Dr. Mary Walker: The Only Woman to Win the Congressional Medal of Honor, Ahead of Her Time

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

(Editor’s Note: In recognition of Women’s History Month, which originated in California, I am reprinting below an article I wrote on Dr. Mary Walker telling of her trials and tribulations in first winning, then losing, and finally being re-awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor earned during the Civil War; and her other political strivings. The article was originally published in the Sacramento Bee on Sunday October 30, 1994.) 

One-hundred-thirty years to the day after Dr. Mary Walker was released from a Confederate prison, 19-year-old Shannon Faulkner was told by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals that her quest to become the first female cadet at the Citadel, South Carolina’s state supported military academy, would be delayed.

It was a hurdle Walker would have recognized. She tried to crack the gender barrier of the United States Army, offering her skills as a physician at the outbreak of the Civil War. She followed a torturous path before acceptance came to her as the first and only woman to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. And yet, late in her life, the medal was officially rescinded by an act of Congress.

mary walkerTo her contemporaries, Walker was an eccentric: a woman who went to medical school, refused to take her husband’s name when she was married and wore bloomers and pants her entire adult life. Walker attended the Syracuse Medical College in New York State, a two-year old school with nine local physicians on the faculty. The medical profession was still young in those days and medical schools varied widely in their educational practices and requirements for graduation. She completed the necessary three terms at Syracuse and graduated in 1855.

When the Civil War broke out, Walker, 29 years old and recently divorced, went to Washington to seek a commission as a doctor in the Union Army, or at least as a contract surgeon. The military was not interested. The best position she could secure was a volunteer in the U.S. Patent Office, which had been converted to a temporary hospital. And even there, her role seems to have been more that of an administrative assistant than physician.

To gain recognition as a doctor, Walker crossed into Virginia, to the camp of General Ambrose E. Burnside. Conditions were appalling in the field hospitals. The medical staff was exhausted, the equipment inadequate. Walker persuaded the general that hospitalized soldiers would be better off in Washington and helped transport them north. When the train carrying the soldiers reached a depot in Washington, other women volunteers were there to greet the soldiers with food and drink. But, the ladies denied refreshment to Walker, the strange woman dressed in army pants with gold stripes and a straw hat with an ostrich feather.

Walker’s efforts to obtain a contract or commission were still rebuffed. A letter to President Lincoln was returned to her with his distinct scrawl on the bottom stating he would not interfere with the military’s medical organization. If they wanted to appoint Walker, Lincoln wrote, “I am willing but I am sure controversy on the subject will not subserve the public interest.”

Walker returned to the battlefields, volunteering to fill in for an assistant surgeon in an Ohio regiment who had died during the fighting in Tennessee. The medical director of the Army of the Cumberland was outraged to discover a female doctor taking care of the troops. He called her a “medical monstrosity” and ordered a review of her skills. The examining board, appointed by the medical director himself, dismissed her medical knowledge as “not much greater than most housewives.”

She nevertheless remained with her regiment, tending to civilians in the countryside when time allowed, an activity which created hard feelings among some of the Union soldiers. The regimental historian reports that the men did not like Dr. Walker because, “Every day she would pass out of the picket line, attending the sick… Many of the boys believed her to be a spy.” Some later historians, in contrast, conjectured that her Medal of Honor was secretly intended as a reward for spying for the Union, not the Confederacy. But, there is no evidence to support either claim.

Walker firmly believed that it was her humanitarian service to the Southern citizens, which won her the medal. She told an English newspaper in 1867, “The special valor was for going into the enemy’s ground when the inhabitants were suffering for professional service, and sent to our lines to beg assistance; and no man surgeon was willing to respond for fear of being taken prisoner; and by doing so the people were won over to the Union.”

During one of these missions into enemy territory she was taken prisoner. Walker spent four months in a Richmond Prison known as Castle Thunder, a converted tobacco warehouse. She was eventually exchanged, to her delight, for a Confederate major.

Her stint in prison opened some eyes. Shortly after her release, she was awarded a contract as an acting assistant surgeon in the United States Army and placed in charge of a female prison. She also received pay for her time in prison. Still, Walker never received the army commission she dearly wanted. After the war, President Andrew Johnson decided to recognize her service but noted in her citation that because she was not commissioned she could not be honored with a brevet or honorary rank. So he awarded her a Congressional Medal of Honor instead for “meritorious service.”

As Charles Snyder, one of Walker’s biographers, observed, the Civil War years were “a mere introduction to a full half-century of restless striving for lost causes.” She wore the medal on lecture tours in the U.S. and Great Britain, speaking about her war experiences and lobbying for her two favorite causes: getting the vote for women and securing as well their right to wear comfortable, sensible clothes.

She began with appeals to Congress to allow female nurses who served at least 90 days during the war the right to vote. “As long as you tax women and deprive them of the right of franchise, you but make yourselves tyrants,” she argued. Later she took a more radical line, breaking with other feminists over the need for a constitutional amendment on behalf of women’s suffrage. She believed women were already granted the right to vote by a Constitution which begins with the words, We the People. “I am opposed to granting men the right to vote on the rights of women,” she protested.

Walker’s passion for dressing the way she chose was no less distinctive. She firmly believed pants or bloomers were not only practical, but healthier for women. And her style of dress caused no end of arguments. When a crowd gathered around her on a New York City shopping trip after the war, a store proprietor called the police to offer Walker protection. Instead Walker got into an argument with the police officer; ending with her arrest. The incident produced charges and countercharges; two court hearings, and some editorial cartoons.

Walker’s attire became more mannish as the years passed. By the 1880s she was a man’s coat and pants, shirt, stiff collar and tie and even a tall silk hat. For her, dress was the symbol of equality and defiance.

In 1916, the federal government created a review panel to slim the ranks of Medal of Honor winners. The purpose was to give more meaning to the medal itself by ensuring that it would be awarded only for valor above and beyond the call of duty against the enemy for those serving in the military. These new criteria were then applied retroactively.

As a result, over 1,000 medals were stricken from the records. All of the members of a Civil War regiment from Maine, for example, had received the medal simply as an inducement to remain in the service when their enlistment was ending. These were taken back, as was the medal that had been awarded to Buffalo Bill Cody for his service in the Indian campaigns. Because he was a scout, a civilian position, he was no longer entitled to this honor.

Because Walker had been a civilian during her entire service, and because the board could not find one act of bravery against the enemy, her medal too was revoked. At the age of 85, however, she appeared before the board, vowing that she would never relinquish it. Indeed, until the day she died, she wore on the lapel of her coat both her original medal and a replacement that had been sent her years later when the design was changed.

Walker died in 1919, one year before the Constitution was finally amended to allow women the vote. Women by that time were wearing pants in greater numbers, an effect of the First World War during which many women replaced men in the nation’s factories and workplaces. In 1977, acting on a request from one of her descendants, the Army officially reinstated Mary Walker’s Medal of Honor posthumously.

(You can read Dr. Mary Walker’s Medal of Honor citation here.)

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