Mary Edwards Walker

1832-1919
By Kerri Lee Alexander, NWHM Fellow | 2018-2019
Mary Edwards Walker

In all of United States History, there has only been one woman to receive the Presidential Medal of Honor. Mary Edwards Walker is that woman. As a surgeon, women’s rights advocate, abolitionist, and spy, Walker became the first female U.S. Army surgeon during the Civil War. Her legacy has been celebrated across the country, and in 2012 Walker’s hometown unveiled a 900-pound bronze statue in honor of her contributions.

Mary Edwards Walker was born on November 26, 1832 in Oswego, New York. She was the fifth daughter of abolitionists Alvah and Vesta Whitcomb Walker. Her parents encouraged her to think freely, and allowed her to wear “bloomer” pants, instead of the skits and corsets women were required to wear at the time. Education was also very important to the Walker family. Mary’s parents started the first free school in Oswego, New York so their daughters would be just as educated as their son. Outside of school, all of the children helped with manual labor on the farm. After finishing at her parent’s school, Walker and two of her older sisters attended Falley Seminary in Fulton, New York. When Walker graduated, she became a teacher in Minetto, New York but she knew she wanted to become a doctor. She worked until she saved enough money to pay for medical school. Walker then attended Syracuse Medical College and received her medical degree in 1855. She became the second woman to graduate from this college after Elizabeth Blackwell.

Shortly after she graduated, Walker married another medical school student Albert Miller on November 16, 1855. They started a medical practice together in Rome, New York. However, the practice did not succeed because the public did not want to accept a female doctor. When the Civil War began in 1861, Walker wanted to join the Union’s efforts. She went to Washington but was not allowed to serve as a medical officer because she was a woman. She decided to still serve as an unpaid volunteer surgeon at the U.S. Patent Office Hospital in Washington. At the time, the army had no female surgeons, so Walker was only allowed to practice as a nurse. After this, she organized the Women's Relief Organization that helped families of the wounded who came to visit their loved ones at the hospital. In 1862, Walker moved to Virginia and started treating wounded soldiers near the front lines. She also wrote to the War Department in September of that year requesting to become a spy, but she was rejected. However, in 1863 her request to practice as a surgeon was finally accepted. She became the first female U.S. Army surgeon as a "Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)" in Ohio.

During her work as a surgeon in the war, Walker often crossed battle lines to care for soldiers and civilians. In April of 1864, Walker had just finished helping a Confederate doctor with a surgery when she was captured by Confederate troops as a spy. She was held as a prisoner of war for four months. While imprisoned, she refused to wear the women’s clothes provided to her. She wore men’s clothes her entire life because they were more comfortable and hygienic. She even wore pants under her skirt at her wedding. Walker was released from prison in August of 1864 and became the assistant surgeon of the Ohio 52nd Infantry a month later. After the war, Walker was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor by President Lyndon B. Johnson. A few years later, Walker published a book called Hit in 1871.

In addition to her work with the army, she began to advocate for women’s rights. She famously wore pants and advocated for “dress reform.” She was arrested in New Orleans in 1870 because she was dressed like a man. Walker responded by saying, "I don't wear men's clothes, I wear my own clothes."[1] She also fought for suffrage and tried to register to vote in 1871, but she was denied. Walker then participated in politics by campaigning for the U.S. Senate in 1881 and running as a Democratic candidate for Congress in 1890. Although she lost both times, she testified in front of the US House of Representatives in support of women's suffrage. In 1916, the Medal of Honor was taken away from Walker and many others after the government reviewed their eligibility. Although she was given the award by the President, she did not meet the requirements to qualify for the award. However, this did not stop Walker from wearing her award until her death in 1919. At the age of eighty-six, Mary Edwards Walker died of illness. Decades later, President Jimmy Carter legally restored the Medal of Honor to Walker’s name.