Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

Theresa Stimson

Esteemed member "Theresa Stimson" Fellow GDGers:

I would be remiss if I did not bring up the subject of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker at this time...the only woman in U.S. history to have received the Medal of Honor. (Note to the Brothers Lawrence: I would hope that I am not too far off topic. Although history has failed to provide us with documentation that Dr. Walker was present during the Battle of Gettysburg, Gregory A. Coco in "A Vast Sea of Misery" (Thomas Publications, 1988, page 56) offers the information that "sixteen year old Liberty Hollinger often saw on the streets of Gettysburg, Dr. MEW, an army surgeon, whom she described as wearing 'a low silk hat, with bloomers, and a man's coat and collar...'"

Dr. Walker graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855, one of few female physicians in the country at the time. She was refused commission as an army surgeon, but served on a volunteer basis at a Washington hospital. She worked as a field surgeon near the Union front lines for almost two years (including Fredericksburg and in Chattanooga after the Battle of Chickamauga), then was appointed assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry. After spending four months in a Richmond prison, she was released back to the 52nd Ohio as a contract surgeon, but spent the rest of the war practicing at a Louisville female prison and an orphan's asylum in Tennessee.

On November 11, 1865, President Johnson signed a bill to present Dr. MEW with the Congressional Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service, in order to recognize her contributions to the war effort without awarding her an army commission ('Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War' by Elizabeth D. Leonard, W.W. Norton & Comapny, 1994). In 1916, an army board rescinded Dr. Walker's medal when Congress revised the Medal of Honor standards to include only 'actual combat with an enemy,' citing her 'ambiguous military status and the fact that her service does not appear to have been distinguished in action or otherwise (Above and Beyond, page 39).' Her medal was reinstated by the army posthumously in 1977.

If any members would like further references regarding Dr. MEW, feel free to contact me.

Theresa Stimson

Since there has been some discussion concerning Dr. Mary E. Walker's MOH, I am providing the following citation obtained from the U.S. Army Homepage. You make you own decision concerning her merit in receiving the MOH.

Dr. Mary E. Walker

Rank and Organization: Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (Civilian) U.S. Army

Places and dates: Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861; Patent Office Hospital, Washington, D.C., October 1961; Chattanooga, Tennessee, following the battle of Chickomauga, September 1863; Prisoner of War, April 10, 1864 - August 12, 1864, Richmond, Virginia; Battle of Atlanta, September 1864

Entered service at Louisville, KY
Born: 26 November 1832, Oswego County, NY

Whereas it appears from official reports that Dr, Mary E. Walker, a graduate of medicine, rendered valuable service to the government, and her efforts have been ernest 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, Kentucky upon the recommendation of Major Generals Sherman and Thomas, and faithfully served as contract surgeon in the service of the U.S., and has devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detrment 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 suffering 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 service be given her.

Given under my hand in the city of Washington, D.C., this 11th day of November AD 1865

/s/ Andrew Johnson

(Medal rescinded 1917 along with 910 others, restored by President Carter 10 June 1977)

It is my understanding that she was advised to return the MOH, but refused. She retained her MOH the remainder of her life. Under today's criteria, she would never have been awarded the MOH.

To all fellow gmisc members who just knew I wouldn't miss a chance to discuss Dr. Mary Edwards Walker:

Briefly, would Dr. Mary be awarded the MOH by today's award criteria? No. But, she did not offer her medical expertise and support in 1997, but rather in the period of 1861-1865. Did she deserve the MOH awarded to her in 1865? Absolutely. If she did not, then neither did a fair portion of the other 1,520 CW MOH recipients.

Not so briefly: in "Above & Beyond: A History of the Medal of Honor cooperation with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society of the U.S.A.), it is noted that "It was not until civil war split the nation in 1861 that the government again considered recognizing notable gallantry. Even then, the medal established was intended not so much to glorify warriors as to boost morale in a demoralized army and navy. ...The demands placed on the military necessitated the development of a tangible reward for meritorious action and service in the days ahead. ...At the Navy Department...Secretary Welles...believed that the conspicuous recognition of courage in the strife to come would infuse the navy with a sense of strength and determination (p. 4)."

This same reference goes on to say "When the MOH was created, the only standard for awarding it was the legislative injunction that it be bestowed for the 'gallantry in action' and other 'seamanlike or soldierly qualities.' This broad definition caused some actions to be recognized while others, just as gallant, went unrewarded. As the CW drew to a close, the whims of the commanders who recommended men for medals was often as important as the actions of the men themselves (p. 54)." It continues: "Born in chaos, administered haphazardly, sometimes mis-used for political purposes or military expedient, still the MOH stood at the pinnacle of soldierly aspirations by 1865 (p. 55)."

Thankfully, through the years since its inception, the criteria by which the MOH is awarded has greatly changed. Gradually, the process involved adopted a policy which revised and clarified award standards, defined time limits between the time of action and the awarding of the MOH, as well as enforced a much more strict verification and review process.

It would appear that even with these guidelines, and the increased stature of the MOH, the awarding of our nation's highest military decoration still evokes controversy (i.e.: the awards given to Charles Lindbergh and Richard Byrd). The more things change, the more things remain the same, whether we discuss a female surgeon in the 1860's (war-time) or a male flier in the 1920's (peace-time).

But what hasn't changed (IMHO) is that the MOH still stands as an award of the highest distinction, for persons singled out for individual acts of gallantry and bravery which fall "above and beyond the call of duty." I bow my head with respect to all those individuals who have been so honored, with a special nod of recognition to its only woman recipient, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. In what may argueably be the most tumultuous time in our nation's history, in a society and a profession which were most disapproving of her, Dr. Mary served her country well... Indeed, one could say "above and beyond the call of duty."


Esteemed member "Barbara Dozetos" contributed:

Did Mary Walker deserve the Medal of Honor under the rules that applied to it's conferral at the time? Why not? She was a doctor, a contact surgeon like many others, who did her duty as offered and occasionally went above and beyond that duty, putting herself at risk in the process -- at least on one occasion, enough of a risk to land her in Libby Prison as a POW for four months. I hate to used the phrase "if she was a man" nobody would have questioned her medal, but...

She rubbed a lot of her male superiors the wrong way. It took a while to win the right to work as a contract surgeon (the War Department didn't have regulations against female surgeons on the book, because no one ever considered a such a thing, but they still rejected her when she first applied). She wore pants, which was of course, considered vulgar at the time. And the true nature of the amount of medicine she performed is hazy, because when she WAS accepted as a surgeon, she was restricted to what would have been considered nursing duties...thought it is believed that she did perform actual surgery during rush times, covertly, and other contract surgeons allowed her to, this could never be stated officially.

I think what we have to be careful of is overpraising Walker because of our newer concepts of feminism and woman's history, rather than the mores of the time.

Any thoughts,