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Dr. Mary E. Walker wore her Medal of Honor around her neck for the rest of her life. (National Archives photo)
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Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

Surgeon, POW, Spy -- And The Only Woman To Receive The Medal Of Honor



When standards for the Medal of Honor were revised in 1910, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker's medal was one of 900 rescinded. The new standards specified "direct combat with an enemy" as the guiding criterion for the nation's highest award. Walker's valiant Civil War service as an Army surgeon and her four months as a Confederate prisoner of war did not qualify.

But Walker refused to return her hard-earned honor. When federal marshals arrived to take Walker's Medal of Honor in 1917, she met them at the door wearing it around her neck and brandishing a 12-gauge shotgun. Evidently the weapon spoke volumes, because Walker kept her medal, wearing it every day until her death in 1919.

Walker's belligerence in this incident was very much in keeping with her singular style and beliefs. She was born in 1832 into a family of freethinking abolitionists. Her father thought that the era's corsets and skirts were unhealthy and restrictive. He encouraged his five daughters to dress as they liked. Mary, in particular, embraced the new style of "bloomer" pants; in later life she usually wore full men's evening dress when she gave a speech or attended a function. She deemed most women's clothing "immodest and inconvenient."

Mary's unconventional attitudes served her well at Syracuse Medical College, where she was the second woman (after Elizabeth Blackwell) to graduate. She married fellow physician Albert Miller in 1856, but both their attempts to practice together and their marriage failed, and they divorced in 1869 after living apart for several years.

When war broke out, Mary Walker tried to join the Union Army. Although she was denied a commission, she volunteered as acting assistant surgeon -- the first female surgeon in the U.S. Army. In September 1863, after two years of work near the Union front lines, she was appointed assistant surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland. She may or may not have been acting as a spy at this time. However, in 1864 she was captured by Confederate troops and spent four months in jail in Richmond.

For her wartime service, Mary Walker was paid $766.16 and was provided a monthly pension lower than those of most war widows. However, her efforts on behalf of her Medal of Honor -- to this day, the only one awarded to a woman -- paid off in 1977, when hers was reinstated by an Army board that cited 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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