From childhood, Mary Edwards Walker was a “square peg in a round hole.” She grew up in a family influenced by reform movements fighting for abolition and sexual equality. The Walkers, liberal thinkers for their time, also supported equal education for boys and girls and urged all of their children—five daughters and a son—to aspire to professional careers and personal independence. So when Mary went away to school, she decided to be a doctor, challenging society’s belief that teaching was the only appropriate job for a woman.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Dr. Mary Walker (the only female graduate in the class of 1855, Syracuse Medical College) tried to join the Union Army. Consistently denied a commission as medical officer, she volunteered, instead, serving as an unpaid nurse. She began her nursing in the US Patent Office Hospital in Washington, DC, then served two years as a field surgeon near the Union front lines (including Fredericksburg, VA and in Chattanooga, TN).
Having demonstrated her medical skills, Walker was finally appointed assistant surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland in September 1863. For her new role, she created a modified officer’s uniform to wear, to suit the demands of traveling with the military and working in field hospitals. She rose to the rank of assistant surgeon for the 52nd Ohio Infantry.
Continually crossing Confederate lines to treat the wounded, she was captured in 1864, while riding alone and unarmed deep in Confederate territory. She was held in Richmond for awhile, then released to make her way back to Washington. Later, accepting the ambiguous post of “surgeon-in-charge,” she served as head of a hospital for female Confederate prisoners in Louisville, Kentucky.
On November 11, 1865, President Andrew Johnson signed a bill to present Dr. Mary Edwards Walker with the Congressional Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service, recognizing her contributions to the war effort without awarding her an army commission. She was the only woman receiving the Medal of Honor, her country’s highest military award. But 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.” Dr. Walker refused to give back her Medal of Honor, wearing it every day until her death in 1919.
It was not until 1977 that an Army board reinstated Walker’s medal posthumously, citing her “distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex.”