|Mary Edwards Walker, MD
Civil War Surgeon, Spy, Suffragette
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Edwards Walker grew up in rural New York and graduated from Syracuse
Medical College in 1855. She was an unconventional woman who, after
marrying a fellow student, Albert Miller, hung onto her own last
name refusing to assume her husband’s. Some historians point out
that her wedding vows did not include the usual promise to obey and
that she wore “trousers and a dress-coat.” Her marriage, and their
joint medical practice, lasted but thirteen short years.
When the Civil War
broke out, Mary volunteered with the Union Army. She was not allowed
to work as a physician and was denied a commission. She volunteered
anyway as a “nurse” and a spy. Her nursing duties were, in
actuality, those of an assistant surgeon, making Mary the first
female surgeon in the US Army. She was an unpaid volunteer. Her
initial job was in the US Patent Office Hospital in Washington, and
later she worked as a field surgeon near the front lines for almost
Mary put on a
modified union soldier’s uniform and from that time on continued to
wear men’s clothing, an idiosyncrasy she would carry to her death,
often showing up for her lectures wearing a man’s suit and a top
hat, and often landing in jail for her scurrilous behavior.
Mary’s work was
unequaled among her peers and she was eventually appointed
replacement surgeon in an infantry regiment but still no commission.
Though not accepted fully by her male counterparts, her commanding
officer Col Dan McCook was enormously grateful to have her.
When not attending
Union casualties, Mary spied for the Union, crossing over into enemy
territory and caring for the civilian population; many of whom were
sick and dying from the ravages of the war. She would report back to
her superiors the conditions she’d found. It seems that she was a
much better physician than spy, for on one such venture, she walked
straight into a group of Rebel soldiers.
She was immediately
taken prisoner and transported to Richmond, Virginia where she was
imprisoned in the toughest prison of the time,
Castle Thunder. After four months she was released in a prisoner
exchange in which she was exchanged “man for man.” She prided
herself that she’d been exchanged for someone holding the rank of
major, a Confederate surgeon.
Returning to her
unit, she again filed an application for a commission that went all
the way to President Lincoln, but was turned down. However, on
October 5, 1864 Dr Mary Edwards Walker was finally commissioned as
acting assistant surgeon, the first female surgeon ever commissioned
in the US Army. Her salary was $100 per month. She served the next
six months caring for patients at the Louisville Women’s Prison
Hospital and finished out the war at an orphan home in Clarksville,
Tennessee. She was discharged from the Army on June 15, 1865.
After the war,
President Johnson signed a bill presenting Dr Mary Edwards Walker
with the Congressional Medal of Honor, recognizing her contributions
during the Civil War. She was the first and only woman to receive
her country’s highest honor.
However, in 1917,
her medal, along with the medals of 910 others, was taken away when
Congress revised the Medal of Honor standards to apply only to
“actual combat with an enemy.”
Mary refused to
give up her medal and wore it proudly for the next two years till
In 1977, because of
her great great grandniece’s persistence, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill
reinstating her medal and an army board cited her “distinguished
gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching
loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because
of her sex." [http://www.northnet.org/stlawrenceaauw/walker.htm]
On June 10th,
1982, the post office issued a 20 cent stamp honoring Dr Mary
Walker, commemorating the second woman to graduate from a medical
school in the US and the first woman to have been awarded the
Congressional Medal of Honor.
Stamp Photo Courtesy of the USPS.