Friday, March 8, 2013


March 8 - Today's post contributed by Cheryl Harness


Mary Walker was born on our planet all right, in Oswego, New York, but hers was a whole different world than ours. When she was born, on November 26, 1832, the only light was the sun by day, moonlight or fire by night. Nothing went faster than a horse could run. A female who tried to vote was an outlaw. But it was perfectly legal for Americans to buy and sell people who’d have to do what they were told. Men wore the pants in Mary’s world and did men’s jobs: Doctor. Engineer. Lawyer. Lawmaker. Soldier. Preacher. A female who dressed like a man, who tried to break into a man’s profession, was outrageous and truly scandalous. A woman who pulled on a pair of poufy pantaloons underneath her knee-length skirt then went outdoors was going against iron-hard customs, nature, even the dictates of God.

The world of the past is just about unthinkable for us modern types, but it’s not unimaginable.

And the more you imagine, the more you’ll see how remarkable it was, the story of Dr. Mary Walker.

Mary Edwards Walker was used to people’s anger and amazement. From the very beginning, her parents taught her and her older sisters, Vesta, Aurora Borealis, Luna, and Cynthia; and their kid brother, Alvah, to think for themselves even if it meant going against society’s customs. They were dead-set against folks smoking, drinking alcohol, and definitely opposed to enslaving their fellow human beings. They were for women’s equal right to vote and girls’ right to a good and thorough education. In fact, the Walkers built a school on their farm, for boys and girls. They believed in equal comfort, too. Girls’ clothes shouldn’t be so tight and fancy, as was the fashion. Mary Walker never forgot that lesson. In fact, her ideas about girly dresses would upset people more than anything!

After more schooling at a nearby academy, Mary became a teacher, a proper job, most folks thought, for any lady not lucky enough to have a husband to provide for her. To Mary, it was her way to earn money to study for the job she really wanted: Physician. Three years had passed since 1849, when Elizabeth Blackwell became America’s very first female medical doctor (M.D.). People still weren’t used to such an upsetting idea. Never mind; Mary was determined to be the second.

She stood out, being the only coed at the Syracuse (New York) Medical School. As she studied her way through three 13-week terms there, Mary stood out even more because of the ways she thought and dressed.

How, Mary wondered, could women be taken seriously as equal citizens when society insisted that they wear unhealthy, impractical, silly dresses? How could a person breathe or move freely, in a stiff, tight corset, dragging around long, heavy skirts, wire hoops, and petticoats? These were modern times! This was the 19th century! Old ways had to change!

But not even tough, brave revolutionaries like Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony could put up with the stares. They were laughed at or cursed as sinful freaks in their shortened skirts worn over baggy pantaloons. Folks called them “bloomers” after Amelia Bloomer. She and other “dress reformers” were way ahead of their time. Most of them gave up and put on their long skirts, but not Mary Walker.

For all her differences, Mary had one thing in common with many a young person before and since: She fell in love with a fellow student. In 1856, newly graduated doctors, Mary Walker and Albert Miller, newlyweds, opened a medical practice in Rome, NY, but things went badly. Too few patients wanted to take their ailments to some radical “bloomerite!” Worse, later on, Mary found out that Albert was romancing other ladies. It’d be years before she could get a legal divorce from the man she called “the villain,” but really, by 1860, their marriage was broken. Even worse, their nation was breaking up, too.

Eleven southern States left the Union to form a separate nation, the Confederate States of America (CSA), where slavery would be the law of the land. But the new U.S. President, Abraham Lincoln, wanted the rebellious Americans back in the USA, even if it meant all out war. And so it did: The first shots were fired April 12, 1861, at Charleston, South Carolina.

In late July 1861, the broad streets of the U.S. capital were full of supply wagons, carts, carriages, and blue-coated U.S. soldiers. Many were still recovering from the first big fight of the war, a Confederate victory. It happened earlier that month, some 20 miles away, over at Manassas, VA, at a creek called Bull Run.

Washingtonians noticed that tall President Lincoln looked tired and worried when they saw him out and about. Still, he’d tip his tall, stovepipe hat to bonneted ladies, doing their best to keep their hoopskirts from dragging through puddles or worse, in unpaved avenues full of horses. They may well have scowled at a short, pretty woman, walking swiftly in her outrageous pants. Dr. Mary Walker, 29, probably ignored them. Like everyone else in the wartime city, she had a lot on her mind.

