Santa Claus and Secrets, Spies & Sweet Little Lies by Tara Kingston

Yes, Dear Reader, There is a Santa Claus

By Tara Kingston


I indulge in a love affair every year at Christmas time with an older man who has a bit of a weight problem and truly never heard of the Atkins diet, but he’s a flashy dresser with an even flashier means of transportation. He’s generous, possibly to a fault, and I don’t usually go for a big, ZZ-Top style beard, but he’s the exception. My home is filled with images of this man—his face is even on my Christmas ornaments. My husband doesn’t mind my interest. He’s not in the least bit jealous. In fact, my darling husband, a man who reminds me more than a little bit of Clark Griswold, searched Ebay to find an old, somewhat cheesy plastic rendering of him that was first crafted in the sixties. So, who is this mystery man?

You guessed it—Santa Claus, that jolly resident of the North Pole who now attracts NORAD’s interest every Christmas Eve. Long before Santa’s sleigh was tracked on radar, Santa became an indelible part of American culture. A century before Macy’s Thanksgiving parade ushered in the Christmas season, the poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas introduced the image of Santa Claus that many Americans cherish. From the young toddler sitting on Santa’s lap to the homeowner competing with his neighbor to have the grandest light display in the neighborhood, the image of a jolly old man with a white beard, red suit, and reindeer at the ready brings to mind the joy and warmth of Christmas.

MerryOldSanta-By Thomas Nast [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsAmazingly, Santa’s image became a vital part of America’s Christmas tradition during the Civil War. Cartoonist Thomas Nast’s portrayal of Santa on the cover of the January 3, 1863 edition of Harper’s Weekly depicted Santa seated on his sleigh, complete with hat and beard,  presenting gifts to Union soldiers on the battlefield. Three decades later, an eight-year-old girl, Virginia O’Hanlon, wrote a letter to the New York Sun that spawned one of the most famous editorials in history, Francis Church’s response. Church, a former Civil War correspondent who’d seen man’s inhumanity to man in vivid terms, responded with the immortal line, Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. His touching, philosophical response viewed the existence of Santa in terms of love and goodness and giving.

One of my most enduring images of Santa emerged from the classic movie Miracle on 34th Street. The classic film charmed generations. Remade decades later, the premise was the same – Santa is real, if only in our hearts. What a lovely message to remember during the holiday season.

What images bring Christmas to mind most vividly for you? Does mistletoe bring back memories of a treasured kiss, or would cookies for Santa stir memories of Christmas past? What signs of Christmas touch your heart?

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TaraKingston_SecretsSpiesAndSweetLittleLies_200Here’s a little teaser from Secrets, Spies & Sweet Little Lies. In this scene, runaway bride Emma has fled her home in Washington, on her way to a rendezvous with the man she intends to marry against her father’s wishes. In this scene, Emma gets her first look at the man who will soon become her hero. So, what’s your first impression of Cole?

Here’s the snippet:

Someone had her in his sights.

Had she been followed?

If her father had sent some lap dog to fetch her–Mr. Tucker, his ever-agreeing assistant, most likely–the beleaguered fop could tuck his tail between his legs and head home. Papa had plenty of people to order about. She’d no longer be one of them.

Drat it all, she’d simply have to confront him.

She turned on her heel. A stranger met her gaze.

Definitely not Mr. Tucker.

Long, lean, and scowling, the man eyed her with an intensity that coiled heat in her belly and threatened to strip her bare. His lips curved into a trace of an arrogant smile as if challenging her to look away.

He wore a crudely tailored shirt, unbuttoned at the throat, revealing a vee of sun-bronzed skin feathered with dark hair. Deeper in hue than the neatly-clipped strands on his head, would the curls feel silky or crisp to the touch?

She blinked away the scandalous thought. Still, her mouth went dry.

His sinewy muscles strained against the cambric of his shirt. Sunlight glinted off the manacles on his wrists.

He was a prisoner, flanked by two towering Union soldiers. Sparing one of the guards a glance brimming with defiance, he turned back to Emma. The sweep of his appreciative gaze trailed from her demure hat to the hem of her sky-blue traveling skirt. His expression penetrated her.

