By Paul Foote
Mary Edwards Walker, one of our nation.s 1.8 million women veterans, was the only one to earn the Medal of Honor for her service during the Civil War.
She also was the first American woman to be a military doctor and a prisoner of war. And she was a Union spy and a crusader against tobacco and alcohol.
Mary Edwards Walker graduated from medical school in 1855 at age 23, when only a handful of women in the country were qualified medical doctors.
When the Civil War began, the Union Army wouldn’t hire women doctors, so Walker volunteered as a nurse in Washington’s Patent Office Hospital. She treated wounded soldiers after the Battle of Bull Run in Virginia, the war’s first engagement.
In 1862, she received an Army contract and entered service in Louisville as an assistant surgeon with the 52nd Ohio Infantry.
The first woman doctor to serve with the Army Medical Corps, Walker later cared for sick and wounded troops in Tennessee after the Battle of Chickamauga and in Georgia during the Battle of Atlanta.
Confederate troops captured Walker on April 10, 1864, and she spent four months in various prisons, subject to much abuse for her unladylike occupation. She was exchanged for a Confederate surgeon in August 1864.
In October of the same year, the Medical Department granted Walker a contract as an acting assistant surgeon. Despite her requests for battlefield duty, she was not again sent into the field. She spent the rest of the war as superintendent at a Louisville female prison hospital and a Clarksville, Tenn., orphanage.
Released from her government contract at war’s end, Walker lobbied for a brevet promotion to major for her services, but Sec. of War Edwin M. Stanton refused.
President Andrew Johnson asked for another way to recognize her service. A Medal of Honor was presented to Walker in January 1866.
Her citation reads in part that she “devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health. She has also endured hardships as a prisoner of war for four months in a Southern prison while acting as contract surgeon.”
She wore the medal every day for the rest of her life.
After the war, Walker remained active in the women’s rights movement and crusaded against immorality, alcohol and tobacco and for clothing and election reform.
She died Feb. 21, 1919 at the age of 86.
In 1982, a 20-cent stamp was issued honoring Dr. Mary Walker as the first woman to have been awarded the Medal of Honor and the second woman to graduate from a medical school in the United States.
In 2000, Mary Edwards Walker was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame at Seneca Falls, N.Y.