Valor Friday

| February 21, 2020

dr walker
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

In the interests of expanding our horizons here at TAH, Mason is going on a new tangent. Valor awards are unique in and of themselves, but he’s taking it to the next level. With his usual outstanding research and writing skills, he introduces us to the first such valor awardee, Dr. Mary Walker.

Mason

I’d like to start a new series, one in which we explore some highly unusual or unique awards of high valor medals. The first case we’ll look at is that of Mary Edwards Walker.

Many people probably don’t know, but there has been one woman who received the Medal of Honor. That lady was Dr. Walker. She received the award for her services during the Civil War where she served as a contract surgeon.

Hailing from New York, Walker was an obstinate individual. She eschewed the normal styles of dress for women at the time, feeling they were too constrictive and inhibited free movement and circulation. She often wore male clothes (being arrested for it at one point later in life), but did give into some social pressures on the issue by wearing a skirt over men’s trousers.

She was also an abolitionist, prohibitionist, and suffragette. When the Civil War broke out, Dr. Walker volunteered to serve as a surgeon, at the age of 29. She’d been a medical doctor for more than five years, but women doctors at the time were not trusted.

The Union Army rejected her because she was a woman. Offered the job of nurse, the intransigent doctor refused and instead elected to serve as a civilian with the Army. This wasn’t unheard of in that era. One will recall my previous discussion on General Leonard Wood, he was also a contract surgeon and received the Medal of Honor while in that status.

Even though working for the Army as a doctor, she was only initially allowed the duties of a nurse. After service at the First Battle of Bull Run she made her way to the front lines where she worked as an unpaid surgeon.

In September 1862 she unsuccessfully petitioned the War Department to make her a spy. In September 1863 she was appointed an “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (Civilian)” with the Army of the Cumberland, becoming the first official female Army surgeon.

Walker was known for her bullheadedness in combat as much as in her personal dealings. She would frequently cross battle lines to treat wounded soldiers (from both sides) as well as civilians. It was on one such foray that she was captured as a spy by Confederate forces. She had just assisted a Confederate surgeon in performing an amputation, on the Confederate side of the battle line, on April 10, 1864.

Interred at Castle Thunder in Virginia for the next four months, she was returned to Union control after a prisoner exchange. Castle Thunder was the Confederate prison camp for spies, Union civilians, and those convicted of treason. It was a notoriously brutal place, as most Confederate prison camps were. Even in a brutal prison camp she refused to wear the clothing afforded her that was more “becoming of her sex”.

After the war she was given a disability pension of $8.50 a month for injuries sustained while a prisoner. This works out to roughly $134 a month today. This pension was raised in 1899 to $20 a month ($622/month today).

She became a writer and lecturer and testified twice before the House of Representatives on the topic of the women’s suffrage movement. She died in 1919 at the age of 86 after long battling illness. She passed just a year before the 19th Amendment passed and gave women the right to vote.

The story of her actually being awarded the Medal of Honor is much more interesting. She lobbied after the war to validate her service with a retroactive commission. President Johnson directed the Edwin Stanton (the Secretary of War) to look into the matter. Stanton solicited the Army Judge Advocate General for a legal opinion. The JAG could find no precedent for commissioning a female and therefore recommended a “commendatory acknowledgement” be issued instead.

Long time readers of my articles on the topic will remember that at the time of the Civil War and immediately after, the Medal of Honor was the Army’s sole personal award for bravery. Therefore, receiving the legal opinion of the JAG, President Johnson awarded Dr. Walker the Medal of Honor. Walker considered her medal to have been awarded for her willingness to go into enemy territory to care for the wounded when many male doctors were unwilling on fear of being captured.

civil war moh
Civil War Medal of Honor

At the time there were no regulations on the award of the Medal of Honor, and during the Civil War, many medals were issued not for combat gallantry but for simply reenlisting. Walker, not being an enlisted or commissioned member of the Army would have likely been ineligible for the Medal of Honor absent the decision by the president. After receiving her medal, Walker was frequently seen wearing the honor on her jacket.

In 1916, Congress created a pension for Medal of Honor recipients. As part of this, the Army was directed (in a separate bill) to review eligibility of prior recipients and purge the Medal of Honor roll of undesirable awards. There were no Army regulations on the medal until 1897 and the law authorizing it had little eligibility criteria.

As a result of this review, 911 Army Medals of Honor were rescinded. Among these revoked awards was Walker. Interestingly, the Army lawyers determined they didn’t have the authority to confiscate the medals, so recipients, including Dr. Walker, continued to possess and wear their awards. Walker’s award was rescinded in 1917, along with that of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s, as they were civilians (Cody was a scout at the time of his award). She continued to proudly wear the medal until her death two years later.

The story doesn’t end there though. In the 70’s, Congress revisited the issue once again. In 1977 the Army re-corrected the record on Mary Edwards Walker and reinstated her Medal of Honor. The awards of Buffalo Bill and four other civilian scouts had their Medals of Honor reinstated in 1989.

