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Mary Edwards Walker

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Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, ca 1870. She often wore mens clothes and was arrested for impersonating a man several times.

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker (November, 1832February 21, 1919) was a versatile woman — a feminist, abolitionist, prohibitionist, spy, prisoner of war, surgeon and the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor.

Biography

Born in Oswego, New York, the daughter of Alvah and Vesta Walker, she believed the fashions of the day, which included such binding clothing as corsets, were not healthy and advocated looser fitting clothing.

Walker taught school as a young woman to earn enough money to pay her way through Syracuse Medical College where she graduated as a doctor in 1855. She married a fellow medical school student, Albert Miller, and they set up a joint practice in Rome, New York. The practice did not flourish, as female doctors were generally not trusted or respected at that time.

At the beginning of the Civil War, she volunteered for the Union Army as a civilian. At first, she was only allowed to practice as a nurse, as the Army had no female surgeons. During this period, she served at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), July 21, 1861 and at the Patent Office Hospital in Washington, D.C. She also worked as an unpaid field surgeon near the Union front lines, including the Battle of Fredericksburg and in Chattanooga after the Battle of Chickamauga. Finally, she was awarded a commission as a "Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)" by the Army of the Cumberland in September, 1863, becoming the first ever female U.S. Army Surgeon.

She was later appointed assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry. During this service, she frequently crossed battle lines, treating civilians. On April 10, 1864, she was captured by Confederate troops and arrested as a spy (there appears to be some support to the idea that she may actually have been a spy). She was sent to Richmond and remained there until August 12, 1864 when she was released as part of a prisoner exchange. She went on to serve during the Battle of Atlanta and later as supervisor of a female prison in Louisville, Kentucky and head of an orphanage in Tennessee. After the war, she was recommended for the Medal of Honor by Generals William T. Sherman and George Henry Thomas. On November 11, 1865, President Andrew Johnson signed a bill to present her the medal, specifically for her services at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas).

Sections from the citation accompanying the medal read:

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 illustrious 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, Kentucky, 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 Southern prison while acting as contract surgeon.
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: It is ordered, That a testimonial thereof shall be hereby made and given to the said Dr. Mary E. Walker, and that the actual medal of honor for meritorious services be given her.

After the war, she became a writer and lecturer, supporting such issues as health care, temperance, women's rights and, quite naturally, dress reform for women. She wore men's clothes exclusively for the rest of her life.

In 1917, the U.S. Congress, after revising the standards for award of the medal so that it could only be given to those who had been involved in "actual combat with an enemy", revoked more than 900 previously awarded medals, including that of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker and, interestingly enough, William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody. Although ordered to return the medal, she refused to do so and continued to wear it until her death.

Former President Jimmy Carter restored her medal posthumously in 1977.

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