(Nov. 26 ,1832 – Feb. 21, 1919)
THE ONLY FEMALE MEDAL OF HONOR RECIPIENT
Civil War Surgeon
Prisoner of War
The youngest of seven children born to Alvah and Vesta Walker, Mary Edwards Walker was raised on the precept of “free thinking:” the Walkers nurtured an independent spirit, a sense of justice, and equality between the sexes. Her parents encouraged their children to question the regulations and restrictions imposed on them by society. As a testament to their progressive ideals, Mary Walker graduated from Syracuse Medial College in 1855, as the only woman in her class. When war broke out in 1861, Dr. Walker left her private practice to volunteer as a surgeon for the Union Army. Declared “unfit” to be an Army doctor because of her gender, Dr. Walker was instead offered a position as a nurse. Due to her credentials, she declined. She remained on as an unpaid volunteer, working as a field surgeon on the front lines, including the Battle of Fredericksburg (12,653 Union casualties) and the Battle of Chickamunga (16,170 Union casualties).
In 1863, her medical credentials were finally accepted and she signed on as a War Department Surgeon, with the equivalent rank of a lieutenant or captain. In April of 1864, she was captured by Confederate for crossing behind enemy lines to treat civilians. After helping a Confederate doctor perform an amputation, she was arrested and held as a prisoner of war. After the war, Dr. Walker was awarded a disability pension for the partial muscular atrophy she suffered in captivity. Post-war, she worked to support health care, temperance, women’s rights and dress reform for women. General Sherman and George Henry Thomas recommended her for the Medal of Honor, and on November 11, 1865, President Andrew Jackson signed a bill to award her the medal. Following a 1917 eligibility review, 911 names were deleted from the Army Medal of Honor Roll, and the disenrolled recipients were ordered to return their medals. Dr. Walker refused, and wore the medal until her death in 1919, one year before the passage of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. Her medal was restored in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter, making her one of six people to regain the award.