Mary Edwards Walker: Medal of Honor

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Photo of Mary Edwards Walker

Photo of Mary Edwards Walker (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Medal of Honor in the United States of America’s highest military honor. It was created on December 21st, 1861 in a bill that stated “which shall be bestowed upon such petty officers, seamen, landsmen, and marines as shall distinguished themselves by their gallantry in action and other seamanlike qualities during the present war (Civil War).” The first Medal of Honor was made on March 25, 1863 to Private Jacob Parrott and the last award was February 11, 2013 to Staff Sergeant Clinton L. Romesha. A total of 3,460 people have received the Medal of Honor. Out of these 3,460 only ONE woman has received the medal; her name is Dr. Marry Edwards Walker.

Marry Edwards Walker was born on November 26, 1832, in Oswego, New York. Her parents, Alvah Walker and Vesta Whitcomb Walker, urged their five daughters and a son to aspire to professional careers. After attending school taught by her parents, she taught for two years before deciding to become a doctor. She enrolled in Syracuse Medical College, graduated in two years, and married fellow physician Albert Miller. The couple set up their own medical practice, but because society was not ready to accept a female physician, the practice fell apart and the couple divorced.

Since Walker grew up on a farm, she realized how inconvenient dresses were to work in. She would spend her whole life making a statement in clothing; she was one of the first to hem her skirt below her knees and to replace her petticoats with long trousers. Before the Civil War, she was a contributor to The Sybil: A Review of the Tastes, Errors, and Fashions of Society and Vice-President of National Dress Reform Association.  

After the Civil War broke out, she headed to Washington, D.C. to become a surgeon in the U.S. Army; she was initially denied. She volunteered at a local hospital and took extra classes to enhance her credentials; in she also started a service to help women find their loved ones in hospitals and founded a safe lodging building for women to stay in. In 1863, she headed to Tennessee on her own to provide medical care to the survivors of the Battle of the Chickamauga. Though she was forced to work as a nurse, due to the army’s need for doctors, she became the assistant army surgeon with the rank of lieutenant. She would cross into Confederate Territory to treat diseases until she was captured on April 10, 1864. She was held in Richmond, Virginia because it was believed she was an Union Spy. She was released on August 12 in a prisoner exchange program. Instead of going home, she served as the head of a hospital for female Confederate prisoners in Louisville, Kentucky. The last weeks of the war she spent running a home for orphans in Clarksville, Tennessee. After the war, she was recommended for the Medal of Honor by Generals William Sherman and George Thomas. On November 11, 1865, President Andrew Johnson signed a bill to present her the medal.

After the war ended, she gave lectures about the women’s rights movement: education, marriage, abortion, equal pay for equal work, and military pensions for Civil War nurses. She would receive a military pension, but it was only half of what men were receiving. But due to her wearing male clothing and believing that the constitution did not need an amendment to allow women to vote, that it was already guaranteed in the constitution, she was shunned by women. In 1890, she returned to the family homestead in New York, running the farm and working on women’s rights. In 1917 on a trip to Washington, she fell on the Capitol’s steps and suffered injuries that she would die from two years later at the of 86. That same year, her Medal of Honor was revoked for lack of proper War Department documentation. She died alone at her home. and was buried in a black suit, an American flag draped over her casket.

Mary Edwards Walker spent her life trying to make the world a better place. She became a doctor to help others, but was forced to spend her life fighting for the chance to help others because society was not ready for a female doctor. During the war, risked her life crossing enemy borders to take care of injured soldiers. She also broke the law several times for causing a public disturbance for wearing pants… since pants were easier to work in. Instead of dying with honors, she died alone because society for not ready for a woman. Though she never received the the pensions and admiration from women and men that she deserved in her life time, President Jimmy Carter awarded her the Medal of Honor (again) in 1977. In the past 160 years, she is still the only woman to have that distinctive honor.

Sources:

Congressional Medal of Honor Society

Mary Edwards Walker

 

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