3,500 People Have Received the Medal of Honor.
One is a Woman.
written by Kate Harrison Belz
Meet Mary Edwards Walker, the trailblazing Civil War surgeon honored for her bravery in Chattanooga
For some Civil War soldiers, the only place more harrowing than the battlefield was the field hospital.
The scenes at the makeshift hospitals — often tents or houses — horrified even the most battle-hardened: “The prayers, the curses, the screams, the blood, the flies, the sickening stench of this horrid little valley were too much for the stomachs of men,” one lieutenant colonel described.
Holding steady amidst the chaos was the surgeon: bent over torn limbs, hands quickly moving with needle and knife. When a surgery was done, an aid would slosh a bucket of water over the table, and within seconds the next patient was up. “I saw legs and feet taken off...and ghastly gashes sewed up rapidly and set skillfully, and that too almost on the very border of the battlefield,” one stunned correspondent wrote. “I arrived at the conclusion from what passed before my eyes that next to a skillful field officer the most important man on the day of battle is the surgeon.”
Imagine the shock, then, some Union soldiers had when they looked up from the table to see this “most important man” standing over them was actually a woman.
This surgeon was named Mary Edwards Walker, and the men she operated upon would never have seen anyone like her.
She was the first woman surgeon to serve in the military. She worked steadily in conditions many men couldn’t face, and her work with injured and dying at the Battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga earned her the Congressional Medal of Honor — the highest award offered by the U.S. military. To this day, Walker remains the only woman with the designation.
She was the first woman surgeon to serve in the military.
Walker was a total anomaly. Growing up in New York, her parents had allowed her to wear men’s clothing, and encouraged her to pursue medical education — an unheard-of profession for women at the time. She graduated in 1855, just a few years behind Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in the U.S. She married, but refused to take her husband’s name and omitted the line “obey” from her marriage vows. She later divorced him.
When war broke out in 1861, Walker applied to be U.S. Army surgeon. Despite the fact that the Union Army had fewer than 100 surgeons at the start of the war, the military would not permit this trousers-wearing 29-year-old woman among their ranks. While Walker continued to petition to join the medical corps, she didn’t wait around: she volunteered to conduct surgery in military hospitals without pay.
“She can amputate a limb with the skill of an old surgeon, and administer medicine equally as well,” one reporter wrote of her work. “Strange to say that, although she has frequently applied for a permanent position in the medical corps, she has never been formally assigned to any particular duty.”
In September of 1863, Walker was dispatched to Chattanooga after the devastating Union defeat at Chickamauga.
The battle had taken a staggering toll: 16,000 casualties, including over 9,700 wounded. Walker took charge of several wards. In one, she oversaw 60 patients and the work of assistant surgeons.
Through this, Walker finally got her commission. The next year, she became a surgeon of the the 52nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. For the first time, she was permitted to wear the same surgeon’s uniform as her colleagues. She armed herself with two revolvers, and grew her hair out to make a statement:
“I let my curls grow while I was in the army so that everybody would know that I was a woman,” she said.
While caring for the troops, Walker routinely crossed enemy lines to care for civilians with medical needs. During one such trip, she was captured by Confederate troops and was initially charged as being a spy (a claim that has never been decisively proven either way). She spent four months in a Richmond prison, and was eventually exchanged for a Confederate surgeon.
After the war, President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor for her service. In every photo taken of her after, it was the focal point of her signature ensemble: trousers, top hat, and buttoned coat. In 1917, the federal government rescinded the medal after deciding only combatants should be eligible for the honor. But Walker refused to return the medal, and held onto it until she died in 1919. The medal was officially reinstated in 1977.
- "Changing the Face of Medicine: Mary Edwards Walker." U.S. National Library of Medicine. June 03, 2015. Accessed March 06, 2018. https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_325.html.
- Coe, Alexis. "Mary Walker's Quest to be Appointed as a Union Doctor in the Civil War." The Atlantic. February 07, 2013. https://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/02/mary-walkers-quest-to-be-appointed-as-a-union-doctor-in-the-civil-war/272909/.
- Cunningham, Horace H. Field medical services at the battles of Manassas (Bull Run). Athens (GA): University of Georgia Press, 2008.
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- Spiegel, A. D., & Suskind, P. B. (1996). Mary Edwards Walker, M.D.: A feminist physician a century ahead of her time. Journal of Community Health, 21(3), 211-35.