Dr. Mary E. Walker

  Medal of Honor:
  Dr. Mary E. Walker,
  Prisoner of War

Civil War - 1865

by: Don Poss
© 1996


Washington DC Tent Hospitals

(It is a stretch to link this story to the Vietnam War, but it is one I want to tell, so here goes.)


No woman was awarded the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War. A recent film, Badge of Courage, depicted a female being awarded the MOH in the Gulf War as the first female to receive the MOH. The film was wrong. The next female to be award the Medal of Honor will in fact be the Second to do so. Who was the first? you ask. Dr. Mary E. Walker, M.D., a Civil War physician, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1865, upon recommendation of Major General Sherman, and Major General Thomas. [100 years later, I would arrive in Vietnam.]

Washington DC Tent Hospitals Men who remembered the early defeats of the Army of the Potomac in 1861 and 1862, whereas Washington itself became a hospital complex treating 20,000 plus wounded union troops.
     Horse-drawn ambulance-trains pressed a never ending demand for new facilities to convert into hospitals. The military used public buildings, including one wing of the Patent Office, which became known as the Patent Office Hospital from 1861 to 1863. Civil War: Amputated feet
     Field hospitals abounded, in which the most common surgery was amputation and embalming. Civil War: Libby: VA. POW Camp As assistant surgeon, Dr. Mary Walker no doubt experienced her share of horror at human suffering. When captured, she became a prisoner of war in a southern prison in Virginia.

     Dr. Mary Walker's Medal of Honor was rescinded in 1917, along with 910 others. Today, some believe her medal was rescinded because of her involvement as a suffragette. Others, discredit that opinion as 909 medals rescinded were awarded to males. The stated reason, and credible one, was government's effort to "... increase the prestige of the grant." Civil War: Tent Hospitals
     For whatever reason, former POW Dr. Mary Walker refused to return the MOH, and wore it until her death in 1919. Fifty-eight years later, the U.S. Congress posthumously reinstated her medal, and it was restored by President Carter on June 10, 1977. Today, Dr. Walker's name is on a plaque in the Pentagon, and she is the only woman of the Civil War, or any war, known to have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, wrote of Dr. Walker:
     She lived a life of determined unconventionality; being a bloomerite from her younger years, she preferred to dress in pants. Later on in life, still practicing medicine, she could be seen wearing men's top hats and top coats as well as pants.


Dr. Mary E. Walker (1832 - 1919)
  • Rank and organization: Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian), U. S. Army.

  • Places and dates:
       Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861;
       Patent Office Hospital, Washington, D.C., October 1861;
       Following Battle of Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Tennessee, September 1863;
       Prisoner of War, Richmond, Virginia, April 10, 1864 - August 12, 1864;
       Battle of Atlanta, September 1864.
  • Entered service at:
       Louisville, Kentucky
       Born: 26 November 1832, Oswego County, N.Y.
  • Citation:
       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.

   Given under my hand in the city of Washington, D.C., this 11th day of November, A.D. 1865.

       Andrew Johnson, President

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