First Female Surgeon in Civil War: Physician Mary Walker
• Volunteered with the Union Army but had to serve as a nurse, not a physician because of her gender; eventually surgeons were so badly needed that her skills were put to use;
• In 1865 Dr. Mary Walker was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for her work In the Civil War; however in 1917 it was rescinded;
• She refused to return the medal and wore it all her life. In 1977 the honor was reinstated.
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919) worked as a surgeon during the Civil War and was the first woman to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Mary Edwards Walker grew up in Oswego, New York and graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855; she was the only woman in her class. She married a fellow student but refused to assume his last name, and for a few years the two practiced medicine together in Rome, New York. She accused him of infidelity and left him, but kept the practice going for a few more years before volunteering for the war. Because there were no other female surgeons, the Union Army would not accept her as a surgeon so she stepped in to work as a nurse.
An early nursing assignment was in the U.S. Patent Office Hospital in Washington, D.C. where many of the injured were being received. She tended to the sick at the hospital but when she left work in the evenings, she noted that the wives and mothers of soldiers were arriving in Washington and had nowhere to stay. To relieve their plight, she helped found the Women’s Relief Association to make use of their goodwill toward the war cause but also to connect them with people to help them with temporary housing.
Later she relocated to a field hospital near the front lines in Virginia where she worked for over two years. In her job, she wore a modified Union uniform with trousers which provided her with more freedom of movement. She found that her medical expertise was valued, so while the male surgeons never fully accepted her–and the Army regularly denied her applications for a commission–she was able to put her skills to use.
As a doctor in the field, she tended to the war wounded but also would travel the area to visit civilians who were sick, sometimes traveling into enemy territory to help out. As a woman she was less threatening to civilians, and Walker used her position to provide additional information to the Union. While she was never officially asked to fulfill responsibilities as a spy, she used these visits to listen and observe and report back to her superiors. One of these visits led to her capture, and she was imprisoned at Castle Thunder, a converted tobacco storage facility in Richmond, and one of the toughest Confederate prisons.
She was released four months later in a prisoner exchange. When she returned to her unit, she filed an application for a commission but it was again turned down. However, on October 5, 1864, Dr. Mary Walker finally received a commission of acting assistant surgeon with the 52nd Ohio Infantry, the first female surgeon ever commissioned in the U.S. Army. She was paid $100 per month.
Her skills were soon needed elsewhere so she did not remain with Ohio Infantry for long. She was sent to a Louisville Women’s Prison Hospital and later, she was assigned her to work at an orphanage in Tennessee.
She was discharged from the army on Jun 15, 1865. Later that year President Andrew Johnson signed a bill presenting Dr. Walker with the Congressional Medal of Honor. In part her citation 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 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., under 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 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 can not, under existing laws, be conferred upon her; and
Whereas in the opinion of the President an honorable recognition of her services and suffers 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.
However, in 1917 Congress revised the standards for the Medal of Honor, stating that it was to be given only to those who were in actual combat with the enemy. Walker’s medal, and the medals of 910 others, were to be taken away, but Dr. Walker refused to give hers up. She continued to wear the medal with pride, just as she had since 1865.
Her great-great-grandniece took this issue as a cause, and in 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill reinstating her medal posthumously.
Since childhood, Walker had dressed unconventionally, and she continued this throughout her life. She always wore trousers and a dress-coat and refused being bound in a corset or dealing with the inconvenience of a hoop skirt. On several occasions in different cities she was arrested for a charge of “impersonating a man.”
After the war, she became a writer and lecturer supporting such issues as health care, temperance, women’s rights and dress reform. She traveled frequently to talk before groups, and wrote two books pertaining to women’s rights.
She spent her final years, still writing and lecturing, based in Oswego, New York. She died in 1919 at the age of 86.
For more information on medicine during the Civil War, visit the National Museum for Civil War Medicine.
And to read more about the importance of veterinary medicine during the war, see Some Heroes Had Hooves.
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