She felt exposed, vulnerable.




Ladies of the American Civil War

Godey's Fashions The ladies during the American Civil War. Visions of Scarlett O’Hara often come to mind for many. Pictures of ladies in the long, glorious gowns of the grand balls bring many women today to wish to live back then and have access to such glorious dresses to galas with gentlemen at our sides. Hollywood has aided in this idealistic view of the antebellum period but the reality of life back then was hardly picturesque. Let us see an example of life back then and decide if that is truly desirable over today.

At this time period, c. 1860, ladies woke, dressed in chemise, under petticoat, drawers, stockings and dress. The well to do could get by in the morning in a morning dress – a robe of sorts. Either outfit was not to be worn for the public but it was find to wear to breakfast. During the morning, if a guest were to arrive to visit, they would be refused, as she was not yet ready to receive company. Times for receiving company or for visiting, in the larger communities, was general well known but there were exceptions. Now, if the lady’s husband was wealthy enough to hire a business manager to run the business in the North or hired an overseer to manage the slaves in the fields of a large cotton planter, for example, the lady could see either of these two men dressed as simply as a dress for these were working men and not gentlemen. Ladies handled the everyday workings on farms and businesses such as ordering supplies, paperwork, etc., all in their husband’s name and the men handled all the major sales and purchases.

‘Morning’ in the 19th century ran until 2 o’clock in the afternoon and then ladies dressed for the day. First off, they wear a cotton chemise – simple off the shoulder shift in white, it has puff sleeves and falls in straight line to their knees. Next are their stockings. Made of cotton, wool or, for the wealthy, imported French silk, stockings come in 3 colors – black, white or the latest color is tan. Black is for daytime (if they go shopping for instance, black will not show dirt) and white for nighttime engagements (balls or dinners). They are held on by garters, designed out of ribbon and a spring-type coil or the latest, elastic, though this will need to be replaced as it looses its hold easily). She can wear pantalets, which are crotch less. Next in line are her shoes – low-heeled boots for day, slippers for evening. Highest heel is 2 inches. Ball slippers are made of the material the dress is made of and often resemble ballet slippers. These last for one soiree, as their fragile materials won’t hold longer.

BuskCorsetFront1All this needs to be on before the next piece. The corset. Women wore this piece over a century. For the mid-19th century, it goes from the bust to their hips, a metal busk up the front and pull strings in the back. To size one, take your waist measurement and subtract 4 inches. Laces crisscross in the back to the waist where they are looped to the hole beneath with the next crisscross and tied to stay in bottom hole. Take the laces and make a loop out of the single-sided lacing – these are your ties. You cross them and pull to front. This closes the back 2 to 3 inches and you tie it in front. BuskCorsetRearHence the back is open 1 to 2 inches. Example: a 26 inch waist corset is 22 inches; laced it reduces the waist to 23 or 24 inches. You don’t require any one to tie you in, unlike what Hollywood shows. Average waist size for a lady is 18-20 inches in a corset – the ‘waspish’ waist that is in style. Ladies are trained to wear corsets from the age of 7, a twill piece that as they age, the metal stays are inserted so by the time they’re 10, it can have up to 20 stays in it. The number depends on the lady. Also, physical exercise like we do today is not encouraged for ladies, they being the fragile beings. Tomboys are even thwarted in their ways by over-protective parents, looking to raise a proper lady. With this, ladies stand straight, can’t bend to put on shoes, can’t truly run or jog and have to limit what they are eating since this squashes your insides, making no room to over-indulge in. Does it cut back on breathing capacity? It can but if fitted correctly, it isn’t hard to wear.

Problem with corsets deals with pregnancies. Ladies didn’t advertise they were pregnant. Pregnancy kept one ‘confined.’ You stayed home upon the baby-bump appearing. Last 3 months to be spent in bed. Without proper birth control, ladies could be constantly pregnant and to stay at home that much would drive anyone to madness. Many continued to wear corsets to hide their condition. They even had gestation corsets – they had tiny slits in the bottom front with mini-lacing. Still it left no room for a baby to grow. Many doctors wrote articles, letters to ladies to not wear corsets during this time. It caused immature births, tiny babies with little chance of survival. The impact was slow to take.

