History is full of interesting people. I recently stumbled across one fascinating character—Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman in United States history to earn the Medal of Honor.
As you may know, the Medal of Honor is the United States’ highest military honor, awarded by the U.S. President in the name of Congress for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.” The award was first started during the Civil War and has been awarded over 3500 times since its inception.
As I said above, Mary Walker was the only woman in United States history to receive the award. So what did she do to deserve our military’s highest honor? Let me tell you!
|Dr. Mary E Walker|
wearing her Medal of Honor
In 1855, Mary Walker graduated from Syracuse Medical College with a medical degree. As a full-fledged doctor, she married and began her own medical practice. At the outbreak of the Civil War, she volunteered with the Union Army, where she asked to be a surgeon. However, the Union Army didn’t believe women were fit to be surgeons, so instead, she became a battlefield nurse. As such, she served at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) on July 21, 1861, and in the Patent Office Hospital in Washington, D.C. She also worked as an unpaid field surgeon at the battles of Fredericksburg and Chickamauga.
In addition to these efforts, in 1862, she requested to work for the Union as a spy. Her request was denied, however, so she continued her practice of medicine. By September of 1863, she was named the “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon” for the Army of the Cumberland—the first female surgeon employed by the army. Even later, she became the assistant surgeon for the 52nd Ohio Infantry.
What I find so interesting about Dr. Mary Walker was that she not only held her own as a surgeon during one of the bloodiest periods in our nation’s history—a time when only men were thought to be fit for such duties—but she would often slip behind enemy lines to treat the wounded. It was during one such foray behind enemy lines that she was captured. On April 10, 1864, she’d slipped across the boundary, seeking who she might treat, and came across a Confederate doctor in the midst of performing an amputation. She immediately went to work, assisting with the removal of the limb, and just as they were finishing the procedure, Dr. Walker was captured by Confederates and accused of being a spy. She was taken to Castle Thunder in Richmond Virginia. She was imprisoned there for four months and two days until she swapped for a Confederate doctor in a prisoner exchange.
On November 11, 1865, President Andrew Johnson took the recommendations of both General William Tecumseh Sherman and General George Henry Thomas and signed the bill awarding Dr. Walker with the Medal of Honor. She wore the medal proudly until the day she died. Dr. Walker always thought the Medal of Honor was awarded to her because she boldly slipped behind enemy lines to treat the wounded when the male surgeons wouldn’t go, for fear of being captured.
|Dr. Mary E Walker|
However…there’s a little twist to the story of Mary Walker’s Medal of Honor. In 1917, Congress created a pension for Medal of Honor recipients, and along with the new pension, Congress also created the Medal of Honor Rolls, which meant that the Army stepped in to review the eligibility of all names on the list. In one swoop, they cut 911 names, including that of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. She was ordered to immediately return her medal to the government, although she flatly refused and continued to wear it proudly. In addition, she picketed the Capitol building to protest the decision, but they still rescinded her award.
And in yet another twist, President Jimmy Carter re-awarded Dr. Walker with the medal posthumously in 1977, sixty years after it was taken from her.
There are more interesting things I’d love to tell you about Dr. Mary Walker, so be on the lookout next month for the next installment.
It’s Your Turn: What aspect of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker’s military service do you find most interesting/inspiring?
Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has won and finaled in numerous writing competitions. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. She currently writes historical novellas of the American West for Barbour Publishing and works as a Content Editor for Firefly Southern Fiction. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, college-aged son, and four fur children.
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