MARY EDWARDS WALKER – The only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor

Dr. Mary E. Walker, Medal of Honor, Surgeon Civil War
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Dr. Mary E. Walker, Medal of Honor, Surgeon Civil War

BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D. Recently my friend and go to person for anything about Wake Island, Bonita Gilbert asked me if there were any women who had received the Medal of Honor.  In all of the hundreds of Medal of Honor recipients I have written about I have never written about a women recipient.  Thanks to Bonnie, I am about to correct that today.

Walker was born in  Oswego, New York, on November 26, 1832, the daughter of Alvah and Vesta  Walker. She was the youngest of five daughters and had one younger brother. Walker worked on her family farm as a child. She did not wear women’s clothing during farm labor, because she considered them too restricting. Her mother reinforced her view on corsets and tight lacings as being unhealthy. Her elementary education consisted of going to the local school where her mother taught. As a young woman, she taught at the school to earn enough money to pay her way through Geneva Medical College (now Upstate Medical University), where she graduated as a medical doctor in 1855 as the only woman in her class. 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 physicians were generally not trusted or respected at that time. Walker briefly attended Bowen Collegiate Institute (later named Lenox College) in Hopkinton, Iowa in 1860 until she was suspended after refusing to quit the school debating society, which had previously been all male.


At the beginning of the American Civil War, she volunteered for the Union Army as a civilian. At first, she was only allowed to practice as a nurse, as the U.S. 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 worked as an unpaid field surgeon near the Union front lines, including the Battle of Fredericksburg and in Chattanooga after the Battle of Chickamauga. As a suffragette, she was happy to see women serving as soldiers and alerted the press to the case of Frances Hook in Ward 2 of the Chattanooga hospital.

 In September 1862 Walker wrote to the War Department requesting employment on Secret Service to spy on the enemy, but the offer was declined.  Finally, she was employed as a “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)” by the Army of the Cumberland in September 1863, becoming the first-ever female surgeon employed by the U.S. Army Surgeon.

Walker 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, just after she finished helping a confederate doctor perform an amputation. She was sent to Castle Thunder in Richmond, Virginia 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 approved for the highest United States Armed Forces decoration for bravery, the Medal of Honor, for her efforts during the Civil War. She is the only woman to receive the medal and one of only eight civilians to receive it. Her name was deleted from the Army Medal of Honor Roll in 1917. President Carter had it  restored in 1977. After the war she was a writer and lecturer supporting the women’s suffrage movement until her death in 1919.


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 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 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 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 Dr. Mary E. Walker, and that the usual medal of honor for meritorious services be given her.

//S//    Andrew Johnson  President

Walker is buried at the Rural Cemetery Oswego, New York, U.S.

The information in this article was sourced from a variety of sources both internal and external. Every effort was made to ensure that the information is current and correct. These articles are presented to honor the heroes they are written about.

This will be our final article for 2013.   Will be returning in mid-January 2014.  Thank you to everyone who has given me assistance writing these article, especially my long suffering editor.  In almost three decades of writing I have always struggled with editors.  As I am married to my current editor I have made a special effort to get along with her.  She deserves all the credit for putting my scrambled thoughts together and catching all my many mistakes and making these articles informative and interesting.