help family members visiting convalescing soldiers. The barriers finally fell in 1863 and Walker became the U.S. Army’s first female surgeon, serving as a civilian “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon” with the 52nd Ohio Infantry in the Army of the Cumberland in Tennessee.
Fiercely independent, she began crossing the lines to treat civilians and was arrested by the Confederates as a Union spy. Walker spent four months imprisoned at Richmond’s notorious Castle Thunder before she and other doctors were exchanged for Confederate doctors. After her release, Walker served as medical director of the Louisville Women’s Prison Hospital and was in charge of an orphan asylum in Clarksville, Tennessee.
“Many a man today has for it the perfect and good use of limbs who would not have had but for my advice.”
In 1865, she sought a retroactive commission in the Army as a way to recognize her service. That was impossible under the existing law, but President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor as an “honorable recognition of her services and suffering.”
“Let the generations know that women in uniform also guaranteed their freedom.”
In 1917, after a review, 911 Medals of Honor were rescinded, including Walker’s on the grounds that she had been a civilian at the time of her actions. But Mary Walker refused to return it and continued to wear it proudly until her death in 1919. In 1977, after lobbying efforts by her descendants, President Jimmy Carter restored Walker’s Medal of Honor. A Liberty ship was named for her during World War II and the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in her honor in 1982. Several clinics are named for her, as well as a U.S. Army Reserve Center. A statue in her honor stands in front of the Town Hall in Oswego, where she is interred.