In 1832, in Oswego Town, New York, a baby girl was born who would one day not only lend much-needed medical aid to countless injured soldiers, but also be the first and only woman to receive the highest military honor given to those in service of their country.
Dr. Mary E. Walker graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855, a time in which only a handful of women became physicians.
Dr. Walker wished to become an Army surgeon at the onset of the Civil War in 1862, but was flatly denied the post. But rather than give up on her pursuit to render to care to those injured in the war, she elected to stay in the Washington, D.C. area and work in a voluntary capacity as a surgical assistant. While there, she helped organize an association that helped impoverished women who had journeyed to the area to see war-wounded relatives.
In November of 1862, she arrived at the headquarters of Major Burnside in Virginia wherein she was permitted to be a field surgeon albeit still an unpaid position. While there, she doctored soldiers at both Warrenton and Fredericksburg.
Late in 1863, she ventured south to Chattanooga, Tennessee to administer treatment to the causalities of the Battle of Chickamauga. And shortly thereafter, she finally attained her goal of assistant surgeon for the Army of Cumberland. Though she was there for only a short time, there are numerous accounts of her courage on the field.
In April of April 1864, Dr. Mary Walker was taken prisoner by Confederate forces and then subsequently charged with spying (possibly due to her less than feminine attire). After four arduous months of captivity and abusive treatment, she was traded for a Confederate surgeon. And with that, her military career ended.
As was fitting and proper, she received the Medal of Honor in January 1866, the highest honor bestowed upon a member of the armed services. It is said that the somewhat cumbersome piece adorned the good doctor’s neck every single day until her death! Such must have been the significance of finally being recognized for all that she had contributed to the cause of freedom.
Over the years, she was arrested on several occasions on charges of “impersonating a man.” Her reply to the disdain (and apparent illegality?) for her preferred dress was simply this:
“Dress as I please in free America on whose tented fields I have served for four years in the cause of freedom.”
Dr. Mary E. Walker died on February 21, 1919 after 86 years of life, many of which were dedicated to both healing and the ever-present fight for freedom.
But the story doesn’t end there…
In 1916, Congress modified the qualifications for the Medal of Honor recipients to include only those involved in “actual combat.” And sadly, just like that, 910 recipients, including Dr. Walker, were stripped of their medals.
But the fighting spirit apparently did not die with Dr. Walker as her descendants pushed for the reinstatement of the great honor. And on June 19, 1977, Dr. Mary E. Walker was posthumously re-awarded the Medal of Honor by President Jimmy Carter, a fair and fitting end to a life dedicated to the service of others and the advancement of liberty for her fellow Americans.