Thursday, March 26, 2009
Women in Service: Dr. Mary Edwards Walker
For the next installment of our Women in Service series, American Veteran has chosen to highlight Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman to ever receive the Medal of Honor.
Walker was initially inspired by her father to pursue a career in medicine and graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855. When the Civil War broke out, Walker traveled to Washington and petitioned to serve as a surgeon in the Union Army.
Though her request was initially denied, Walker enlisted as a civilian and served as a nurse in the Battle of Bull Run, the Battle of Fredericksburg, and the Battle of Chickamauga. As a result of her tireless service to the Union Army, Walker was promoted to assistant surgeon for the Army of the Cumberland in 1863, officially making her the first female surgeon to serve in the U.S. Army.
As the war progressed, Walker was assigned to the Ohio 52nd Infantry, and frequently served on the front lines, retrieving and treating Union casualties. Her work often took her onto the battlefield and forced her to routinely cross enemy lines.
In 1864, Walker was taken captive by Confederate troops, who accused her of being a spy. After holding her for four months, the Confederate Army exchanged Walker and other Union doctors for captured Confederate surgeons.
After all Walker had endured in her first three years with the Union Army, she was not dissuaded from service. Upon her release, she rejoined the Union Army and served as a battlefield surgeon in the Battle of Atlanta.
When the war finally ended, Union Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and George Henry Thomas recommended Walker for the Medal of Honor after witnessing her bravery and unrelenting spirit in the heat of battle. The award was approved by President Andrew Johnson in 1865.
In 1917, Congress passed a law revising the standards for the Medal of Honor, which stripped 900 recipients of their awards, including Walker. Walker, however, was undeterred. Following the war, she became a vocal advocate for women's rights, and proudly wore her medal until her death in 1919.
President Jimmy Carter posthumously reinstated the groundbreaking award in 1977, preserving Walker's rightful place in history as the first and only female recipient of the Medal of Honor.
(Photo: Portrait of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker wearing her Medal of Honor. Photo maintained by the United States National Library of Medicine.)