Mary Edwards Walker was a dark haired slender slip of a woman with a defiant don’t-take-no-for-an-answer attitude and a penchant for men’s clothing when she presented herself to the Army and demanded to be put to work as a surgeon not long after the Civil War erupted with the barrage of Fort Sumner in April 1861. The shocked and astonished Army had absolutely no idea what to do with her. The best they could offer her was a chance to serve as a volunteer civilian nurse at no pay. Better than nothing, she thought, and took the chance vowing that she would prove herself as the equal of any man.
Walker served in the field ending grotesquely maimed Union soldier boys at the disastrous First Battle of Bull Run—or Manassas Junction as the Rebs called it—in June. Then she aided their recovery at the hospital set up in the Patent Office. That gained her the grudging respect of Army surgeons, some of whom began advancing her cause.
She was born Mary Edwards on November 26, 1832 on her parent’s farm near Oswego in Upstate New York—part of the so-called burned over district because of successive waves of evangelical fervor that had swept over the region. It was also the fertile ground of independent dissenters of all types, but especially the breeding ground of the infant feminist and suffrage movements, teetotalism, and abolition. Working alongside her four brothers in comfortable men’s clothing, Mary absorbed it all with the active encouragement of her mother.Walker graduated from Geneva Medical College in Ohio, the same school the educated the first college educated U.S. female doctor Elizabeth Blackwell.
She learned her letters in the rural school her mother kept and when the time came—at about the age of 15—took up teaching herself, saving her money for a higher education. She enrolled at Geneva Medical College where she graduated in 1855 at the age of 22, the only woman in her class.
Upon graduation she married a fellow student, Albert Walker, and together they set up practice in Rome, New York, an Erie Canal port. The practice struggled, largely due to suspicion of female doctors of whom there were damned few in the whole country. To make matters worse, Mary continued to frequently go abroad in men’s clothing insisting simply that they were more comfortable and practical than the bulky layers of skirts and petticoats required of women.
By 1860 not only was the practice floundering, so was the marriage. The distaff Dr. Walker decided that her education needed broadening. She enrolled as an undergraduate at Bowen Collegiate Institute, later known as Lennox College, a Presbyterian co-educational liberal arts school in Hopkinton, Iowa that had just opened. Her tenure there was brief, however. She left the school when required to drop out of the all-male Debate Society.
Thus, she was very much at loose ends and available when the War broke out with all of its exciting opportunities.Dr. Walker became adept at the brutal but necessary amputations conducted in primitive field hospitals without anesthetics or hygiene.
After winning respect for her early work as a nurse, Walker was allowed to accompany the Army as an unpaid volunteer surgeon at field hospitals—the kind of places that made production lines of amputations after a battle, brutal but necessary work when Minié balls, cannon balls, and shell fragments shattered limbs and the procedure was the only way to try to avoid fatal gangrene infections. She saw a lot of this kind of action with the Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg in December 1862. In September 1863 she was with the Army of the Cumberland for the Battle of Chickamauga.The woman posing with officers and civilian surgeons in this photo is believed to be Mary Walker.
Working in a hospital in Chattanooga after the battle Walker encountered teen age Frances Hook who on her third enlistment in an Illinois volunteer regiment as Private Frank Fuller had been captured and imprisoned in Atlanta. Hook was wounded in the thigh in an escape attempt and her gender was discovered. She was then slated for prisoner transfer, but her story so impressed Confederate President Jefferson Davis that he offered her a commission if she would change sides. Hook had defiantly refused, declaring that she would rather serve in the Union Army as a private than as a Rebel lieutenant and that she would rather be hanged than fight against the Union. Her story so impressed the feisty feminist doctor that Walker made sure her story was publicized in the press and she lobbied unsuccessfully for the War Department to match Davis’s offer and make her a second lieutenant in blue.Dr. Walker helped publicize the case of Frances Hook who enlisted three times as Pvt. Frank Fuller, became a prisoner of war, escaped and was wounded.
About the same time, Walker was also offering her services to the Secretary of War as a spy behind the lines. Although this, too, was turned down, she did finally get an official appointment with pay as a civilian surgeon with the Army of the Cumberland, making her the first woman ever employed by the Army in that capacity.
As assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry, Walker frequently crossed the lines to treat wounded or sick civilians and even wounded Confederates. She may very well have collected intelligence on enemy troop disbursements on these forays, partially fulfilling her dream of becoming a spy. The Confederates certainly thought so. On April 10, 1864 she was arrested after assisting a Southern surgeon in an amputation. She was charged as a spy—a capital offense. She was held at Castle Thunder in Richmond, Virginia until she was exchanged on August 12.
Undeterred by the experience she returned to field service for the Atlanta campaign. Later, as the war was winding down Walker was briefly appointed the superintendent of a female prison in Louisville and the as the head of an orphanage in Tennessee.
At war’s end Walker found herself a modestly celebrated figure when was recommended for the Medal of Honor by Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and George Henry Thomas. On November 11, 1865, President Andrew Johnson signed a bill to present her the medal. She was then he only woman ever to receive the award and one of only a handful of civilians.
She took advantage of the fame to launch into a career as a lecturer and a writer. Not only did she share her wartime adventures with audiences, but she became an outspoken advocate for health care for the poor, temperance, women’s rights, and dress reform for women. The latter issues were the subjects of two books. Her defiant insistence of wearing men’s clothing—she usually appeared in dress clothes with a high top hat—led to her arrest several times for cross dressing.
Dr. Mary Edwards in old age, defiant in men's clothing she continued to proudly wear her Medal of Honor even when it was officially stripped from her.
As a committed radical feminist, Walker was embraced by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. She was a fiery advocate of their positions that women already had the right to vote under the Constitution and only needed Congress to enact enabling legislation.
But later in the century more conservative women like Carrie Chapman Catt became dominant in the movement and switched tactics to a state-by-state campaign to adopt a Constitutional Women’s Suffrage Amendment. They also looked to make the movement more respectable by shunning controversial and colorful characters like Walker and Victoria Claflin Woodhull. Walker refused to either abandon Stanton’s position or her mode of dress. She found herself marginalized in the movement, her speaking opportunities dwindling.
She defiantly continued to attend important Suffrage conventions, where she was pointedly ignored. She found a more positive reception among the militant English suffragettes who were conducting a defiant campaign of direct action, civil disobedience, and even vandalism and suicide.
An increasingly frail Walker continued to wear both her men’s clothing and her Medal of Honor. In 1917 an Army review board revoked her medal along with 910 others including the old scout Buffalo Bill Cody. Walker, naturally, continued to wear hers.
Less than two years later on February 19, 1919 Walker died at the age 86 in her hometown of Oswego. At her simple funeral service, she was laid out in her best black suit and her coffin was draped in an American flag. A little more than a year later the Nineteenth Amendment was passed guaranteeing women the right to vote.A Statue of Dr. Walker now stands before the Oswego, New York Town Hall.
Slowly, Walker’s reputation has been restored. A Liberty Ship was named for her during World War II. In 1977 President Jimmie Carter signed legislation restoring her Medal of Honor. On the 150th anniversary of her birth in 1982, the Postal Service issued a 20 cent commemorative stamp. And in 2000 she was finally inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame at Seneca Falls, New York.
Walker has also been honored by having several clinics and medical facilities named in her honor, most notably the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C. Her co-honoree Whitman, of course, was Walt Whitman with whom she would have served as a nurse early in the war.