Out of over 3,400 Medal of Honor recipients since 1863, only one woman was bestowed our nation’s highest honor and been awarded this prestigious medal.
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, born in Oswego, New York in 1832, was raised a free thinker by her parents. She grew up on a farm with six brothers and sisters, and all of them were raised to question everything they saw. Walker herself wore t-shirts and trousers while tending the farm. Going against traditional female attire of her time.
In 1855, Walker graduated from Syracuse Medical College with a master’s degree. Soon after her graduation, she set up a medical practice in Rome, New York, with her husband and fellow graduate Albert Miller. Their medical practices were quickly shut down after it opened and some historians think this occurred because many people were opposed to having a female doctor.
Her questioning of the status quo continued into her adulthood. During her marriage ceremony, she wore a short skirt and trousers, refused to take her husband’s last name, and refused to “obey” him during their wedding vows. She was strongly opposed to traditional norms in all aspects of her life. This caused her to be the target of ridicule when she walked through the streets. In fact, Walker was arrested several times for wearing non-traditional women’s attire. In 1860, she was kicked out of the Bowen Collegiate Institute in Iowa after she refused to leave a debate team that was – aside from her – all men.
By 1861, America was at war after decades of simmering tensions between northern and southern states over slavery, states’ rights and westward expansion. Walker was quick to try and join the army as a surgeon but was rejected. She had the credentials and the knowledge to be more than a nurse, so she became a volunteer for the Union Army after speaking with J.N. Green, M.D. He offered her a piece of his own salary, but she declined. All she asked for was a place to sleep.
Throughout the early parts of the war, Walker would constantly go where she was needed between Virginia and Tennessee. The soldiers she worked with held her in high regard, as did many of her officers. In 1864, she and a few of her peers were captured and held as prisoners of war. Within a couple of months of captivity, Walker and other medical officers would be traded for Confederate surgeons. Because of her sacrifice and her service, Walker received one of the first medals of honor in November 1865 and remains the only woman to receive this honor since its inception.
When she received her Medal of Honor, the standards for earning the medal hadn’t been established as they are today. Because of this – and because she was never a member of the armed forces – Walker had her Medal of Honor revoked in 1917 alongside 910 others but Walker refused to return the medal and continued to wear it until her death two years later.
Thankfully, President Jimmy Carter returned Walker’s name to the list of Medal of Honor recipients on June 10, 1977, after efforts made by her family through the years. To date, Walker remains the only woman to receive a Medal of Honor for her selfless and exceptional service in the Civil War.
Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial honors Mary Walker’s story alongside hundreds of others like her. Thousands of memorial plaques tell the stories of the many veterans that have honored our country with their service. Visit today to learn more about the women and men who have bravely served our country.