One of only a handful of women in the United States who had earned a medical degree, Walker had graduated from Syracuse Medical College at 22 and gone into private practice. Since the beginning of the war, she had served as a volunteer at a makeshift hospital in the Patent Office in Washington, and treated sick and wounded troops on the battlefields in Warrenton and Fredericksburg, Va. But what she really wanted, and what she was repeatedly denied because of her gender, was a surgeon’s commission, which would allow her to use her skills and authority to save more lives.
Though Walker’s medical contributions were desperately needed, they were not always wanted. Many believed it was improper for women to work in any capacity in Army hospitals, and female doctors were an anomaly. Walker was keenly aware of this opposition; when she questioned the high number of amputations being performed by Army surgeons, she feared she would lose her position as a volunteer if she spoke out.
Nevertheless, concerns for her career never trumped her concern for her patients. After watching “two surgeons in the ward who had decided to have [an] arm amputated when there had been only a slight flesh wound, “ she decided it was her duty to counsel individual soldiers about their right to refuse the operation. If she found that a soldier was complaining about a proposed amputation, she would examine the wound herself. “In almost every instance I saw amputation was not only unnecessary, but to me it seemed wickedly cruel,” she wrote.
By this time Walker had separated from her husband after accusing him of infidelity, and pushed further against society’s prevailing traditions by donning trousers, or bloomers. She believed, like others who championed dress reform and as her parents had taught her as a farm girl in Oswego, N.Y., that tight clothing impeded circulation and long trailing skirts were unsanitary. Though often criticized for her masculine dress, she insisted, “I don’t wear men’s clothes, I wear my own clothes.”
On Nov. 2, 1863, she wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton requesting that she be appointed “first Assistant Surgeon” of a new regiment of men called “Walker’s U.S. Patriots.” When Stanton rejected the idea, Walker took her case to Lincoln. On Jan. 11, 1864, she wrote a letter to the president stating she had been denied a commission “solely on the ground of sex” and asked “for a surgeon’s commission with orders to go whenever and wherever there is a battle.” Lincoln replied that he could not interfere with the Army’s Medical Department.
Walker continued to wage her campaign until she was finally sent to Chattanooga, Tenn., as an unofficial civilian contract surgeon to the 52nd Ohio Volunteers. The previous assistant surgeon had recently died, and the men camped in winter quarters were in dire need of help. The civilian population also needed medical assistance, and Walker was soon crossing enemy lines, traveling throughout the dangerous countryside to treat wary patients who weren’t sure what to make of a female doctor.
While on these missions, Walker also collected information on Confederate troop movements. “At one time [she] gained information that led Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman to so modify his strategic operations as to save himself from a serious reverse and obtain success where defeat before seemed to be inevitable,” wrote the Army’s judge advocate general in 1865.
Walker’s work as a Union spy, however, was short-lived. Just months after arriving in Chattanooga, she was captured by a Confederate sentry while on an expedition. Sent by train as a prisoner of war to the brutal, filthy, and overcrowded Castle Thunder in Richmond, Va., she was greeted by a crowd of hostile onlookers unused to female prisoners. One Confederate captain wrote that the crowd was “both amused and disgusted … at the sight of a thing that nothing but the debased and depraved Yankee nation could produce … she was dressed in the full uniform of a Federal Surgeon … not good looking and of course had tongue enough for a regiment of men.”
Walker remained a prisoner of war for four months before she was released in an exchange for a Confederate officer, but her health, particularly her eyesight, would never recover. She credited her survival while she was ill in prison to eating raw eggs she was able to get through bribery.
After her release, Walker returned to Washington and continued her campaign for a commission. In a letter to General Sherman, she asked to be given the rank of major and assigned as a surgeon to the female prisoners in Louisville, Ky., most of whom were being held on suspicion of spying. In October 1864, she was granted her request to go to Louisville and was given an official contract as an acting assistant surgeon which came with a salary of $100 a month in addition to $434.66 in back pay.
Within six months, however, Walker was frustrated and worn down by the struggles she faced with prison officials who thought she was too lenient, as well as the female prisoners who distrusted a female doctor. She requested a transfer that would allow her to once again treat wounded soldiers, but soon found herself in charge of the Refugee Home in Clarksville, Tenn. Her duties ended in May 1865, a month after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia, effectively ending the war.
Though the war was over, Walker’s battle to receive a commission was not. Her supporters included General Sherman and Maj. Gen. Henry Thomas. Though Stanton denied her application in the fall of 1865, President Andrew Johnson signed a bill in November that awarded her the Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service. The bill said that Walker had “devoted herself with patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospital, to the detriment of her own health, and has also endured hardships as a prisoner-of-war four months in a Southern prison.” It passed. Walker was so proud of her medal she wore it every day. When a replacement arrived in 1907, she sported both.
But in 1917, just two years before Walker died, the Medal of Honor Board moved Walker and 910 others from the list of recipients, arguing that the award could be given only to those who had served “in actual combat with the enemy, by gallantry or intrepidity, at risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty.” Walker voiced her complaints and continued to wear the medal until her death.
With the urging of Walker’s grandniece, President Jimmy Carter reinstated her medal in 1977, 58 years after her death. She remains the only woman to have received the Medal of Honor.
Sources: Mercedes Graf, “A Woman of Honor: Dr. Mary E. Walker and the Civil War”; Dale L. Walker, “Mary Edwards Walker: Above and Beyond”; The Congressional Medal of Honor Society, “Mary Edwards Walker“; SUNY Oswego Library, “Mary Edwards Walker.”
Cate Lineberry is the author of “The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines.”