The Bugler

Bugler Newsletter

Dr. Mary Walker: Surgeon, Spy, Suffragette

Mary Edwards Walker (1832 - 1919) was an unconventional woman and an American legend - a feminist, abolitionist, prohibitionist, alleged spy, prisoner of war, and surgeon. She is also the only female ever to receive the Medal of Honor.

Controversy surrounded Mary Edwards Walker throughout her life. She was a proponent of women's rights and dress reform, especially the wearing of the less restrictive Turkish pantaloons, which achieved popular acceptance towards the end of the 19th century as women took up the new sport of bicycling. They became known as "bloomers" after Amelia Bloomer, the most famous proponent of dress reform.

In 1855, Mary Edwards Walker became one of the earliest female physicians upon graduation from Syracuse Medical College, the first in the nation. She married Albert Miller, a fellow student, in a ceremony that did not include a promise to obey; she did not take his name; and she wore trousers and a dress-coat to her wedding. Together they started a medical practice, but female physicians were generally not trusted or respected at that time, and both the practice and her marriage failed. She tried to join the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War but was denied a commission as a medical officer. She volunteered anyway as a civilian field nurse. In 1862, she received an Army contract appointing her as an assistant surgeon with the 52nd Ohio Infantry and as the first woman doctor to serve with the Army Medical Corps. She was captured by confederate forces after crossing enemy lines to treat wounded civilians and arrested as a spy, spending four months as a prisoner of war in Richmond, Virginia until her release in a prisoner exchange.

After the war, Dr. Walker became a writer, lecturer and social critic. Tobacco, she said, resulted in paralysis and insanity. Women's clothing, she said, was immodest and inconvenient. She discarded the restrictive women's clothing of the day and donned a full man's evening suit and top hat to lecture on women's rights, health care, temperance, and dress reform for women. She also invented the concept of using a return postcard for registered mail. Dr. Walker participated for several years with other leaders in the Woman's Suffrage Movement, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Mary Edwards Walker was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for her Civil War service in a citation signed by President Andrew Johnson in 1865. She is the only woman who has received the medal and only one of eight civilians. The citation reads:

Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861; Patent Office Hospital, Washington, D.C., October 1861; Chattanooga, Tenn., following Battle of Chickamauga, September 1863; Prisoner of War, April 10, 1864-August 12, 1864, Richmond, Va.; Battle of Atlanta, September 1864

Whereas it appears from official reports that Dr. Mary E. Walker, a graduate of medicine, "has rendered valuable service to the Government, and her efforts have been earnest and untiring in a variety of ways," and that she was assigned to duty and served as an assistant surgeon in charge of female prisoners at Louisville, Ky., upon the recommendation of Major-Generals Sherman and Thomas, and faithfully served as contract surgeon in the service of the United States, and has devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health, and has also endured hardships as a prisoner of war four months in a Southern prison while acting as contract surgeon; and Whereas by reason of her not being a commissioned officer in the military service, a brevet or honorary rank cannot, under existing laws, be conferred upon her; and Whereas in the opinion of the President an honorable recognition of her services and sufferings should be made: It is ordered, That a testimonial thereof shall be hereby made and given to the said Dr. Mary E. Walker, and that the usual medal of honor for meritorious services be given her. Given under my hand in the city of Washington, D.C., this 11th day of November, A.D. 1865. Andrew Johnson, President

She received the award on Jan. 24, 1866. Note that her citation cites her wartime service, but not specifically valor in combat. In 1917 Congress revised the standards for awarding the medal so it could only be given to those who had been involved in "actual combat with an enemy" and revoked more than 900 previously-awarded medals, including that of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. Although ordered to return the medal, she refused to do so and continued to wear it until her death at the age of 86 in 1919, just one year before the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed women the right to vote.

In 1977 President Jimmy Carter restored her medal posthumously, making Mary Edwards Walker the first woman to hold a Congressional Medal of Honor.

In World War II, a Liberty ship, the SS Mary Walker, was named for her.

In 1982, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 20-cent stamp in her honor and wrote: "Dr. Mary Walker was a humanitarian devoted to the care and treatment of the sick and wounded during the Civil War, often at the risk of her own life. A patriot dedicated and loyal to her country, she successfully fought against the sex discrimination of her time. Her personal achievements, as much as her vocal support, significantly contributed to the struggle for women's rights."

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