Female Medal of Honor Recipient: Mary Edwards Walker

Instructor: Eve Levinson

Eve has taught various courses of high school history and has a master's degree in education.

Mary Edwards Walker was the first female recipient of the United States Medal of Honor, recognized for her work in Civil War hospitals as well as her service as a prisoner of war. Dr. Walker was also known for her advocacy of women's rights.

Background

When Mary Edwards Walker was born in 1832, women's roles in society were fairly limited. From the earliest stages of her life, she pushed the expected boundaries by graduating from the Syracuse Medical College and practicing medicine in Ohio. When the Civil War started in 1861, this background made her well prepared to volunteer for the war effort on the Union side. She began as a nurse in a temporary hospital in Washington, DC, and then worked in battlefield tent hospitals in Virginia. After earning a second medical degree, she was named the assistant surgeon of the Army of the Cumberland in Tennessee. Toward the end of the war, Walker was assigned to the Ohio 52nd Infantry, with which she continued her role of assistant surgeon.

Mary Edwards Walker wearing Medal of Honor
Mary Edwards Walker wearing Medal of Honor

Medal of Honor

At the conclusion of the war, Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor, which is the highest Armed Services award given to an individual for bravery when confronted with the enemy. She demonstrated this bravery in 1864, when she was assisting with a surgery on a Confederate soldier in a battlefield hospital tent and was captured by the Confederate Army. Though fulfilling her medical obligation to treat all wounded people, she was held prisoner in Richmond, VA, for several months. Some believe she might have purposefully been captured to act as a spy, but there is little evidence to prove this action.

A couple years before Walker's death in 1919, the United States government changed the parameters that determined who would be eligible to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Unfortunately, she fell outside of the new considerations and her name was removed from the list of honorees. Still, as the strong woman she was, Walker kept the metal and continued to wear it for the rest of her life. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter reinstated Walker to the list of recipients.

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