Mary E. Walker: An Icon of the Civil War

American women have played an active role in military service dating back to the Civil War and, like all soldiers, have gone above and beyond to make sacrifices for our country. Of the millions of women who have dedicated their lives to service, one has been recognized for going above and beyond the call of duty. Dr. Mary Edwards Walker is the only woman in United States history to receive the Medal of Honor for actions in and outside of war.

In many ways, Walker’s life was an ongoing battle. From New York, Walker was what we today call a true go-getter. Part of her heroism was her fighting spirit full of passion for avant-garde beliefs. Born in 1832, she had a father who encouraged his daughters to be educated and fight for equality in life, which explains Walker’s progressive attitude toward girl power.  

In her early twenties, she made a career choice unheard of for the late 1800s. Walker fulfilled a dream and a passion by becoming a doctor and graduating from Syracuse Medical College. At the time, she didn’t know the opportunities that a medical degree would open for her during the Civil war or foresee the achievements that would transform her into a historic icon.

At the start of the Civil War, Walker packed her fighting spirit and journeyed from New York to D.C. to join the Union Army. As a woman, she was not allowed to serve as a medical officer. Telling of her personality, Walker would not take “no” for an answer. With tenacity on her side, she volunteered and changed the pages of history as the first female surgeon in the United States Army. Over the years, Walker eventually worked in combat as a field surgeon and even spent some of her Army days right here in Tennessee working near the Union front lines in Chattanooga.

Eventually Walker proved herself a skilled doctor. Her passion for medicine and drive landed her the position as assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry. This was a dangerous job. Walker often crossed enemy lines to assist injured civilians, putting herself in harm’s way. In 1864, the danger of her role became even more apparent when the Confederate Troops captured her as a prisoner of war and sent her by cattle train to Castle Thunder in Richmond, Virginia. She remained a prisoner for four long months in filthy conditions and poor health.

Being a prisoner of war did not stop Walker. After being released, she continued to work for the remainder of the war at a women’s hospital in Louisville and an orphanage in Tennessee. Then, in 1865, something remarkable happened. Walker received the Medal of Honor for her service as a contract surgeon, recognizing her dedication to wounded soldiers, time as a prisoner of war and detriment to personal health. She was, and is still, the only woman to receive this award.

More than 50 years later, Congress revised the Medal of Honor standards, and with that revision, revoked her medal. Although it was taken away, Walker refused to give it back and continued to wear her medal until she died in 1919.

Walker is still recognized as a Medal of Honor recipient because, in 1977, an Army board made the decision to reissue Walker’s medal. Today, she is recognized as a war hero and a historic American figure. She represents strength, dignity and determination through her lifelong work for suffrage and equality. She symbolizes patriotism and determination and holds an integral place among America’s greatest heroes.

"Mary Edwards Walker." , Civil War Doctor. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 June 2014. http://www.northnet.org/stlawrenceaauw/walker.htm
"Mary Edwards Walker." Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2014. Web. 04 June 2014. http://www.biography.com/people/mary-walker-9522110