The Medal of Honor was created during the Civil War, and since then over 3,500 have been awarded for gallantry to members of the American armed forces. But of those recipients, only one has been a woman.
Mary Edwards Walker was born in upstate New York on November 26, 1832. Her father was a doctor, which inspired her early interest in medicine, and she graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855. She was the only woman in her graduating class.
She volunteered to serve in the Union army as a surgeon during the Civil War but was refused because of her gender. Instead, she volunteered as a civilian army doctor, treating wounds at battles including First Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chickamauga, Atlanta, and others. In April 1864 she was captured by Confederates and accused of spying. She was sent to the Confederate prison camp in Castle Thunder in Richmond, where she remained until being exchanged after four months of captivity.
After the war, Walker supervised a women’s prison in Kentucky and an orphanage in Tennessee. She became an activist for women’s rights issues, including suffrage, birth control, and dress reform. In fact, Walker commonly wore men’s clothing, though she responded to criticism of her dress with the statement, “I don’t wear men’s clothes. I wear my own clothes.”
On November 11, 1865, President Andrew Johnson awarded Walker the Medal of Honor. Her citation reads:
Whereas it appears from official reports that Dr. Mary E. Walker, a graduate of medicine, “has rendered valuable service to the Government, and her efforts have been earnest and untiring in a variety of ways,” and that she was assigned to duty and served as an assistant surgeon in charge of female prisoners at Louisville, Ky., upon the recommendation of Major-Generals Sherman and Thomas, and faithfully served as contract surgeon in the service of the United States, and has 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, and has also endured hardships as a prisoner of war four months in a Southern prison while acting as contract surgeon; and Whereas by reason of her not being a commissioned officer in the military service, a brevet or honorary rank cannot, under existing laws, be conferred upon her; and Whereas in the opinion of the President an honorable recognition of her services and sufferings should be made: It is ordered, That a testimonial thereof shall be hereby made and given to the said Dr. Mary E. Walker, and that the usual medal of honor for meritorious services be given her.
Mary Edwards Walker proudly wore the Medal of Honor for the rest of her life. About three years before her death in 1919, however, the Army undertook a review of eligibility of all previous Medal of Honor recipients and determined that 911 of them—including Dr. Walker—did not meet the criteria for awarding the Medal. In Walker’s case, it was primarily because she was a civilian surgeon, not a member of the Army, during the service for which she received the Medal. Those 911 names were stricken from the record and their Medals rescinded. Walker refused to give up her Medal of Honor and wore it until her death.
Mary Edwards Walker’s Medal of Honor was restored in 1977, nearly sixty years after her death. To this day, she remains the only female recipient of America’s highest military award.