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Mary Edwards Walker

The only woman who has ever won the Medal of Honor

Mary Edwards Walker grew up in rural New York and graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855. Her father was a free thinking participant in many of the reform movements that thrived in Upstate New York in the mid 1800s. His daughter became an early enthusiast for Women's Rights, and was particularly drawn to the issue of dress reform. Stating "Corsets are coffins," Mary Walker discarded the unusual restrictive women's clothing of the day in favor of "Bloomers". Later in her life she donned full men's evening dress to lecture on Women's Rights. 

Mary Edwards Walker -- The only woman who has ever won the Medal of Honor

In 1855 Mary joined the tiny number of women doctors in the United States when she graduated from the nation's first medical school, Syracuse Medical College. She married fellow medical student Albert Miller, but throughout her 13 years of marriage she was known as Mary Walker, foregoing the tradition of assuming her husband's name. Together they set up a medical practice in Rome, New York, but the public was not ready to accept a woman physician, and their practice floundered. 

During the Civil War, Dr. Walker enlisted in the Union Army but was refused a commission as an army surgeon. She served as a nurse, a contract surgeon, and finally as a commissioned assistant surgeon. She worked as a field surgeon near the Union front lines for almost two years (including Fredericksburg and in Chattanooga after the Battle of Chickamauga), then was appointed assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry.

She continually crossed Confederate lines to treat civilians, and in 1864, dressed in full uniform she accidentally walked into a group of Rebel soldiers just south of the Georgia-Tennessee border. Their commanding officer, General Daniel Harvey Hill, ordered her sent to Richmond where she spent 4 months in jail. She was released during a prisoner exchange, and Walker was greatly pleased that she had been traded "man for man," for a Confederate Officer.

For her service during the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson signed the order awarding Dr. Mary Walker the Congressional Medal of Honor. During what has become known as "The Purge of 1917", the federal government tried to clean up many of the errors that had been made in issuing medals and Mary Walker's medal was revoked for "unusual circumstances" two years before she died. She refused to turn the Medal of Honor back to the Army as requested and according to friends wore it proudly every day until her death in 1919. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter reinstated the award, and Mary Edwards Walker remains the only woman to be so honored.

Throughout her 87 years Mary Edwards Walker combined her vocation as a doctor with a passion for writing, agitating for social reforms -- particularly women's rights --, journalism, lecturing, and tinkering with inventions. She wrote extensively, including a combination biography and commentary called Hit. With her caustic wit she quipped, "You men are not our protectors... If you were, who would there be to protect us from?"

Mary Walker in her later years

Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, wrote of Dr. Walker: "She lived a life of determined unconventionality; being a bloomerite from her younger years, she preferred to dress in pants. Later on in life, still practicing medicine, she could be seen wearing men's top hats and top coats as well as pants."

Perhaps the best description of Dr. Walker comes from the Post Office itself. In a section on women on stamps, they wrote,

"Dr. Mary Walker was a humanitarian devoted to the care and treatment of the sick and wounded during the Civil War, often at the risk of her own life. A patriot dedicated and loyal to her country, she successfully fought against the sex discrimination of her time. Her personal achievements, as much as her vocal support, significantly contributed to the struggle for women's rights." 

 

 

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