To be in the family way was terrifying since birthing was the major cause of death in women. Up to 50% of the newborns died within their first year, so many diaries even lack a woman saying she’s expecting. Suddenly, she writes about ‘Thomas’, for example, and upon reading, you realize she had a baby boy named Thomas.  If they lived to 1, up to 30% died by age 5. With no vaccines and often times, baby-food was simply table food chewed to mash inside their mother’s mouth, many came down sick and died. So many did not want to be to attached to their newborn as the loss was too heart wrenching.

But back to dressing. After the corset came the under petticoat followed by the cage crinoline (hoops) and an over petticoat. Crinolines came into vogue in the late 1840s to 1850s. After the Empire gowns went out of style, skirts started to expand, soon growing to the bottom width to equal your height, which meant wearing 20-30 under petticoats! First hoops were cone-shaped with a bar down the side to keep the form but that proved a problem if you fell. Then you were a bell that fell, needing assistance to rise, calling in a gentleman to whom it was an honor and a privilege to help. But in that shape, it exposed everything underneath and men were foxes in sheep clothing so the design rapidly changed to spring wire hung by ribbon – more moveable. Hoops and corsets required ladies to sit halfway on a chair. To sit back was uncomfortable. And one never lifted their hoops to run or go up steps. A slight nudge from behind moved the skirts a smidge up to step up a curb and a minuscule lift, to clear the toes, worked for steps. Running was out of the question and so unladylike!

The undergarments are mostly white cotton in the summer but in the cooler months, this could change. Pantalets could be made of flannel or wool; under petticoats flannel, wool or quilted like a bedspread, with many colors, the rage was to wear bright red here; the over petticoat remained white cotton as this smooth the lines of the cage crinoline so as not to be seen once dressed.

Godey's FashionsDresses, those large voluminous gowns, were one piece or bodice hooked to the skirt to appear as one. Mostly made of 7 yards of fabric, they gave the perfect gathered skirt and fitted bodice. Collars and cuffs were separate. On laundry day, it was easier to clean those than the dress for that required it to be taken apart – sleeves from bodice, bodice from skirt – and washed separate and hung to dry, individual pieces took quicker. Colored clothes were turned inside out and hung in the shade to dry, protecting the hues, with whites placed in the sun to brighten. Due to the nightmare of this, ladies changed clothes multiple times a day (up to 9 in the summer) so you didn’t have to wash unless necessary. You were covered from your neck to your wrists, even in the summer.

To leave, you needed a hat, coat and gloves. Hats were bonnets or straw hats. Coat could mean shawl in the warmer months. Gloves were mostly kid leather or could be cotton. Lace gloves or mitts were not used. They protected their skin from exposure to the sun. The idea was to have white porcelain skin. To be tan meant you were of the working class. Freckles were flaws. They actually had ointments and scrubs to try and eliminate them. The idea was if you had freckles, you weren’t as beautiful as the flawless white skinned ladies and you’re marriage possibilities were diminished to second-hand choices.

The lovely ball gowns were saved for dances and parties that started later, after 9 pm. These gowns had short sleeves and the bodice went as low as it could go, almost to the nipples without exposing them. Only a lady of ill-repute would wear that before 9 hence the late start. Balls ran till 3 or 4 in the morning, followed by a huge breakfast before home and bed. Ladies weren’t expected to work, therefore these hours didn’t impede on them. Also, at balls, you only danced the opening presentation parade, designed so all could see who wore what, with your husband or intended and only one other dance. Otherwise, you danced with others all night. It was a social outing. Men asked ladies to dance, put their names in her dance card (which she wore dangling from her wrist) and his own. It was up to him to find her for the dance. Afterward he was to return her to where he got her and if that left her alone, he escorted her to her friends or family. If he botched it and didn’t come for her, she could snub him, an act that others followed and he’d be asked to leave all Civil War Balltogether. Dance stewards often wandered the ball, finding men to dance with ladies who needed a partner. Tiring for the men to be sure. Men also retrieve drinks for ladies, as women were not to cross the dance floor alone. Ever.

