The following is a Woman of Courage profile written and produced by the St. Lawrence County, NY Branch of the American Association of University Women.
Mary Edwards Walker, one of the nation's 1.8 million women veterans, was the only one to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor, for her service during the Civil War. She, along with thousands of other women, were honored in the newly-dedicated Women in Military Service for America Memorial in October 1997.
Controversy surrounded Mary Edwards Walker throughout her life. She was born on November 26, 1832 in the Town of Oswego, New York, into an abolitionist family. Her birthplace on the Bunker Hill Road is marked with a historical marker. Her father, a country doctor, was a free thinking participant in many of the reform movements that thrived in upstate New York in the mid 1800s. He believed strongly in education and equality for his five daughters Mary, Aurora, Luna, Vesta, and Cynthia (there was one son, Alvah). He also believed they were hampered by the tight-fitting women's clothing of the day.
His daughter, Mary, became an early enthusiast for Women's Rights, and passionately espoused the issue of dress reform. The most famous proponent of dress reform was Amelia Bloomer, a native of Homer, New York, whose defended a colleague's right to wear "Turkish pantaloons" in her Ladies' Temperance Newspaper, the Lily. "Bloomers," as they became known, did achieve some popular acceptance towards the end of the 19th century as women took up the new sport of bicycling. Mary Edwards Walker discarded the unusual restrictive women's clothing of the day. Later in her life she donned full men's evening dress to lecture on Women's Rights.
In June 1855 Mary, the only woman in her class, joined the tiny number of women doctors in the nation when she graduated from the eclectic Syracuse Medical College, the nation's first medical school and one which accepted women and men on an equal basis. She gratuated at age 21 after three 13-week semesters of medical training which she paid $55 each for.
In 1856 she married another physician, Albert Miller, wearing trousers and a man's coat and kept her own name. Together they set up a medical practice in Rome, NY, but the public was not ready to accept a woman physician, and their practice floundered. They were divorced 13 years later.
When war broke out, she came to Washington and tried to join the Union Army. Denied a commission as a medical officer, she volunteered anyway, serving as an acting assistant surgeon -- the first female surgeon in the US Army. As an unpaid volunteer, she worked in the US Patent Office Hospital in Washington. Later, she worked as a field surgeon near the Union front lines for almost two years (including Fredericksburg and in Chattanooga after the Battle of Chickamauga).
In September 1863, Walker was finally appointed assistant surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland for which she made herself a slightly modified officer's uniform to wear, in response to the demands of traveling with the soldiers and working in field hospitals. She was then appointed assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry. During this assignment it is generally accepted that she also served as a spy. She continually crossed Confederate lines to treat civilians. She was taken prisoner in 1864 by Confederate troops and imprisoned in Richmond for four months until she was exchanged, with two dozen other Union doctors, for 17 Confederate surgeons.
She was released back to the 52nd Ohio as a contract surgeon, but spent the rest of the war practicing at a Louisville female prison and an orphan's asylum in Tennessee. She was paid $766.16 for her wartime service. Afterward, she got a monthly pension of $8.50, later raised to $20, but still less than some widows' pensions.
On November 11, 1865, President Johnson signed a bill to present Dr. Mary Edwards Walker with the Congressional Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service, in order to recognize her contributions to the war effort without awarding her an army commission. She was the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor, her country's highest military award.
In 1917 her Congressional Medal, along with the medals of 910 others was taken away when Congress revised the Medal of Honor standards to include only “actual combat with an enemy” She refused to give back her Medal of Honor, wearing it every day until her death in 1919. A relative told the New York Times: "Dr. Mary lost the medal simply because she was a hundred years ahead of her time and no one could stomach it." An Army board reinstated Walker's medal posthumously in 1977, citing her "distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex."
After the war, Mary Edwards Walker became a writer and lecturer, touring here and abroad on women's rights, dress reform, health and temperance issues. Tobacco, she said, resulted in paralysis and insanity. Women's clothing, she said, was immodest and inconvenient. She was elected president of the National Dress Reform Association in 1866. Walker prided herself by being arrested numerous times for wearing full male dress, including wing collar, bow tie, and top hat.
She was also something of an inventor, coming up with the idea of using a return postcard for registered mail.
She wrote extensively, including a combination biography and commentary called Hit, a combination autobiography and commentary on divorce in 1871, and a second book, Unmasked, or the Science of Immortality, about infidelity in 1878.
In 1872 in Oswego, Mary E. Walker attempted to vote, one of many women who made the attempt over the years on the road to full suffrage.
In 1890, Mary declared herself a candidate for Congress in Oswego. The next year, she campaigned for a U.S. Senate seat and, the following year, paid her way to the Democratic National Convention.
She died in the Town of Oswego on February 21, 1919 and is buried in the Rural Cemetery on the Cemetery Road. Ironically, the 19th Amendment giving owmen the vote was ratified that same year.
A 20˘ stamp honoring Dr. Mary Walker was issued in Oswego, NY on June 10, 1982. The stamp commemorates the first woman to have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and the second woman to graduate from a medical school in the United States.
In 2000, Mary Edwards Walker was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame at Seneca Falls, New York.
In the News: Statue of Oswego County woman who served as a surgeon in Civil War ready for casting (Feb. 17, 2011)
Special thanks to Theresa A. Cooper, President of the Town of Oswego Historical Society and Town Clerk for supplying additional information for this Profile.
The full text of her entry at the U.S. Army Center of Military History of Medal of Honor Citations follows:
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, 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 llntirin~ 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 soliders, 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.
(Medal rescinded 1917 along with 910 others, restored by President Carter 10 June 1977.)
Return to the Women of Courage page.
Return to the St. Lawrence County Branch homepage.