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Dr. Mary Walker was the only woman who received the Medal of Honor

Goran Blazeski

Mary Walker was born in Oswego, in upstate New York, on November 26th, 1832. She was the fifth daughter of Alvah and Vesta Whitcomb Walker.

Her father was a self-taught doctor who strongly believed in equal rights and equal education for his five daughters, so in 1855 Mary graduated from Syracuse Medical College as the only woman in her class.

In 1856, Walker married the former student Albert Miller but refused to assume his last name.

Together, they moved to Rome, New York, where they practiced medicine together.

Four years after their marriage,  Mary accused Albert of infidelity and left him. They finally divorced 10 years later.

Walker, ca 1870. She often wore masculine clothes
Walker, ca 1870. She often wore masculine clothes

When the Civil War broke out, Dr. Walker came to Washington and tried to join the Union Army,  working as a nurse in a temporary hospital in the capital.

In 1862 she worked on the battlefield, in field hospitals in Warrenton and Fredericksburg, Virginia.

In 1863 she was finally appointed as an assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry, thus becoming the first female surgeon commissioned in the Army.

Apparently being an assistant surgeon wasn’t enough for Mary Walker and she also worked as a spy in the summer of 1864.

She would cross Confederate lines to treat civilians and provide intelligence.

Unfortunately, the Confederate troops captured and imprisoned her in 1864 in Richmond, where she remained until August 12th, 1864, when she was exchanged with dozen other Union doctors for 17 Confederate surgeons.

Photo of Mary Edwards Walker
Photo of Mary Edwards Walker

She was released back to the 52nd Ohio as a contract surgeon and then sent to a Louisville Women’s Prison Hospital. Later, she was assigned to work at an orphanage in Tennessee.

On June 15th, 1865, Dr. Mary Walker was discharged from the army and got a monthly pension of $8.50, later raised to $20.

On November 11th, 1865, President Andrew Johnson signed a bill presenting Dr. Walker with the Congressional Medal of Honor in order to recognize her contributions to the war.

She was the first and last woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor, her country’s highest military award.

Later, she wrote and lectured about women’s rights, dress reform, temperance issues, and was elected president of the National Dress Reform Association in 1866.

Mary Edwards Walker, around 1911
Mary Edwards Walker, around 1911

In 1917 the Congress revised the standards for the Medal of Honor, including only those who engaged in “actual combats with an enemy”.

However, Dr. Walker had refused to return the medal and wore it every day until she died.

Dr. Walker died in her hometown of Oswego, New York, on February 21st, 1919.

Here is another story from us: Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to graduate from medical school in the United States

In 1977 President Jimmy Carter signed a bill reinstating her medal posthumously and on June 10th, 1982, a 20-cent stamp was issued in her honor.

Goran Blazeski

Goran Blazeski is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News