While all this sounds fantastical, ladies hardly sat and did nothing at home. Spheres of Domesticity were in place, meaning men went to work and did politics (very damaging for a lady!) and women ran the house, raised the kids, made sure the children went to church, took care of the cleaning, sewing, the sick and injured (in the South, that included the slaves), helped on charities (a huge requirement for ladies of the North) while promoting their husband’s interests. Ladies were not suppose to have any political views and if they did, remained quiet as men, especially in the patriarchal South.

As to education, ladies were taught basic math and English. They were not considered intelligent enough to understand higher math or science at all though cooking itself was a science (most recipes were not written and those that were said for a cake, take a pound of butter, some flour and a dozen eggs and somehow you’d make a chocolate cake! Plus laundry detergent, starch, and soap were all made at home by women – that is chemistry last time I checked). No college was in their future except if they father thought it would make them worth more in marriage, they might be sent to Finishing School to learn French (diplomatic language), the harp and how to arrange dinner parties.

Civil War Ball 2 2On marriage, lower class ladies could marry at 14, middle to upper class was 20-21. They had coming out balls, dressed in the brightest springtime colors. There were more men in the US than women prior to the War so marriage shouldn’t be hard. The men considered suitable had to be 5-10 years older than them and proven to make money to support a wife and children. If a lady wasn’t married by 23, she was ‘retired’, put ‘on the shelf’, ‘spinster’. Refined to wearing the darker colors of her status – brown, navy, dark green, she was left with few options. Life to live alone was out of the question. Ladies were under a man’s care from daughter to wife. Without marriage, she could be a nanny to on of her siblings or hat boutique sales lady or perhaps teach in the wild west (Kansas). If she married later while working, she was to quit – the man of the house earned the money. Divorce was unheard of and only infidelity (mostly by the wife) could grant it as divorce was damaging to her and the husband’s family names. Reputations were at stake there in a bad marriage, many just lived apart, either by floor or houses, but went out sociably together as a ‘happy’ couple – what went on behind closed doors was no one’s business.

So, tell me, are you sure you want to live back then?

Sawbones & The Civil War

cw field hosp pix Medicine and the American Civil War – a nightmare in a worse case scenario at best. It was a war that saw the beginning of ambulances on the field, women as nurses and coordination between the volunteer units and the regular army.

In 1861, as the number of Southern states proclaimed secession and joined to become the Confederate States of America, the country geared for the armed conflict to come and found it was exceedingly lacking in soldiers and supplies. The Army Medical Department was unprepared for conflict of any type. The Surgeon General, Col. Thomas Lawson, was a vet of the War of 1812. He rarely brought medical books on the advances in medicine in an effort to conserve funds. In an era without retirement laws, he was still in charge 50 years after 1812. His staff consisted of 30 surgeons and 83 assistant surgeons (the army itself January 1861 numbered only 16,000 soldiers). With secession gripping the land, 3 surgeons and 21 assistant surgeons resigned their position to join their home state when it left the Union.

Lawson’s tightfisted rule ended when he died and Clement A Finley assumed the post. He was younger than Lawson, having joined the military in 1818. He didn’t last long because the US Sanitary Commission’s ability to inspect his military hospitals and report to higher ups, thus by-passing him, irritated him to the point of retiring in 1862. William Alexander Hammond was the Army Surgeon General from 1862 to the end of the war.

As to the actual army, in the 19th century, to become a doctor, three methods were available. Medical school was the best – the best medical schools were Europe, the top in Edinburgh but the expense kept most out. There were a few in the US, primarily in the North. For those unable to afford college, one could apprentice himself to an established doctor, though if he was a quack, they were learning the same bad methods. The third method was to check out three medical books from the library, read them through and call oneself a physician. The values per each method showed themselves.

Originally, the rule of thumb had been to send the wounded home, the theory at the time was patients would return to health faster in the embrace of loving arms. Hospitals at that time were more like hotels for the visitors or the poor to recoup and not considered as successful as home. But to send a soldier home in 1861, to say Michigan, could also mean he’d never return to the front. That factor sent Ulysses S Grant to issue a rule that hospitals were to be established near his army and the sick and wounded to remain there until they were well enough to return to the fight.