Dr. Walker would be speeding to or from the hospital set up in the big, unfinished U.S. Patent Office building. As an unpaid volunteer, she had lots to do: writing letters for men unable to do so. Tending to their bandages, fevers, and coughs. Raising money for poor folks who’d come to visit their sick, wounded sons, brothers, and husbands. Asking important men to let her join the medical corps as an official Army surgeon. Being told NO.

Women – Clara Barton, Dorothea Dix, and young Louisa May Alcott, for instance – were nurses, not doctors. So ambitious, patriotic, stubborn Mary went home to New York to get more training and earn some money. How? By giving speeches about healthy fashion and her experiences in the nation’s capital. Then she went back to the terrible war, unaware that she was heading into the great adventure of her life.

Sure, there were officers who saw Mary as a pretty-but-pesky, attention-seeker, but they couldn’t deny the tragic obvious. The war kept producing sick, shattered soldiers by the hundreds of thousands and they needed care. Mary did her best to give it, at field hospitals from Fredericksburg, Virginia, to Chattanooga, Tennessee. She met with considerable abuse over her persistent demands to be made a surgeon – and considerable respect for her hard work.
Mary presented herself at the Virginia headquarters of Major General Ambrose Burnside. in November 1862, and was taken on as a field surgeon, although still on a volunteer basis. As such, she treated the wounded at Warrenton, VA, and at the terrible battle of Fredericksburg, in December 1862. At last, in September 1863, her work became official. Major General George H. Thomas appointed Dr. Mary E. Walker to the U.S. Army of the Cumberland in the 52nd Ohio Regiment – a first for the military and a first for women.
(photo from the US Army Medical Department,
Office of Medical History)
Mary tailored an officer’s coat down to size. Under her calf-length skirt she wore gentlemanly trousers. She tied a green sash, indicating her surgeon’s status, around her narrow waist and put on a jaunty feathered hat. Grabbing her doctor’s bag and a pair of pistols, she set off on horseback to wherever her services were needed. In makeshift hospitals, sometimes out where bullets were flying, Mary doctored infantrymen, artillery troops, drummer boys – even civilians who needed looking after, sometimes behind shifting enemy lines. Most of her patients were U.S. fighters, but more than one fallen “Rebel” found himself being treated by a little “Yankee” lady-surgeon.

Some folks said that Dr. Walker was a spy. One particular fellow, a Rebel sentry, was so sure of it that he pointed his rifle at her and cried, “Halt!” Mary was under arrest!

It was April 10, 1864, in Georgia, not far from the Tennessee line. Mary was looking for wounded men, left behind from the fighting thereabouts, when she was captured. It wasn’t long before Dr. Mary Walker, prisoner-of-war, was on a train bound for Richmond, Virginia. There, in the Confederate capital, she was installed in Libby Prison, in what once had been a tobacco warehouse. Now "Castle Thunder" was home to a thousand-or-so prisoners plus many a rat and creepy-crawly.

Through the spring and summer of 1864, Mary wrote letters and pleaded for better food for herself and her fellow prisoners. Cabbage, for instance, to go with their usual bits of rice, peas, cornbread, and bacon. Less than 75 miles away, tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers led by U.S. General Ulysses S. Grant and C.S. General Robert E. Lee were dying in battle after battle. In August, as U.S. General William T. Sherman’s army was closing in on Atlanta, Georgia, Union and Confederate officials worked out a prisoner exchange. So it was that on August 12, 1864, Dr. Walker was free.

A flag of truce fluttered over the steamboat that carrying Mary and hundreds of other freed prisoners down the James River to the Union fort at Hampton Roads, Virginia. She went on to Washington, to find what her future held. She wanted to go back to the battlefields, but it was not to be. Until June 15, 1865, when her military career ended, Mary spent her time looking after the health of women prisoners in Kentucky and orphans and refugees in Tennessee. She gave speeches, campaigning for President Lincoln’s reelection (he won), celebrated the end of the hellish Civil War (the U.S. won), and mourned, along with all of the exhausted soldiers, newly freed slaves, and stunned Americans, when a liquored-up, racist actor, handsome John Wilkes Booth, murdered President Lincoln.
Less than a year later, on January 24, 1866, Dr. Mary Walker received a letter:

     Whereas it appears from official reports that Dr. Mary E. Walker, a graduate of medicine, "has rendered valuable service to the Government and her efforts have been earnest and untiring in a variety of ways," and that she was assigned to duty and served as an assistant surgeon in charge of female prisoners at Louisville, Ky., upon the recommendation of Major Generals Sherman and Thomas, and faithfully served as contract surgeon in the service of the United States, and 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 four months in a Southern prison while acting as contract surgeon; and 
    Whereas by reason of her not being a commissioned officer in the military service, a brevet or honorary rank cannot, under existing laws, be conferred upon her; and 
   Whereas in the opinion of the President an honorable recognition of her services and sufferings should be made: It is ordered, That a testimonial thereof shall be hereby made and given to the said Dr. Mary E. Walker, and that the usual medal of honor for meritorious services be given her. 
     Given under my hand in the city of Washington, D.C., this 11th day of November, A.D. 1865.
           Andrew Johnson, President Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War

No woman before (or since) had ever won the Medal of Honor. Mary would wear it with with pride for the rest of her life – no matter what.

After the war, audiences in America and abroad paid to hear Mary tell about her imprisonment and her Civil War service and to see her in her notorious, gentlemanly suit. It caused scenes – even got her arrested! Some might have given up and put on a dress, but not Mary. “I wear this style of dress from the highest, the purest and the noblest principle!” She was making no mere fashion fashion statement. Dr. Mary Walker was determined to be a living manifesto the health, freedom, and equality for women.

In the years to come, she applied herself to medicine, politics, and lobbying the U.S. Government for veterans' benefits. Despite her service as a surgeon, it took Mary more than thirty years of asking before she received her monthly $20. Because of her gender and her nontraditional training, Mary was never able to make much of a living as a physician. Though she passionately believed in votes for women, her contrary ways alienated mainstream suffragists. She headed the National Dress Reform Association, in 1866. Despite her political involvement, party officials turned her down – twice – when she offered herself as a Democratic candidate for Congress. Still, her work led to a job with the U.S. Department of the Interior (1882-1883), but her stubborn outspokenness got her fired. It served her better as a writer and speechmaker.
Mary Edwards Walker
(photo from National Library of Medicine,
Images from the History of Medicine, B010947)
At heart, Mary was a crusader. She lobbied the U.S. Congress on behalf of her many causes. And she published her many views in books: Hit (1871) and Unmasked, or the Science of Immorality, (1878). In her trademark suit and top hat, she traveled and lectured, even in museum sideshows for anyone who’d bought a 10¢ ticket. Between journeys, Mary spent more and more time on her family’s farm, tending her garden, her cow, horse, and chickens. She doctored her Oswego neighbors. Some, who knew nothing of the peculiar old lady’s glorious past, made fun of her and pulled pranks, to see her lose her famous temper. Always hard up for money, Mary dreamed up ways to make her farm pay. A school for girls? A sanitarium for folks with tuberculosis? In 1917, when the U.S. was about to enter World War I, the elderly veteran invited Germany’s emperor to come visit. She’d arrange a peace conference. Millions of lives might be saved! Alas, none of her schemes blossomed.

She was quite elderly when, on one of her trips to Washington, D.C. when the frail crusader suffered a pair of dreadful setbacks at the U.S. Capitol. For one thing, in 1917, Dr. Walker was badly hurt in a fall on the Capitol's marble steps. For another, the important men Inside decided that hundreds of Medals of Honor, including Dr. Walker’s, had been improperly awarded. Did Dr. Walker accept this judgment meekly? What do you think? Over her dead body would she return her beloved Medal. Indeed, she wore it to the end of her long life, which came on the 21st of February, 1919, when she was 86 years old.

One can only hope that Dr. Walker heard the news from beyond the grave: That the American people ratified the 19th Amendment, in 1920. At last, female citizens could vote for their nation’s leaders. And, in time, they did so, wearing jeans, shorts, and all manner of PANTS.

Moreover, on June 10, 1977, President Jimmy Carter restored the Medal of Honor to Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. After all, she had stubbornly served her nation - with valor.

Cheryl Harness began her life in California, during President Truman's Administration. She grew up in his hometown, Independence, MO, where she currently lives and works. After graduating from the University of Central MO, she worked as a greeting card artist at Hallmark Cards (KCMO) and Current, Inc., in Colorado Springs, CO.  Since 1988, she has written and/or illustrated some 45 books, including Remember the Ladies: 100 Great American Women (HarperCollins, 2003). The Tragic Tale of Narcissa Whitman and a Faithful History of the Oregon Trail (National Geographic, 2006) and most recently, Mary Walker Wears the Pants: The True Story of the Doctor, Reformer, and Civil War Hero (Albert Whitman, March 2013)

Afterword: Mary Edwards Walker was born November 26, 1832, in Oswego, NY, to Alvah and Vesta Walker. She and her brother, Alvah, had four sisters: Vesta, Aurora Borealis, Luna, and Cynthia. Mary worked as a teacher to pay for her classes at the Syracuse (NY) Medical School, which specialized in herbal and homeopathic treatments. In 1855, she married fellow physician, Albert Miller. They set up an unsuccessful practice in Rome, NY. In 1869, long after she separated from her straying husband, Mary won a divorce from “the villain.” 

