Mary Edwards Walker, MD


Feb 24
Dr Mary Edwards Walker

Civil War Surgeon, Spy, Suffragette

Mary Edwards Walker grew up in rural New York and graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855. She was an unconventional woman who, after marrying a fellow student, Albert Miller, hung onto her own last name refusing to assume her husband’s. Some historians point out that her wedding vows did not include the usual promise to obey and that she wore “trousers and a dress-coat.” Her marriage, and their joint medical practice, lasted thirteen years.

“A woman’s name is as dear to her as a man’s is to him, and custom ought, and will prevail, where each will keep their own names when they marry, and allow the children at a certain age to decide which name they will prefer.”

When the Civil War broke out, Mary volunteered with the Union Army. She was not allowed to work as a physician and was denied a commission. She volunteered anyway as a “nurse” and a spy. Her nursing duties were, in actuality, those of an assistant surgeon, making Mary the first female surgeon in the US Army. She was an unpaid volunteer. Her initial job was in the US Patent Office Hospital in Washington, and later she worked as a field surgeon near the front lines for almost two years.

Mary put on a modified union soldier’s uniform and from that time on continued to wear men’s clothing, an idiosyncrasy she would carry to her death, often showing up for her lectures wearing a man’s suit and a top hat, and often landing in jail for her scurrilous behavior, and earned her the nickname “Contrary Mary.”

Mary’s work was unequaled among her peers and she was eventually appointed replacement surgeon in an infantry regiment but still no commission. Though not accepted fully by her male counterparts, her commanding officer Col Dan McCook was enormously grateful to have her.

When not attending Union casualties, Mary spied for the Union, crossing over into enemy territory and caring for the civilian population; many of whom were sick and dying from the ravages of the war. She would report back to her superiors the conditions she’d found. It seems that she was a much better physician than spy, for on one such venture, she walked straight into a group of Rebel soldiers.

She was immediately taken prisoner and transported to Richmond, Virginia where she was imprisoned in the toughest prison of the time, Castle Thunder. After four months she was released in a prisoner exchange in which she was exchanged “man for man.” She prided herself that she’d been exchanged for someone holding the rank of major, a Confederate surgeon.

Returning to her unit, she again filed an application for a commission that went all the way to President Lincoln, but was turned down. However, on October 5, 1864 Dr Mary Edwards Walker was finally commissioned as acting assistant surgeon, the first female surgeon ever commissioned in the US Army. Her salary was $100 per month. She served the next six months caring for patients at the Louisville Women’s Prison Hospital and finished out the war at an orphan home in Clarksville, Tennessee. She was discharged from the Army on June 15, 1865.

After the war, President Johnson signed a bill presenting Dr Mary Edwards Walker with the Congressional Medal of Honor, recognizing her contributions during the Civil War. She was the first and only woman to receive her country’s highest honor.

However, in 1917, her medal, along with the medals of 910 others, was taken away when Congress revised the Medal of Honor standards to apply only to “actual combat with an enemy.”

Mary refused to give up her medal and wore it proudly for the next two years till her death.

In 1977, because of her great great grandniece’s persistence, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill reinstating her medal and an army board cited her “distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex.” [REF]

On June 10th, 1982, the post office issued a 20 cent stamp honoring Dr Mary Walker, commemorating the second woman to graduate from a medical school in the US and the first and only woman to have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

References and Further Reading 

Stamp Photo Courtesy of the USPS.