Dr. Mary Walker

Dr. Mary Walker

Dr. Mary Walker was a woman of firsts.  Born in 1832, she taught school to earn the money necessary to attend Syracuse Medical College.  Graduating in 1855 she opened up a joint medical practice with her husband and fellow medical student Albert Miller.   At the outset of the War she served as a nurse with the Army of the Potomac as there was no allowance made for female Army surgeons.  Nothing daunted, she served as an unpaid and unofficial surgeon at Fredericksburg and Chattanooga.  Having an adventurous spirit she unsuccessfully applied to be a spy for the Union in 1862.  Finally she obtained employment as contracting acting surgeon with the Army of the Cumberland in September 1863, the first woman in US military history to serve in that post.

She served as assistant surgeon with the 52nd Ohio.  She would frequently cross battle lines to aid civilians.  On April 10, 1864 she was arrested by Confederate troops as a spy.  She was transported to Richmond and held there until August 12, 1864 when she was exchanged.  She served as a surgeon during the battle of Atlanta.  The quality of her service may be judged by the efforts of General Sherman and General Thomas, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, to have her awarded the Medal of Honor.  Their efforts were crowned with success in 1865 when she became the first and, so far, only woman to earn this honor.

Here is her Medal of Honor citation:

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.

Dr. Walker wore the medal every day for the remainder of her life, even after the Army, in a review of Civil War Medals of Honor, revoked her Medal, along with those of 910 other recipients.  She died in 1919.  Her Medal was restored to her in 1977.

Published in: on April 13, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. even after the Army, in a review of Civil War Medals of Honor, revoked her Medal…
    That, for a second, made me see red. Then I reminded myself that I do not know the circumstances and reasons of this review. But in general I hate people coming in later and second-guessing those who had been there and knew the score.

    • Medals of Honor were given out during the Civil War on a fairly haphazard basis. The classic example is the 27th Maine in 1863 during the invasion hysteria that struck the North with Lee’s move into Pennsylvania in which each man was given the Medal for simply re-enlisting and guarding Washington. That incident alone accounted for 864 Medals of Honor. By 1917 the Medal was restricted to acts of extreme heroism and that was what led to a purging of the Civil War Medals. In the case of Dr. Walker I think the review board did not keep in mind sufficiently that she had to engage in persistent efforts simply to gain the opportunity to risk her life for her country. That fact and the recommendations of two generals of the caliber of Sherman and Thomas should have been sufficient for her to keep her Medal.

  2. Happy that the two roommates at West Point had the same apprehension!


    • Good catch Ulf! I had forgotten that Sherman and Thomas roomed together at the Point!

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