Mary Edwards Walker was born in Oswego, New York on November 26, 1832. She was the fifth of six children and the youngest daughter. She worked on her family's farm through most of her young life, usually wearing men's clothes as they were not as restricting. She received an elementary education, taught by her mother. She attended Syracuse Medical College, graduating in 1855 as one of the country's first women doctors. She married a classmate named Albert Miller. They set up a joint medical practice in nearby Rome, NY but they were not very successful.
When the American Civil War began in 1861, Mary Walker volunteered to serve in the Union medical corps as a civilian. At first, she was restricted to working as a nurse, as the concept of a female surgeon was not widely accepted. Walker worked on the battlefield after the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas and at the Patent Office Hospital in Washington, DC early in the war. Later, she worked as an unpaid field surgeon after the battle of Fredericksburg (December of 1862), and later in Chattanooga, TN after the battle of Chickamauga (September of 1863). At this time, she was appointed a "Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)" by the Army of the Cumberland. By this appointment Mary Walker became the first ever female U.S. Army Surgeon
By way of explanation, a "contract surgeon" was a doctor hired to give medical care to soldiers on the battlefield or in field hospitals. During the Civil War, the Union Army had about 10,000 surgeons, of which only about 3000 were members of the military. The remainder were civilians hired to fill the need for so many soldiers fighting in the war. They were usually given the title of "assistant surgeon," and their usual jobs involved amputations.
Sometime later Walker was appointed assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry Regiment. She spent much time crossing the line to help Confederate civilians displaced from their homes by the war. Walker often "appropriated" Federal supplies to help these unfortunates. She was captured by Confederate troops in April of 1864, and sent to a prison in Richmond, VA, accused of being a Union spy (a charge she vehemently denied). She was released in August of 1864 in a prisoner exchange for a Confederate officer. Walker made her way back to the Army of the Cumberland, seeing service during the battle of Atlanta (July-September of 1864). She was then appointed a supervisor of a women's prison in Louisville, KY and later placed in charge of an orphanage in Tennessee.
After the war, Mary Walker persuaded Generals William T. Sherman and George H. Thomas to petition Congress to award her a Medal of Honor for her service during the war. Their efforts were successful, when on November 11, 1865 President Andrew Johnson signed a special law awarding "Dr. Mary E. Walker" a Medal of Honor. The citation reads:
Rank and organization: Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian), U. S. Army. Places and dates: Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861; Patent Office Hospital, Washington, D.C., October 1861; Chattanooga, Tenn., following Battle of Chickomauga [sic], September 1863; Prisoner of War, April 10, 1864-August 12, 1864, Richmond, Va.; Battle of Atlanta, September 1864. Entered service at: Louisville, Ky. Born: 26 November 1832, Oswego County, N.Y. 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."
After the war, Mary Walker became a member of a small but vocal group of women who sought equality for women in many areas where they were still considered subservient to men, among them voting rights. She also lectured on the temperance circuit, and became an advocate for freeing women from the restrictive clothing of the Victorian era. Walker herself wore men's clothing whenever possible [note the photograph heading this post]. She was arrested several times for impersonating a man.
In 1916, Congress created a pension act for Medal of Honor recipients, further creating separate Army and Navy Honor Rolls. This act also placed greater restrictions on the eligibility requirements for awarding Medals of Honor. The Army then determined to review all the Medals of Honor which had been awarded since 1862, using the newly restrictive eligibility. As a result, when the review board released its findings in 1917, 911 recipients had their names removed from the Army Medal of Honor Roll. Among these 911 recipients were: 29 men who had been part of the honor guard escorting Abraham Lincoln's casket back to Illinois; 864 men of the 27th Maine Infantry Regiment, for re-enlisting in mid-1863; five civilian scouts (including William F. Cody aka "Buffalo Bill;" 12 miscellaneous awards; and, Mary Walker. These persons were not required to return their medals – as has often been stated – but were stricken from the Honor Roll and became ineligible for a pension.
Mary Walker took this review rather personally, and wore her Medal of Honor everywhere in public. She died February 21, 1919 at the age of 86. She was buried wearing her black suit instead of a dress. While here funeral was a rather plain affair, her casket was draped by an American flag.
Footnote #1: In 1977, President Carter reinstated her Medal of Honor. This act provoked a further review of other Medal recipients' revoked status. Twelve years later, "Buffalo Bill" Cody's Medal of Honor was also reinstated.
Footnote #2: A World War II Liberty ship, the SS "Mary Walker" was named for her. A U.S. Army Reserve center in Walker, Michigan also bears her name. Finally, the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, DC was named for her and poet Walt Whitman, who served as a nurse in hospitals in the Washington area during the Civil War.