Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Apparelled in Honor: The Story of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

March 21 - Today's post provided by Jim Weiss

In 2011, author and recording artist Jim Weiss wrote and recorded  Women in Blue or Gray: True Stories from Both Sides of the American Civil War.  Jim says, “In our desire to focus on famous figures in history, too often we overlook equally remarkable people who did not achieve fame, but whose accomplishments really mattered.  Worse yet, historians have frequently ignored the contributions of women, making it doubly hard to find inspiring, true stories of women.  My recording allowed me to shine a light on six astonishing women, some from the Union and some from the Confederacy.  Here is one of the stories, as I wrote it for the recording.”



Mary Edwards Walker

America’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, is given only rarely; but one particular Medal of Honor was the rarest of all, for it was presented to the only woman who has ever received the Medal of Honor.  This is her story.

Alvah Walker crossed his farm field and shouted, “Mary!”  Moments later, his daughter Mary stepped from the barn.  She wore a dress with a wide skirt and Alvah could see her trying to hold a dusty bucket high enough so that it would not brush the skirt.  “I told you, Mary, you can’t help me dressed like that.  Go get into something more comfortable.  Then come out here in the field.”

Alvah and Vesta Walker owned a farm in Oswego, New York.  Alvah  was a good farmer, a fine carpenter and a good neighbor, though some people remarked, “Nice fella but strange ideas.”  Alvah and Vesta openly supported the abolition of slavery, which was controversial enough in the 1840’s.  But they thought, also, that all their children, boys and girls, ought to have as fine an education as possible and the chance to use what they’d learned in professions.  The Walkers built Oswego’s first schoolhouse on their property.

Mary Edwards Walker and two older sisters went on for teaching degrees, but Mary had her eye on another, seemingly impossible goal.  She saved up her teacher’s salary and announced to family and friends, “I have decided to become a doctor.”

When friends protested,  “There’s no such thing as a woman doctor,” Mary replied, “Not yet.” 

The Syracuse Medical College in up-state New York had advertised that it would accept women medical students.  Mary became the only woman student in the college, and worked hard to show some of her skeptical classmates that she was their equal.  In June 1855, she became Doctor Mary Edwards Walker, the second woman ever licensed to be a medical doctor in the United States. 

Many people thought that the new doctor must be some sort of freak, and it didn’t help that Mary, remembering her father’s practical lessons on dress, wore pants, a shirt with a high collar, and a long coat that ended just below her knees.  Slowly, however, she began to build a practice. A year later, she married Albert Miller, another doctor.  But when she stood at Albert’s side and said, “I do,” Mary did not wear the traditional bridal gown.  She was clothed in one of her coat and trouser outfits – and she insisted on keeping her own last name.  Some of their friends whispered, “I adore Mary, but don’t you think she might be… well, difficult as a wife?”

However, it was Albert Miller who turned out to be a dreadful husband. Mary tried hard, but a few years later, both their marriage and their shared medical practice fell apart. 

At the same time, the United States was splitting into Union and Confederacy.  So Dr. Mary Edwards Walker went to Washington.  There, an officer told her, “There’s just no place for a woman doctor in the army, especially as a surgeon.  But we do need nurses.”

“Nurses are important,” Mary replied, “ but if saving lives is what matters most, I can do more good in the role for which I have been trained: as a physician, and I’m willing to prove myself.  If you won’t make me a soldier, I will volunteer my services, and all I ask in return are food and shelter.  I am confident that you will change your mind once you’ve seen the excellence of my work.”

She began at a makeshift hospital that had been set up in the main U.S. Postal Service building in Washington, arriving in time to help treat wounded from the First Battle of Manassas a few miles west of the capitol.  A few months later, an outbreak of deadly typhoid fever struck Union forces in Warrenton, Virginia, southwest of the capitol, and Mary went to work there, for during the Civil War, germs were as deadly to soldiers as were bullets and cannon balls. 

Doctor Walker’s excellent work caused one of the army doctors with whom she worked to protest, “You are working as hard, and as well, as any of us.  If the government won’t pay you a wage, allow me the honor of splitting mine with you.”

“You have no idea how much your offer means to me.  But I will earn what men earn or nothing.”

