Sunday, July 14, 2013

Rude Words for a True American Hero


This impromptu photograph of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, circa 1912, was almost certainly snapped without her consent on a sidewalk in New York, and no doubt Dr. Walker had very sharp words for the photographer.  Despite the circumstances of its creation, the photo gives us a candid look at one of the more intriguing characters in American History.  The image is printed on a real photo postcard and it has been discourteously titled, “Dr. Mary Walker, The Only Self Made Man in America.” 

You will note that Dr. Walker is dressed in trousers and a top hat.  By the time this photograph was taken, that had been her chosen mode of dress for many years.  Born in Oswego, NY in 1832, to very progressive or “free-thinker” parents who believed strongly in education and equality for women, she became an early advocate for women’s rights and dress reform for women, and she rejected the tight-fitting restrictive women’s clothing of the day.

Mary Walker's story goes well beyond her choice of attire.  She was an American physician, abolitionist, women's rights activist, and Civil War surgeon.  She was the first female surgeon in the U.S. Army, and the only female recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest military honor, awarded for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty.  

After graduating from medical school in 1855, at age 23, when very few women in the country were medical doctors, Walker married, and began a medical practice.  The marriage ended in divorce, and in 1861, when the Civil war broke out, Walker volunteered her services as a physician to the Union Army. The army refused Walker a commission or a salaried position because of her gender, but despite this rejection, Walker volunteered her services and worked long, difficult, unpaid hours first as a nurse and later as a field surgeon in tent hospitals near the front lines of the war. She treated wounded soldiers at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, and at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December of that year.  

Walker continued to request an official posting as a surgeon, but the army still refused her commission.  Though officially a nurse, she wore the green sash of an army physician, and worked alongside the male doctors. A New York Tribune article written about Dr. Walker in 1862, included this paragraph:

Dressed in male habiliments… she carries herself amid the camp with a jaunty air of dignity well calculated to receive the sincere respect of the soldiers… She can amputate a limb with the skill of an old surgeon, and administer medicine equally as well. Strange to say that, although she has frequently applied for a permanent position in the medical corps, she has never been formally assigned to any particular duty.

In response to her many requests for a position as a physician, President Lincoln sent a letter to Dr. Walker in 1864, which read in part:

The Medical Department of the army is an organized system in the hands of men supposed to be learned in that profession and I am sure it would injure the service for me, with strong hand, to thrust among them anyone, male or female, against their consent.

In September, 1863, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Walker treated the wounded after the Battle of Chickamauga.  Assistant Surgeon General Robert Wood, observed Walker's work during the Chickamauga Campaign, and finally assigned Walker the rank of Acting Assistant Surgeon in 1864.  During this time Walker continued to face the disapproval of many of the male physicians who had little respect for her opinions, including her suggestion that many of the battlefield amputations were unnecessary.  Despite these conflicts, there is ample evidence that other physicians and generals in the field were grateful for her assistance in treating the large numbers of wounded.

In 1862, Walker wrote to the War Department, requesting employment with the Secret Service as a Union spy, but this offer was declined.  There is some speculation that subsequently she actually worked as a spy in Confederate territory, but the validity of those claims is apparently in question.

As an acting assistant surgeon to the 52nd Ohio Volunteers in 1864, Walker managed a hospital for women prisoners and an orphanage.  Part of her responsibility included caring for the surrounding civilian population, and she often crossed enemy lines in the performance of this duty.  On one of these excursions Walker was captured and arrested as a spy by Confederate troops and imprisoned at the notoriously brutal Castle Thunder Prison in Richmond, Virginia until her release later that year as part of a prisoner exchange.


After her release from prison, Walker cared for Confederate women prisoners and an orphan asylum in Louisville, Kentucky. During her military service, she modified her uniforms to include trousers and a knee-length tunic.  She not only faced negative reactions from male physicians, but also from her female patients who were offended by her manner of dress and believed that women should not be doctors.

At the conclusion of the war, Congress awarded Walker the Congressional Medal of Honor for meritorious service.  However, in 1917, in an unfortunate twist of fate, Congress rescinded Walker’s medal and that of 910 other recipients, including "Buffalo Bill" Cody, when the Medal of Honor standards were revised to include only actual combat. Despite this ruling, Walker wore the medal proudly until her death in 1919.  In 1977, congress restored Walker's medal posthumously, citing her "distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex."

After the Civil War ended, Walker continued to work and lecture for women’s rights and dress reform well into her later years. In September 1866, she helped Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone organize the Women’s Suffrage Association for Ohio. She was also a very strong spokesperson for the Temperance Movement, and was quite outspoken on the evils of sexual activity beyond the act of procreation. Walker attempted to vote in 1872, and continued to fight for the right of all women to vote.  She campaigned for a U.S. Senate seat in 1890, and became a well-known figure of her time, easily recognized by her formal attire including winged collar and top hat. Unfortunately, Walker was often the object of ridicule for this manner of dress, and even harassed by children on the street.

Dr. Mary Walker died in Oswego, New York at the age of 86.  During WWII a Liberty ship, the SS Mary Walker, was named for her, and in 1982, the US Postal Service issued a 20¢ stamp honoring Dr. Walker.  In 2012, a statue in her likeness was erected in Oswego, NY.  The bronze figure depicts young Dr. Walker wearing trousers under her uniform skirt and proudly wearing the Medal of Honor. A quote from Walker is inscribed on the lectern that accompanies the statue: “I have got to die before people will know who I am and what I have done. It is a shame that people who lead reforms in this world are not appreciated until after they are dead; then the world pays its tributes”


Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was a dynamic figure with unyielding views on many subjects.  She was certainly eccentric, and perhaps difficult and antagonistic, but she was a person of fervent convictions who fought tirelessly for the causes she believed in – the abolishment of slavery, medical treatment and education, and the fight for women's rights. You might disagree about her views on temperance, but in her honor, let’s raise a glass of a non-alcoholic beverage and proclaim, “Here’s to Mary Edwards Walker, a vigorous and genuine American hero!”

Sources and Additional Reading: 
Women in Military Service for America Memorial:

Mary Walker's Quest to be Appointed as a Union Doctor in the Civil War by Alexis Cole, The Atlantic, Feb. 7, 2013:

Walker Bio:

Castle Thunder: 


  1. Thanks Ken. Interesting post (as always). Dave Frenzel.

  2. Hey Ken...I've been to her grave (so what else is new). Rumor has it that she was buried with her Medal of Honer, so that they couldn't get it back from her....Ginny Michaels


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