Mary Edwards Walker
Civil War Surgeon
Born into a progressive farming family in Oswego, New York, Mary Edwards Walker was one of the first women to take advantage of Syracuse Medical College's willingness in the middle of the nineteenth century to admit women. Having received her M.D. degree in 1855, Walker did not hesitate, when the Civil War broke out, to offer her services to the United States Army's Medical Department. The fall of 1861 found her in Washington, D.C., seeking a formal commission as a military surgeon. Always a maverick as well as a patriot, Walker refused to accept an appointment as a nurse, believing that her skills and training could he more wisely utilized if she were employed as a physician. When the Federal government turned her down, Walker volunteered her services instead, exchanging them for rations and a place to stay.
As a volunteer physician and surgeon, Walker tended the sick and wounded first at the so-called Indiana hospital, housed in the United States Parent Office, and later in the field at Warrenton, Virginia, where a typhoid fever epidemic raged during the fall of 1862. Late in December 1862, Walker went from Warrenton to Fredericksburg, where she cared for the survivors of that brutal battle, still without formal appointment or pay. In all of the situations in which she placed herself, Walker earned the respect and admiration of key male medical personnel and military officers who observed her work. The surgeon in charge of the Indiana Hospital, Dr. J. N. Green, offered to give her a part of his own salary in the absence of her own, but she refused. At Warrenton, General Ambrose Burnside honored her with permission to escort the sickest and most gravely wounded soldiers to Washington on a train chartered for that purpose, and in January 1863 Dr Preston King, who had served with Walker at Fredericksburg, penned a letter to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton requesting that she receive government compensation for her labors. Walker also earned the respect and the gratitude of countless soldiers who benefited from her talents and her dedication, among them a number of men whose limbs were slated for amputation and on whose behalf the homeopathically oriented Walker argued successfully with her allopathic colleagues against such unnecessary sacrifice. Walker earned praise from many, but her unconventional and persistent demand for a surgeons commission, her forthright personality, her distaste for surgical heroics, and perhaps most notably her insistence on wearing a modified version of the popular women's reform dress (which included trousers beneath a knee--length skirt), led others to urge her removal from action.
The exigencies of war worked against such critics. In January 1864 the 52d Ohio Infantry's assistant surgeon died unexpectedly and the Medical Department, on the recommendation of General George H. Thomas, assigned Walker to the regiment as a noncommissioned civilian contract surgeon, paying her a standard salary of $80 per month. Within a few weeks, however, while riding about the Tennessee countryside where the 52d was bivouacked and tending to the desperate civilian population she found beyond the Union lines, Walker came upon a Confederate sentry who took her into custody. Walker spent four months at Castle Thunder prison in Richmond, then was reassigned to the Female Military Prison at Louisville, Kentucky, as the surgeon in charge. There she endured the hostility of her proudly secessionist inmates, as well as the disdain of her male counterparts in the nearby prison for men, none of whom cared to countenance the idea of an outspoken woman doctor in their midst.
When the war ended, Walker hoped to parlay her years of dedicated military service into a career with the army, seeking first an appointment as a medical inspector for the Freedmen's Bureau under the assumption that the governments significantly lower standards for the medical treatment of African-Americans might offer her an opening. She was mistaken. In the fall of 1865, after reviewing a lengthy dissertation by the army's Judge Advocate Joseph Holt, in which he argued that there was no precedent in the army's medical department for employing a woman doctor, President Andrew Johnson refused Walkers request, granting her the Medal of Honor instead.
Permanently weakened by her months at Castle Thunder, Walker finally turned her attention to other things, notably the dress reform and women's suffrage movements. But she continued throughout her life to wear the Medal of Honor, symbol of the army's appreciation--and, in her case, rejection--with pride. In 1918, a year before she died, Walker and more than 900 other recipients suffered a humiliating revocation of the Medal of Honor when Congress redefined the terms under which it was to be presented. In 1977, thanks to the efforts of her posthumous supporters, Walker's medal was reinstated.
Source: "Encyclopedia of the American Civil War, A Political, Social, and Military History" Article by Elizabeth D. Leonard.
This page last updated 05/12/05
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