The Life of Mary E. Walker
Mary Edwards Walker was a nurse, women’s rights activist, surgeon, and abolitionist; she played an important role in the history of the United States, particularly in the time of the Civil War. She was born on November 26th, 1832 in Oswego, New York. During the war, she was captured by the Confederates and spent the rest of her days advocating for women’s rights, dress reform, and suffrage. She died in the place of her birth in 1919 – coincidentally, the year before women won the right to vote in the United States. She was one of the United States’ 1.
8 million woman veterans and was the only one to receive a Medal of Honor for her service in the civil war. Surrounded by controversy her whole life, her father was a well-educated man who advocated for equal rights to property, voting, and education for his own daughters. Mary Walker was a graduate of Syracuse Medical School (the only woman in her class) and following receiving her Doctor of Medicine degree in 1855, she moved to Ohio and began a private practice. That practice failed to stay afloat as the thought of a woman physician seemed outrageous and unacceptable to the public. It wasn’t long before she relocated to New York after marrying Albert Miller. In marrying him, she wore men’s clothing and kept her own last name.
Even before and afterwards she prided herself on her numerous arrests for wearing men’s clothing. After the beginning of the civil war in 1861, she volunteered as a nurse in the Patent Office Hospital. She had been initially denied in commission for a medical officer, but still became the first female surgeon in the United States army. Walker took a break from this practice to earn yet another degree before returning to assist in the war. She began working on the battlefield ground and was appointed assistant surgeon in the Army of Cumberland. A year later, however, Walker was captured and imprisoned by the Confederate Army.
After being held in Virginia for several months, she was released and returned to Washington, D.C in exchange for 17 Confederates. She later became an acting assistant surgeon and began to supervise an orphanage and a hospital for women prisoners. After retiring in June of 1865, in that same year she received the Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service. She was the first woman to ever have that honor placed upon her.
Following the Civil war, Walker lectured on several points within women’s rights, such as suffrage and dress reform. She was a passionate and eager proponent of dress code especially, and by her later years she wore full men’s evening dress to lectures. Unfortunately, however, the United States government decided to change the criteria for the Medal of Honor rewarded to Walker in 1917 and eventually withdrew it. Despite this, she kept the medal and continued to wear it every day until her death. She died two years later, and her Medal of Honor had been restored by President Jimmy Carter in 1977.