Story by John Trowbridge, Kentucky National Guard
In recognition of March as Women’s History Month kentuckyguard.com is publishing several articles honoring women who are significant figures in Kentucky’s military history. The following is one such story ….
FRANKFORT, Ky. — Mary Edwards Walker is the only woman veteran to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Her medal is credited to the Commonwealth of Kentucky due to the fact that she officially entered the service at Louisville, KY.
Walker was born on November 26, 1832 in Oswego, New York, into an abolitionist family. She became an early advocate for Women’s Rights. In June 1855 Mary, the only woman in her class, became the second woman to graduate from a medical school in the nation when she graduated from the Syracuse Medical College, the nation’s first medical school which accepted women and men on an equal basis.
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 the Civil War began in 1861, she went to Washington and attempted to join the Union Army. Denied a commission as a medical officer, she volunteered, 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 front lines for almost two years, including Fredericksburg and Chattanooga after the Battle of Chickamauga.
In September 1863, Walker was finally appointed assistant surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland. 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. Later she was appointed assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry. During this assignment it is generally accepted that she served as a spy for the Union Army. She continually crossed Confederate lines to treat civilians. She was taken prisoner in 1864 by Confederate troops and imprisoned in Richmond, VA 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 the Louisville Female Prison Hospital and an orphan’s asylum in Tennessee. She was paid $766.16 for her wartime service. Following the war she would receive a pension from the Federal government for her wartime service which would eventually be $20 per month.
After the war, Walker became a writer and lecturer, touring the states 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. 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.
In 1917 her 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. President Jimmy Carter 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.”
She died in Oswego, Ny. on February 21, 1919 and is buried in the Rural Cemetery on the Cemetery Road. Ironically, the 19th Amendment giving women the vote was ratified that same year.
In 1982, the US Postal Service issued a 20¢ stamp honoring Dr. Mary Walker. The stamp commemorates the first woman to have been awarded the Medal of Honor and the second woman to graduate from a medical school in the United States.
DR. MARY E. WALKER
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 Chickamauga, 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.