In the summer of 1982, the United States Postal Service issued a 20-cent stamp bearing the likeness of a woman who at first glance appeared to be a demure character from a Louisa May Alcott novel. The woman was neither fictional nor demure.
She was, as the words above her picture revealed, “Dr. Mary Walker, Army Surgeon.” The words below, “Medal of Honor,” signaled the unique niche she occupies in American history.
Mary Edwards Walker, born on a farm near Oswego, New York, in 1832, was a person of distinction, even apart from the one that earned her the honor of having her image on a postage stamp 150 years after her birth. She was much more than the only female recipient of the nation’s highest award for military valor. In her life of 86 years, she became one of the first women to earn a degree in medicine, and on the lecture platform became a notable disturber of the peace as one of the original suffragettes and women’s rights advocates, as well as being among the first Americans to warn against social diseases, tobacco, alcohol and—her personal bugbear—corsets.
She saved the money she earned as a teenage schoolteacher and, at age 20, was admitted to Syracuse Medical College, where the course of study leading to a degree in medicine involved three terms of 13 weeks each. She graduated in June 1855, and tried to open a medical practice in Ohio, then in Rome, New York, but found few clients willing to trust a female with their ailments.
She married a classmate named Albert Miller, appeared at the wedding dressed in a black suit, tie and frock coat and announced that the service must not include any reference to a woman’s obligation to obey her spouse. Some months later, when she discovered Albert’s infidelity, she kicked him out. She launched her second career as a public speaker on the Chautauqua circuit, lecturing sparse audiences on prohibition, labor laws, immorality, hospitals for “morally unfortunate women” and the restrictive, unsanitary clothing that women wore.
She followed the news, cheered Lincoln’s inauguration, groaned at secession and the attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and was inflamed by the first clash at Bull Run on July 21, 1861, after which she relentlessly badgered the government and Union Army for a surgeon’s commission. Her “male habiliments,” as her black trousers-and-coat outfit was called in the press, and her jaunty, contrary manner did not help her cause.
She began her Civil War service as a civilian worker in a makeshift hospital in Washington, moved on to work as an orderly, wound dresser and surgeon’s assistant at Manassas and Fredericksburg, Virginia, where she witnessed the horrors of the amputation saw while participating in drastic surgeries she considered hasty and often unnecessary.
In Chattanooga, Tennessee, she attended to casualties in the aftermath of the Chickamauga battle. In April 1864, while riding horseback through picket lines to attend to soldier and civilian alike, she was taken prisoner as a spy. The four months she spent in the Richmond, Virginia, prison known as Castle Thunder—a verminous former tobacco warehouse—earned admiration for her work with the sick and wounded incarcerated with her.
Upon her release, she returned to Oswego, stumped for Lincoln’s re-election and petitioned the president, unsuccessfully, for a surgeon’s commission. Ultimately, in a small victory, she received a salary of $100 a month as a contract assistant surgeon.
On January 24, 1866, President Andrew Johnson conferred the Medal on Honor on Mary Walker. The document accompanying the medal stated only that she “rendered valuable service to the government” and ministered to sick and wounded “to the detriment of her own health.”
In 1917, a military board struck her medal and 910 others from the list as being awarded for unwarranted reasons, but she paid the ruling no mind and wore her medal until the day of her death on February 21, 1919.
Her medal was reinstated in 1977 on recommendation of the Army Board for Correction of Military Records, which ruled that her “acts of distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country” met the award criteria and was “in keeping with the highest traditions of the military services.”
Dale L. Walker of El Paso, Texas, is a past-president of Western Writers of America, Inc., and author of many historical books and biographies.