The incoming enlistees had to pass a physical – stripped to their drawers, they had to demonstrate they had working limbs, could hear, see and had a full set of teeth on the right side (to be able to rip the pig-tail end off a cartridge to load their rifle. All were taught the right-hand format to load their weapon; left-handers had to adapt for the shoulder-to-shoulder formation allowed no individuality). Yet the overwhelming numbers kept physicians busy – one even resorted to having a contingent of volunteers march down the street in rows and from viewing them march, the doctor passed them all regardless of the few who coughed, sniffled or limped. It was a plague on the armies North and South that incoming recruits could make it through carrying disease, like chickenpox, measles or strep throat, that infected the rest, putting whole units down sick. Robert E. Lee put an end to that in the Confederacy, after suffering through months of inactive troops, by requiring new units be quarantined at first.


CW surg pixNot only did command and soldiers gear for an upcoming battle, so did the medical staff. They commandeered a nearby residence or large building (i.e.: barn) to serve as their field hospital, evicting the owner in doing so. They cleaned their instruments, which meant they polished them, accumulated linen bandages and washed in soap and water for upcoming patients. On the battlefield itself, a hospital steward inspected the wounded, a triage of sorts, with army musicians following him, their instruments cast aside so they could carry the invalids off the field. No doubt it was more pain for the wounded, as the musicians feared the bullets that whizzed past them, faltering, dropping their patients occasionally.

Many soldiers, though, if conscious, feared arriving at the field hospital. To enter often meant the worst – amputation. The sight of sawed-off limbs piled high outside the building a warning to those who entered. The quick exam by the surgeons often involved trying to locate the bullet inside the wound if there was no exit wound. Without use of X-ray machines, they used a thin metal stick with porcelain-capped ends. Inserted into the injury, they maneuvered it around until it hit something. When they withdrew it, if the white end was grey, it meant it touched the bullet; if it was red, bone and back in it went. Of course, throughout the day, if it was dropped, it was picked up, wiped on their medical coat and back in use. Sometimes, it was left on the ground and they inserted their finger instead.


But the diagnosis, though, remained the same – amputation. Why? Fear of gangrene. This infection had no cure and meant a slow, painful death. To sever the limb was the only chance. The surgery’s survival rate was higher if it could be done within the first 36 hours of the injury. If the patient was in shock, they knew he needed to be revived so they poured whiskey down his throat – the burning alcohol made an impact and he reacted to it. They believed he was out of shock, unaware it only added to it.

“Most of the operating tables were placed in the open air, where the light was best, some of them partially protected against the rain by tarpaulins or blankets stretched on poles. There stood the surgeons, their sleeves rolled up to their elbows, their knives not seldom between their teeth, while they were helping a patient on or off the table, or their hands otherwise occupied.

As a wounded man was lifted upon the table, often shrieking with pain, the surgeons quickly examined the wound and resolved upon cutting off the wounded limb. Some ether was administered and the body put in position in a moment. The surgeon snatched his knife from between his teeth, wiped it once or twice across his blood-stained apron, and the cutting began. The operation accomplished, the surgeon would look around with a deep sigh and then – ‘next!'”  Brig. General Carl Schurz

The massive number of wounded and the limited supply of surgeons made surgery itself  a quick procedure. Anesthesia played an integral part in it. Developed during the Crimean War prior to 1860, the use of ether or chloroform was used by both the North and the South. Hollywood’s depiction of biting on a stick or to have four men hold the patient is false – teeth could bite through the stick and they needed men to fight, not hold others down. Once in place and the patient out, the surgeon inserted a knife above wound, cut through the tissue to the bone and around in circular fashion (the new flap method was sometimes used, making triangle cuts to leave more skin for suturing), pushed it back to expose the bone and then a serrated saw cut through it. The stump was sewn together with imported French black silk thread. The whole operation lasted fifteen minutes.

CW amputateesBlack silk thread became impossible for the South to obtain due to the Northern blockade of the ports. Therefore, they used regular thread yanked from clothes but eventually, one surgeon tried a new method – horse’s tail hair. Long, strong but stiff, horsehair became pliable after it was soaked in boiling water. The results were amazing. Unlike the normal sutures, often resulting in swollen wounds, high fevers (104, 105 degrees) and pus – which was considered good, a healing step to recovery, boiled horsehair sewn stumps hardly swelled, minor fevers (101) and no pus, meaning quicker recovery for the patient.

