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Mary Edwards Walker: Above and Beyond

Mary Edwards Walker deserves much more attention from history.

Faced with what is right, to leave it undone shows a lack of courage. — Confucius

I have been writing a scholarly paper on recipients of the Medal of Honor — aka the Congressional Medal of Honor* — which is the highest award for bravery that can be given to someone in the US Armed Forces. Since 1863, it has been awarded to 3400+ individuals. In all cases, the person performed an extraordinary deed entailing risk of life above and beyond the call of duty, usually in armed action against an opposing force. At least in recent decades, most Medals of Honor have been awarded posthumously because the recipients died while performing the heroic deed that earned the award.

In my paper, I referred to the recipients collectively as “men” but then fretted that maybe I was wrong. The popular movie Courage Under Fire notwithstanding, maybe some women had received the Medal of Honor, and the least I could do was to include them in my generalizations.

As I quickly discovered upon consulting Wikipedia, a woman (one) had been awarded the Medal of Honor: Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919), usually identified as a Union Civil War surgeon. She was born in Oswego, New York, in a family without sons. Her father expected his daughters to do a man’s work on the family farm, and they all did.

Mary Edwards Walker

Dr. Walker had difficulty establishing an independent medical practice, and when the Civil War began, she volunteered her services to the Union Army and cared for wounded Soldiers on both sides of the conflict and their family members. After crossing battle lines, she was taken prisoner of war and served time in a Confederate prison. In 1865, she received the Medal of Honor. In 1917, it was rescinded (as were hundreds of others that had been awarded) because she was a civilian and — strictly speaking — her acts of bravery did not occur in the context of combat. However, her Medal was restored in 1977.

Intrigued by what I had read about Mary Edwards Walker, I wanted to learn more. I located an out-of-print biography of Dr. Walker, subtitled Above And Beyond. It was written by historian Dale L. Walker (2005). I took the step of actually buying the book because I thought (incorrectly, as it turned out) that the author might have been a descendant of Dr. Walker. Maybe he had some inside information about her and her life.

To my regret, the author had no inside information, for which I do not fault him. He was honest in noting that historical records were scant, and he did not try to fill in the blanks by making things up or extrapolating. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Dr. Walker was apparently not a prolific letter writer, and she did not keep a regular journal. What is known about her comes from official documents, letters by others that mentioned her, and newspaper stories**.

Another reason for the lack of information about Dr. Walker is that she may have been a spy for the Union Army and sworn to secrecy, a promise that if made was kept until her death. Historical records are not clear, although it is known that in 1864, she was arrested by Confederate forces, charged as a spy, and held in a Richmond prison until released in a prisoner exchange, a fact that supposedly amused her because the exchange signified that she was, at last, regarded as the equal of a man.

In any event, what the author of Dr. Walker’s biography did well was to depict the historical era in which she lived. Three things in particularly have stuck with me. First was the incredible difficulty faced by women in the 1800s, especially those who departed from what was expected. Women could not vote. Women could not easily acquire higher education, including medical education. And for those women who did earn a medical degree, acceptance by their male peers was almost impossible. So, although Dr. Walker tended to the ill and wounded throughout the Civil War, her appointment as a surgeon or even a surgeon’s assistant was strongly opposed by members of the medical establishment. She was not even paid for what she did except at the very end of the war.

Second was that when people in the mid-1800s communicated with those who were not in their immediate vicinity, they usually did so by letter. Or they took trips to see those with whom they wanted to talk. These trips could take days or even weeks. Contrast these practices with the modern world and its cell phones, e-mails, Facebook pages, and Skype calls. Despite what would seem to us formidable barriers to communication. Dr. Walker was in contact with such well-known individuals as Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Dorothea Dix, Susan B. Anthony, and Frederick Douglas, among others.

Third was the incredible loss of life of combatants in the Civil War. Between 1861 and 1865, some 650,000 American Soldiers (on both sides) lost their lives, about 300 fatalities per day and totaling almost 2% of the entire United States population at the time. This number exceeds the US combat deaths in each of World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the Global War on Terror. Many deaths during the Civil War occurred as physicians tried to treat the wounded. One of the practices was the routine amputation of damaged limbs, a practice against which Dr. Walker argued but to little effect. History proved her correct: Amputation should be a last resort and not something automatically done. Other innovations championed by Dr. Walker were a diet of fruits and vegetables, regular physical exercise, and strict cleanliness.

The biography of Dr. Walker was more of an appetizer than an entrée, but it was a tantalizing one. Dr. Walker was one interesting and important individual who deserves much more attention from history than she seems to receive. Her life was indeed above and beyond.

* Because the award is given “in the name of Congress,” it is often called the Congressional Medal of Honor, but the actual name is simply the Medal of Honor.

** Indeed, newspaper stories about her were rather frequent because she attracted attention, not only for her accomplishments as a physician and as an activist promoting numerous causes from abolition to prohibition to family welfare to women’s suffrage but also because of the physical appearance she deliberately chose. Believing that the clothing typically worn by women of her era — corsets, petticoats, and hoop skirts -- were not only constraining but unhygienic and unhealthy, she opted to wear clothing of her own design, typically trousers under a long-sleeved, high-necked, loose-waisted dress that fell just below her knees. She was often described as wearing men’s clothing — which was hardly accurate — and even arrested several times for supposedly so doing. But as she frequently said, “I don’t wear men’s clothes. I wear my own clothes.” Even today, in a world that is more evolved in many ways, the attire of a powerful woman attracts attention in a way that the attire of a powerful man does not. Think Hillary Clinton and her well-chronicled pants suits. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. [The more things change, the more they stay the same.}


Walker, D. L. (2005). Mary Edwards Walker: Above and beyond. New York: Macmillan.