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According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, 3530 Medals of Honor have been awarded for action above and beyond the call of duty since it was presented to Private Jacob Parrot (1843-1908), the first recipient ever, for having captured a Confederate train in Georgia on 5 April 1862, during the U.S. Civil War. All the recipients, so far, of this prestigious decoration have been men, except one. Mary Edwards Walker (26 November 1832 – 21 February 1919) was born in Oswego, New York, to an abolitionist family – who promoted free thinking, equality in education, and dress reform for women – and graduated from Syracuse Medical College with a doctor of medicine degree in 1855. Dr. Walker became known as a "liberationalist" for her radical views at that time on women's rights and was regarded by many as a living legend.
At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Dr. Walker wanted to serve her country in the field of medicine and went to Washington, D.C. where she applied to become a Union Army surgeon. As the Union Army did not commission women surgeons, only nurses, she decided to volunteer as an unpaid surgeon. She initially served as a nurse and later as an assistant surgeon at the U.S. Patent Office that was converted into a hospital in Washington and after organized the Women's Relief Organization that helped families to visit wounded relatives. By this time, Dr. Walker was a pioneer in women's dress reform and opposed long skirts and pettitcoats and asserted her right to dress as she please and typically wore a knee-length dress with trousers underneath.
Although Dr. Walker fervently continued petitioning the War Department to grant her a commission, she left Washington in 1862 and moved to Virginia to volunteer at various field hospitals, caring for wounded soldiers returning from the Battle of Fredericksburg. Her tenacity in pressuring the Army was finally rewarded in 1863 when she was employed as a "Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)" by the Army of the Cumberland and was assigned to the 52nd Ohio Infantry with a salary of $100 a month. Dr. Walker not only cared for the men in field hospitals but also frequently crossed battle lines to look after civilians. As such, she was captured by Confederate troops in April 1864 suspected of being a spy because of her non-traditional clothing and spent about four months at the notoriously harsh Confederate prison in Richmond until her release was secured in a prisoner exchange. Shortly after she returned to the 52nd Ohio where upon the recommendation of Major Generals William T. Sherman (1820-1891) and George Henry Thomas (1816-1870), Dr. Walker was sent to work as an assistant surgeon at a women's prison in Louisville, Kentucky, where she remained until May 1865.
With the Civil War that effectively ended in April 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse with the surrendering of Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) to Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), Dr. Walker's contract with the U.S. Army ended in June of that year. She had petitioned for the brevet rank of major and it was denied. But in "recognition of her services and sufferings," President Andrew Johnson (1808-1875) awarded her the "usual medal of honor for meritorious services" on 11 November 1865. The President's order published in the Daily National Republican (Washington, D.C.) on 22 November 1865 best describe the circumstances by which Dr. Walker was recognized with the United States' highest award for military valor: "EXECUTIVE OFFICE. / Whereas it appears from official reports that Doctor MARY E. WALKER, a graduate of medicine, "has tendered [sic] valuable service to the Government, and her efforts have been earnest and untiring 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, Ky., 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 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 a Southern prison while acting as Contract Surgeon; and / 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 made, / It is ORDERED, That a testimonial thereof shall be hereby made and given to the said Doctor MARY E. WALKER, and that the usual medal of honor for meritorious service be given her. / Given under my hand, in the city of Washington, D.C., this eleventh day of November, A.D. 1865. ANDREW JOHNSON, President. / By the President: EDWIN M. STANTON, Secretary of War." President Johnson made the presentation two months later, on 24 January 1866.
Dr. Walker's Medal of Honor was one on 1,523 awarded during the U.S. Civil War. In 1916, Congress asked that all Medals awarded up to that point be reviewed to ensure that they met the high standards required for the award and as a result, Congress "restricted the award of the Medal of Honor to military members performing above and beyond the call of duty and at risk of their lives in combat situations." A few months later, in 1917, the Army Board of Medal Awards upon reviewing all the Civil War awards ruled that 911 Medals of Honor were to be rescinded, including Dr. Mary Walker's as she was "not a member of the Army" and therefore "she was not eligible for award of the Medal of Honor under the statutory criteria in effect at the time it was awarded to her (Act of 1863), at the time it was withdrawn (act of 1916), or at the present time." These 911 names were stricken from the Medal of Honor list on 15 February 1917. Despite this decision being made by the Government, Dr. Walker refused to return her medal and continued to wear it until her death. "According to one legend, when federal marshals attempted to retrieve it in 1917, she opened the door holding a shotgun – and wearing her medal."
During the early to mid 1970s, Ms. Anne Walker worked feverishly with The White House and the Department of Defense to have her great-grand aunt's Medal of Honor re-instated. The Army reinstated six of the awards to civilians who served alongside U.S. troops and Dr. Mary Walker's Medal was restored to her posthumously in 1977 at the behest of the Army Board of Correction of Military Records. President Jimmy Carter (1924- ) reinstated her medal "to honor her sacrifice and acknowledge the sexism she fought." The original Medal of Honor presented to Dr. Walker is the custody of the Oswego County Historical Society and part of the collection held at the Richardson-Bates House Museum. A second medal presented in 1977 is located at the Military Women's Corridor at the Pentagon, Arlington, Virginia. Dr. Walker died of illness in 1919 at the age of eighty-six in her hometown of Oswego, New York. Shown is a photograph taken of the final resting place of Dr. Mary Walker at Oswego Town Rural Cemetery, taken on Memorial Day, 27 May 2019 – a day for remembering and honouring the people who died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. This commemorative day had Civil War roots as it was originally called Decoration Day to remember the Confederate fallen and was later formally adopted at Arlington in 1868 as a national commemorative day.
Dr. Mary Walker is well remembered as a Civil War surgeon, women's rights advocate and abolitionist. For example, during World War II, a Liberty Ship, the SS Mary Walker, was named for her. On 10 June 1982, a 20-cent commemorative stamp was issued by the U.S. Postal Service commemorating the 150th anniversary of her birth and in 2012, a 900-pound bronze statue was erected in her honor in front of Oswego's town hall. As well, the Association of the United States Army established the ' Dr. Mary E. Walker Award' to honor "an outstanding military spouse for demonstrating dedicated and exemplary volunteerism, that improved the quality of life for soldiers and their families."
On this day, 21 February 2022, we commemorate the 103rd anniversary of the death of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker and mark more than 156 years since the only woman in the history of the United States to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
André M. Levesque