How much was amputated played huge on survival rate. A hand gone equaled 90% survival; lower arm gone was 70%; entire arm meant 30%; arm, including shoulder blade, was 10%. For legs, it was the equivalent. Chest wounds had 1-2% survival rate. In a period when the make of the body’s trunk remained a mystery for the most part, stomach wound recovery was zero and with death infinite, they were placed beneath a tree, the “dying tree,” to meet the grim reaper there. Head wounds didn’t mean death but neurology was unknown to them therefore those mental disabilities were returned to loving family.

Military hospitals also at first operated under the concept that people, if kept there, would recoup better if they stayed with their wounded comrades. That meant, for instance, the 3rd Missouri was housed together – those with amputations with those ill from strep throat or worse. The result was all became ill and death rates climbed. From this the ward system was developed. They found segregation of the wounded from the ill and to divide the sick by their specific disease in wards equaled higher recovery rates. Malingers, those who claimed illness out of fear of death on the battle field, served as nurses, changing sheets and bedpans, as did those who were recovered enough to stand but not well-enough to fight yet.

CW med examIt had been estimated for over a century that the war took 600,000 lives but latest research ups that amount to closer to 700,000 and growing. This is an era with no antibiotics, no Advil/Tylenol/Aleve, etc. Clinical thermometers, 100 of years old and urged by France for use, were scarce in the US Army Medical Department with only 20 in use. Stethoscopes were a novelty. And while hypodermic syringe was used by some, most still adhered to “dust” morphine into wounds or administer opium pills. These painkillers were addicting, later causing veterans craving them and the development of Veteran’s Homes to aid them.

While battle wounds killed several thousands, the biggest enemy was disease. Childhood illnesses, suffered as an adult, can kill. Mumps, whooping cough and many more were highly contagious and many soldiers missed having them as children because they were isolated on farms, kept home to till the field verses going to a schoolhouse with others, meaning avoiding early exposure. But the numbers climbed even higher with intestinal illnesses, mainly typhoid fever, diarrhea and dysentery. Many soldiers suffered diarrhea 3-4 times a year due to diet (i.e.: eating unripe berries in the early spring). The cure was Blue Mass, a mercury compound drug that stopped diarrhea. Patient’s nails and lips turned slightly blue and their tongue swelled but this was considered good. Unfortunately, blue mass also caused a reverse side effect – constipation. To loosen the bowels up, opium was distributed. Dysentery, a form of diarrhea with blood, also was prevalent. Pages upon pages of Jefferson Barracks Hospital read death caused by diarrhea or dysentery. The reason for death from these is the dehydration it causes in the patient.

This is a simple explanation of the surgeons. The fact that any soldiers survived is truly amazing. My fascination with Civil War medicine comes from the autobiography of an ancestor of mine who was a surgeon for the Confederacy, part of the 26th Mississippi, Dr. John Taylor. Captured by the Union, he had the ultimate test to tend to a commanding officer with brain fever – a risky task as patients often died but this one recovered. Dr. Taylor was forced to swear the oath not to take part again in the War of the Rebellion and returned home.

The use of women as nurses will be next.

Considering this sample, are you not happier to be alive today?

“I Wear My Own Clothes”* – Female surgeon during the Civil War

Disunion during the Civil War (*This article is courtesy of Catherine M Tierney, Civil War researcher/living historian – ties in well with my novel on The War In Rebellion, The Wicked North and its sequel, Unconditional Surrender, which starts before this battle in 1863. )
CW Med - waiting outsideAs news of the devastating number of casualties at the Battle of Chickamauga in late September 1863 — the second bloodiest battle of the Civil War — spread through the country, a 30-year-old doctor named Mary Walker tried desperately to seek a commission in the Army’s Medical Department.


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.

Mary Edwards WalkerLibrary of Congress / Mary Edwards Walker

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.

Civil War medicine - hospital pixWalker 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.

CW - patient & nurseWalker’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.

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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.”