Walker remains the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor. With women serving in combat roles, it’s only a matter of time before another joins her. It’s not well known but several women have been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, and the Soldier’s, Airman’s, and Navy and Marine Corps Medals.

Hand Salute. Ready, Two!
Thanks again, Mason.

Category: Army, Guest Post, Valor

Comments (15)

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  1. 26Limabeans says:

    “her willingness to go into enemy territory to care for the wounded when many male doctors were unwilling on fear of being captured”

    Pretty good argument for women in the military
    right there. Combat or not.

  2. 5th/77th FA says:

    Excellent read Mason, I have studied a little of Dr. Walker. Thanks! Her MoH was well and truly earned, damn shame that politics rescinded it, and then politics delayed the reinstatement. Better late than never. Y’all played a little sleight of hand on this post, I was waiting for the Valor Friday to drop before the WOT, but it didn’t. Now the sequence has placed the VF before the WOT. Clever work, if you can get it.

    A Battery Gun Salute to render Honors to Doctor Mary Walker…Fire by the piece from right to left…PREPARE….COMMENCE FIRING!

    From the what it’s worth department, ALL POW Camps are brutal, and Federal Camps were just as brutal as the Southern ones. Read up on “80 Acres of Hell” Camp Douglas Illinois, or Elmira “Hellmira” NY, or Point Lookout MD. Not that I’m high-jacking or being critical of your thread, just for info purposes. No one here is more appreciative of your Valor Articles than I am. For those that may want a little more info on female WBTS doctors, here’s a link on a local girl that we pay honors to and portray what she did for troops on both sides every FIRST Weekend in May. Deo Vindice

    http://www.usgennet.org/usa/ga/county/taylor/jones/Surnames/palaciastewart.htm

    • AW1Ed says:

      Not highjacking at all, 5/77. Point Lookout is very close to my AO, and has a reputation of one of the most haunted places in CONUS. There is a small Confederate cemetery near the Park’s entrance there, with a monument proudly flying the Stars and Bars. It’s on private land, so the idiots in Annapolis can’t have it removed.
      Odd, no purple-haired nose ringer has tried to desecrate the memorial, either.

    • Mason says:

      Confederate propaganda. 😉

      I know they were bad on both sides, though I think the Confederate camps were slightly worse, particularly towards the end of the war. Both sides would have been better served if they’d continued the prisoner swaps. That’s when it started to get bad in camps on both ends. Overcrowding to the max.

  3. ninja says:

    Mason,

    Once again, thank you for providing us another piece of History.

    Excellent!

    Confederate Camps may have been worse because of lack of resources. Heck, the Confederate Army had a very difficult time feeding, clothing, arming and housing their own Soldiers, let alone EPWs.

    Which leads me to Andersonville.

    IMHO, CPT Henry Wirz, the Commandant of the Camp Sumter Stockade (the Confederate EPW Camp near Andersonville) was unjustly tried and executed for the deaths of Union Soldiers who were held as POWs there.

    Thank You, again, Mason, for sharing about Dr. Walker and her MOH and to AW1Ed for posting.

    • 5th/77th FA says:

      ^THIS^ I tread very lightly here in re Confederate History. Southern Americans are probably the MOST Patriotic of all of the Americans. The entire debacle of POWs during that time can be placed directly at the feet of the ones who stopped the exchanges/paroles. Grant and Lincoln made that decision. Even before the Battles of the spring of ’64, the CSA Government was trying to give the POWs back with NO exchange. Offered to allow foods and medicines sent into the Camps to be passed out by Federal Representatives. Many of the Camp Sumpter (Andersonville) POWs were sick and/or wounded when they arrived. I’ll shut up. 😉

    • OldSoldier54 says:

      I had no real opinion about POW camps during the Civil War until I read a book about Andersonville.

      I don’t recall the exact title and author, but I do remember being astonished at how little logistical support the Commandant received in administering the camp.

      That is why I have to agree with your comment. If what I recall is accurate, the Commandant did his honorable best while receiving nearly zero logistical support to carry out his duty, because as you stated, the South was seriously hard pressed to provide for their own soldiers, let alone Yankee POWs.

      That, IMO, was the primary driver for the high death rate.

  4. Mike B USAF Retired says:

    I’ve been a long time lurker, and have only posted recently a few times. I always look forward to these stories, sometimes I already know about them, but most of the time I don’t.

    I’ve always loved history, thanks to my dad, and growing up around and visiting WWII battlefields (Lived in Germany and Okinawa as a kid).

    Keep the stories coming.

  5. Slow Joe says:

    I will not question the wisdom of our forebears in awarding the MoH for reenlistment. Ok. That’s a little bit much.

    But between you and me, and I will swear I never acknowledged this, but reenlisting is valorous act in time of war.

    When we first join in, we think we know, but we don’t know shit.

    Reenlistment though, after walking in the valley, hell no.
    That takes a little bit more.

  6. Slow Joe says:

    Hey, who took my bud light, dammit!

  7. OldSoldier54 says:

    Only a fool thinks physical courage is gender specific.

    I remember this woman.