She becomes Pres. of Nat’l Dress Reform Assoc [1866… she campaigns, speaks out pro temperance, anti-tobacco, pro suffrage, but corsets and heavy dragging, disease-carrying skirts are her main peeve + her increasingly mannish clothing, incl. her silk topper, gets her the most attention…. successful tour of England pp. 26/27 Touring, writing, shut out of mainstream woman suffrage movement because of her crackpot status, so extreme in her views. Too definite. pp. 28/29 last years: poverty, eccentricity, US Congress rescinds her Medal. [Dr. M.W. : the Congress will take her medal” over her dead body!”] she has a bad fall on the steps to the U.S. Capitol, c. 1917, never fully recovers pp. 30/31 death @ 86 21 Feb 1919; Dr. Walker is buried in her trademark gentleman’s dress suit, with her Medal of Honor/epilogue 20th Amendment ratified, President Jimmy Carter restores her M. of H. p. 32 Bibliography 

Almost a year later, she was in Chattanooga, tending the casualties of the battle of Chickamauga. After the battle, she again requested a commission as an Army doctor. In September 1863, MG George H. Thomas appointed her as an assistant surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland, assigning her to the 52d Ohio Regiment. Many stories were told of her bravery under fire. However, she served in this capacity for only a short time.

In April 1864, she was captured by Confederate troops, having remained behind to tend wounded upon a Union retirement. Charged with being a spy and arrested, her male attire constituting the principal evidence against her, Dr. Walker spent four months in various prisons, subject to much abuse for her unladylike occupation and attire, until she was exchanged for a Confederate surgeon in August 1864.

 In October of the same year, the Medical Department granted Dr. Walker a contract as an acting assistant surgeon. Despite her requests for battlefield duty, she was not again sent into the field. She spent the rest of the war as superintendent at a Louisville, Ky., female prison hospital and a Clarksville, Tenn., orphanage. 

Released from government contract at the end of the war, Dr. Walker lobbied for a brevet promotion to major for her services. Secretary of War Stanton would not grant the request. President Andrew Johnson asked for another way to recognize her service. A Medal of Honor was presented to Dr. Walker in January 1866. She wore it every day for the rest of her life. 

After the war, Dr. Walker remained active in the women’s rights movement and crusaded against immorality, alcohol and tobacco and for clothing and election reform. One of her more unusual positions was that there was no need for a women’s suffrage act, as women already had the vote as American citizens.

Her taste in clothes caused frequent arrests on such charges as impersonating a man. At one trial, she asserted her 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 the case and ordered the police never to arrest Dr. Walker on that charge again. She left the courtroom to hearty applause.

In 1916, Congress revised the Medal of Honor standards to include only actual combat with an enemy. Several months later, in 1917, the Board of Medal Awards, after reviewing the merits of the awardees of the Civil War awards, ruled Dr. Walker’s medal, as well as those of 910 other recipients, as unwarranted and revoked.

She died on 21 February 1919 at the age of 86. However, Dr. Walker was not forgotten. Nearly 60 years after her death, at the urging of a descendant, the Army Board for Correction of Military Records reviewed the case. On 19 June 1977, Army Secretary Clifford L. Alexander approved the recommendation by the board to restore the Medal of Honor to Dr. Mary E. Walker. She remains the sole female recipient of the Medal of Honor. Assoc. of the U.S. Army


  1. I've never heard of Dr. Mary Walker and I thank you for telling her story!

  2. Ah... I remember that stamp.
    I'm thankful that Cheryl Harness had the drive & interest to bring the full story of this dynamite woman to light. And what a family she arose from - I can tell from the detail she shares about the sibling names.
    I can tell this book is a well-researched & lively story. Plus with the artwork, it's bound to be quite a winner. I am a fan of Cheryl's picture book bios & am so glad to know about this new one. Brava!

  3. I had no idea that there was a female awardee of the Medal of Honor, thank you Cheryl Harness for sharing her story.

  4. Apparently I have an account as Unicorn Master. I have no idea why because I have ever heard of or gone on this website. But this really helped with my school project, thank you! wow the other comments are old