Dr. Mary Walker graduated Syracuse (New York) Medical College in 1855 and went into private practice for a few years, including a brief stint in Columbus, Ohio. When the Civil War started, Walker tried to join the Union Army as a surgeon. Army surgeons were the equivalent rank of a lieutenant or captain. However, The Army wouldn’t hire her as a surgeon because she was a woman, so she volunteered as a nurse, then served as an unpaid, civilian surgeon for the Union Army. During this period, she was stationed near the Union front lines, and was in thick of the First Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Fredericksburg. Dr. Walker frequently crossed into Southern territory and treated civilians.
On April 10, 1864, as she helped Confederate doctor perform an amputation, she was captured by Confederate troops and charged with being a spy. She was confined to a women’s prison until August 12, 1864, when she was released as part of a prisoner exchange. In the fall of 1864, she was finally appointed as the Army’s first female surgeon. She received a contract as an assistant surgeon with the 52nd Ohio Infantry, Army of the Cumberland. Her appointment came in time for the Battle of Chickamauga, which had the 2nd highest number of wounded of any battle in the War. In addition to treating wounded Union soldiers, she was soon supervising a hospital for women prisoners and an orphanage.
After the War, Dr. Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service, becoming the first woman to receive the honor. In 2018, she remains the only female Medal of Honor recipient. Technically, Mary Walker had always retained civilian status, and her medal was rescinded in 1917. Walker refused to return the medal, though, and continued to wear it until she died two years later.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter and an Army board restored Walker’s Medal of Honor in 1977, praising her “distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex.”
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