Her name was Mary Edwards Walker. She was born in Oswego, New York on November 26 1832. She was the youngest of five daughters and had a younger brother. She was educated at the school her mother taught at and later taught there herself to earn money to be able to attend medical school at Syracuse Medical College. She married a fellow medical student and upon graduation they set up a medical practice together in Rome, NY. Because she was female and female doctors, at the time, were not trusted or respected by the general population, their practice did not flourish. Their marriage ended in divorce after thirteen years.
When the Civil War broke out, Mary Edwards Walker went immediately to Washington, D.C. and tried to get a military commission as a doctor in the Union Army. She was denied, of course, because she was a woman. She volunteered anyway and was given a position as an assistant surgeon as a civilian contractor. Throughout her service, she was never paid, even though she served on the front lines and in hospitals in some of the wars most harrowing battles. She was at the battle of Chickamauga among many others.
During her time she also acted as a spy for the Union. While doing this, she was captured by Confederate troops and was held as a prisoner of war for the last four months of the Civil War. When the war ended she tried, again, to get a military commission, but was again denied.
But in November of 1865, she was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Andrew Johnson. The citation read, in part, “She 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. She has endured hardships as a prisoner of war for four months in a Southern prison.”
With this, she became the first — and the last — woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor. So far.
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Sharon Harris authored a book about Mary Edwards Walker entitled Dr. Mary Walker: An American Radical, 1832-1919, in which she writes, “She wore that medal every day of her life from the moment she received it to the day she died.”
But this story takes a turn in 1917, that Mary Walker would meet with her usual, inimical confidence and toughness of nature.
A Force to Be Reckoned With
In 1917, over 50 years after she had been awarded the Medal of Honor, a high ranking military board decided to change the criteria for that medal. They changed the criteria so it would be awarded to only those who had been in actual combat with the enemy. As a result, they rescinded almost 1,000 of the medals, including hers. In accord with her nature, she refused to send it back. As was said before, she wore it until the day she died. Her award would be reinstated some 60 years later in 1977 by an act of Congress.
Mary Edwards Walker was a force to be reckoned with throughout her life. After the Civil War she was involved with the Women’s Suffrage Movement and Prohibition. She would die in 1919 at the age of 87.
“She wore that medal every day of her life from the moment she received it to the day she died.”
That Mary Edwards Walker is the only woman to have received the Medal of Honor may not be unusual. But today’s military has many more women and many of them serving in harm’s way. Though no other woman has received the Medal of Honor, many have received some of the highest awards for valor that the military offers due to their bravery under fire and their sacrifices for their fellow warriors.
Mary Walker may have led the way, but today’s women soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coast Guardsmen and Marines are every bit as dedicated to this country, to their comrades, and to the mission. Indeed, many have given their lives in service to the nation. We thank Mary Walker for her service to the nation during its most costly war, and we thank all those women who have served and those who continue to serve today.
Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.