Though other doctors wrote letters on Mary’s behalf, the government still refused to pay a woman doctor.  And when she went to serve at an army hospital at the brutal battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, she ran into opposition from some male surgeons. Used to removing wounded legs and arms rather than taking the time for more complex treatment, these doctors were furious to learn that Mary had correctly counseled numerous soldiers, “This leg can be saved.  You tell them that you insist that they do not take it off.”  She said later, “It was gratifying to receive a wave of farewell from a soldier knowing that I had saved that arm from unnecessary amputation.”

In January 1864, when General George Thomas made her chief surgeon for a regiment stationed in Tennessee, a male doctor challenged her qualifications, protesting, “I don’t imagine she knows anything more about medicine than do most housewives.”   His complaint reached the desk of General William Tecumseh Sherman.  But Sherman knew Dr. Walker’s excellence.  He replied, “Tell this fella I can’t do anything about Dr. Walker.  She outranks me.”

After her rocky start, Mary slowly won over the troops, and for the first time, she was paid -- a whopping $80 per month.  In addition to treating soldiers, she decided to serve needy civilians.  Colleagues warned her, “Don’t go wandering off.  The Confederates are nearby.  If they find you, they might arrest you as a spy, and they hang spies.”

“That’s why I’ve taken to wearing a uniform.  They would have to treat me as a soldier – even if my own country won’t.”  But a few weeks later, on her way to visit a civilian family, Mary heard shouts of, “Halt!  Who goes there?”  She had walked into a Confederate patrol!

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker spent the next four months as a prisoner of war at the Castle Thunder military prison near Richmond, Virginia.  Here, hundreds of Union prisoners were overcrowded in the heat and dirt of a former factory warehouse.  The officer in charge was brutal towards prisoners, but Mary convinced him, “Let me treat my fellow prisoners and any of your troops who fall ill.”  She continued to work even after injuring her eye while treating a patient.  She even convinced the officer in charge to improve the quality of the food the prisoners received.

One day, a Confederate officer informed her, “We are sending you back north as part of an exchange of prisoners held by both sides.  You are being exchanged for…” -- he glanced at a paper --  “… a Confederate major.”

Mary laughed.  “Well, they may not make me an officer up north, but at least they’ll trade me for one.”

Returning to her regiment, Dr. Walker was at last officially declared an “acting assistant surgeon” at the salary of $100 per month – the first female surgeon ever commissioned in the United States Army, though still not a soldier.

Mary served with the army for the rest of the war.  Afterward, Generals George Thomas and William T. Sherman personally lobbied on her behalf with Lincoln’s successor in the White House, President Andrew Johnson.  They told Johnson that Mary deserved a position as an army doctor.  “Dr. Walker even received an injury while a prisoner of war, and yet she continued her life-saving work.” 

Johnson’s reply: “There is no regulation allowing me to grant your request.  However, I am recommending Dr. Mary Edwards Walker for the highest honor her nation can grant: the Medal of Honor.”

The official citation mentioned Dr. Walker’s “valuable service… in devoting herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers … to the detriment of her own health... (while) enduring hardships as a prisoner of war.” 

In 1918, at age 85, Mary Edwards Walker was informed that the rules regulating the Medal of Honor had been changed and that, as a civilian, she had to return her medal.  She refused, continuing to wear it proudly.  Around that same time, while visiting Washington, D.C., to meet with members of congress, she fell on the Capitol steps, suffering multiple injuries.  She never fully recovered, and shortly afterward, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker died in the town of her birth, Oswego, New York, surrounded by devoted family and friends. 

Nearly 60 years later, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter reinstated Dr. Walker, and seven other civilians, as Medal of Honor recipients.  Dr. Mary Edwards Walker remains the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor.  

Editor's Note:   JIM WEISS has been a storyteller for over 25 years.  His production company, Greathall Productions 
(1-800-477-6234), has won more than 100 major awards for its many recordings of stories from history and classic literature.  Jim travels extensively throughout the United States, giving live performances at stores, libraries, schools and community events.  


  1. How heartbreaking that her medal was only reinstated posthumously. Thanks for sharing this little known story of courage and independence of spirit.

  2. Wow! What an amazing woman. I love that she wore a "suit" at her wedding and kept her own last name. Very much a woman before her time!