Friday, January 5, 2024

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker - The First Female US Army Surgeon and Medal of Honor Recipient

By Mary Dodge Allen 

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker (Public Domain)

More than 3,500 Medals of Honor have been awarded since it was authorized in 1861, but only one of them has been awarded to a woman - Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. She served as a surgeon for the Union Army during the Civil War, and she was also captured and held as a prisoner of war by the Confederate Army.

Her Childhood:

Mary Edwards Walker was born on November 26, 1832 on her family's farm in Oswego, New York. She was the youngest of seven children. Her parents, Alvah and Vesta Walker were devoted Christians who opposed slavery and believed in equality for all, including equal rights for men and women.

The Walkers lived out their beliefs. Mary's father Alvah shared the housework, Mary's mother Vesta helped with the heavy farm work, and all of their children did an equal share of farm chores. They believed traditional female clothing was impractical - the tight corsets restricted circulation, and the long billowing skirts were unsanitary, since they often brushed against muddy ground. They made sure their daughters grew up wearing practical clothing, like trousers under shorter dresses. 

Mary Edwards Walker as a young teen (Elliott and Fry Photographers)

The Walkers also made sure their daughters received the same education as their son. They founded the first free school house in Oswego on their farm in the 1830's. Mary Walker finished her schooling at Falley Seminary in Fulton, NY. After graduation, Mary worked as a teacher in Minetto, NY. 

Her father had always kept a number of medical texts in the house, and Mary loved reading them. They sparked her desire to pursue a career in medicine. She patiently saved up her teaching salary until she could pay for her entire medical school tuition.

Medical Training and Early Career:

Mary Walker was the only woman in her class at New York's Syracuse Medical College. She received a medical degree with honors in 1855. (Mary was the second woman in America to receive a medical degree. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first, graduating from Geneva Medical College, NY in 1849.)

Mary Edwards Walker, taken around the time she attended college (Public Domain)

Soon after graduation, Mary married one of her medical college classmates, Albert Miller. True to her beliefs, Mary wore a mid-length dress over trousers and a top hat at her wedding. She omitted the word 'obey' from her vows, and she kept her own last name. They moved to Rome, NY and opened a medical practice together. But Dr. Mary Walker wasn't accepted as a female physician, and she often endured ridicule. Shortly before the Civil War began, Mary separated from Albert Miller, citing infidelity. Their divorce became final after the war. 

Civil War Experience:

Mary tried to enlist in the Union Army, but she was rejected because she was a woman. She then volunteered to serve as a surgeon in the Union Army, even though she would be listed as a nurse on her military records. Her first post in 1861 was at a temporary army hospital in Washington, D.C.

During the war, a staggering amount of arm and leg amputations were performed. Dr. Mary Walker was a staunch advocate of patient rights. If she determined amputation wasn't warranted after examining a wounded soldier, she would advise him that he had the right to refuse amputation. "In almost every instance," she said, "I saw amputation was not only unnecessary, but to me it seemed wickedly cruel."

Civil War Surgeon Kit (National Museum of Civil War Medicine, Frederick, MD)

Mary was assigned to battlefield duty and served during the First Battle of Bull Run (1862); the Battle of Fredericksburg (1862); the Battle of Chickamauga (1863); and Atlanta (1864). Dr. Mary Walker designed a practical Union surgeon's uniform, wearing a Union jacket and a mid-length skirt over Union trousers. But she left her hair long and wore it curled up, so - in her words - "anyone could know I was a woman." Mary could have posed as a man, as many women did back then, so they could serve in the military. But she wanted to be recognized for who she was - a competent female surgeon.

Dr. Mary Walker in her Union Surgeon's Uniform, with Union hat (Public Domain)

Throughout the war, she repeatedly petitioned Union Army officials, requesting an Army Surgeon commission. After the Battle of Fredericksburg, where the Union suffered over 13,000 casualties, one of the doctors who had worked with Mary - and was impressed by her skill - wrote to the Secretary of War asking him to give her a commission. After two years of working in the battlefield, Dr. Mary Walker was finally promoted to Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian) in the Army of the Cumberland. Later in the war, she was assigned as a civilian surgeon for the 52nd Ohio Infantry.

Civil War Medical Tent (Heritage Images)

Prisoner of War:

Dr. Mary Walker often crossed into enemy territory to treat badly wounded Confederate soldiers. In April 1864, a Confederate sentry arrested her as a Union spy while she was crossing alone on horseback. She spent the next four months in the Castle Thunder prison near Richmond, VA.

Castle Thunder Prison (Public Domain)

As a female prisoner, she caused quite a stir when she refused to change into women's clothes. A Confederate Captain wrote:

"(I was)... amused and disgusted... at the sight of a thing that nothing but the debased and depraved Yankee nation could produce... (she) was dressed in the full uniform of a Federal surgeon... not good-looking and of course had tongue enough for a regiment of men."

Dr. Mary Walker was released in a prisoner exchange with at least fourteen other physicians. After her release, the army officially commissioned her as Acting Assistant Surgeon, thus making her the nation's first female US Army Surgeon. She received a salary of $100 per month, plus $434.66 in back pay.

Medal of Honor:

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker received the Medal of Honor from President Andrew Johnson in November 1865. The citation read: 

Dr. Walker 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. **

Dr. Mary Walker's Medals

Later Life:

Dr. Walker's physical health had declined during her wartime service, especially during her time in prison. Her eyesight also began deteriorating. She devoted her later years to the cause of equal rights for women, and she wrote several articles and books, drawing on her personal experiences. 

Dr. Walker in later life (Wikipedia)

She continued to endure ridicule for wearing men's clothes, and she was often arrested and put on trial for "impersonating a man." During one trial, Dr. Walker stated she had the right, "to dress as I please in free America, on whose tented fields I have served for four years in the cause of human freedom." The judge dismissed her case and instructed the police to never arrest her again.

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, circa 1912 (Public Domain)

Dr. Walker was active in the women's suffrage movement, and she testified before Congress in 1912, advocating every woman's right to vote. She ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1890; and the Senate in 1892. She died at the age of 86 in 1919, one year before the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote. She had a simple funeral, with an American flag draped over her coffin. And according to her wishes, she was buried in a suit and tie. 

** In 1917, the Medal of Honor award given to Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was rescinded when the criteria for the medal was restricted to having "actual combat with the enemy." After 60 years of lobbying by her supporters and descendants, her medal was restored in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter. She remains the only female Medal of Honor recipient.

Mary Dodge Allen is the winner of a 2022 Christian Indie Award, a 2022 Angel Book Award, and two Royal Palm Literary Awards (Florida Writer's Association). She and her husband live in Central Florida, where she has served as a volunteer with the local police department. Her childhood in Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, sparked her lifelong love of the outdoors. She has worked as a Teacher, Counselor and Social Worker. Her quirky sense of humor is energized by a passion for coffee and chocolate. She is a member of the Florida Writer's Association, American Christian Fiction Writers and Faith Hope and Love Christian Writers. 

Mary's novel: Hunt for a Hometown Killer won the 2022 Christian Indie Award, First Place - Mystery/Suspense; and the 2022 Angel Book Award - Mystery/Suspense.

Click the link below to buy Hunt for a Hometown Killer at

Link to Mary's Spotlight Interview:   Mary Dodge Allen Author Spotlight EA Books


  1. Thank you for posting today, and Happy New Year to you and yours. I loved the story of this spunky woman. I admire her parents for their beliefs that helped Mary develop her strength of character.

  2. Happy New Year to you, too. I enjoyed writing about Dr.Mary Walker. She was a compassionate surgeon and a woman ahead of her time.