Friday, November 12, 2010

In History: Mary Edwards Walker

This is the 51st post in a weekly feature here at Spare Candy, called "In History." Some posts might be little more than a photo, others full on features. If you have any suggestions for a person or event that should be featured, or would like to submit a guest post or cross post, e-mail me at rosiered23 (at) sparecandy (dot) com.

The Medal of Honor award was established in 1862, during the American Revolution, and is the highest military decoration awarded by the United States government. In its history, 3,470 of them have been awarded. Only one has been awarded to a woman (one, in the entire history of the award!), and that woman is Mary Edwards Walker.

Walker, born in 1832, was an American feminist, abolitionist, prohibitionist, alleged spy, prisoner of war and surgeon. Before the Civil War, she earned her medical degree, married and started a medical practice. The practice didn't do well and she volunteered with the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War and served as a female surgeon. She was captured by Confederate forces after crossing enemy lines to treat wounded civilians and arrested as a spy. She was sent as a prisoner of war to Richmond, Va., until released in a prisoner exchange. She went on to serve during the Battle of Atlanta and later as supervisor of a female prison in Louisville, Ky., and head of an orphanage in Tennessee.

After the war, she was approved for the Medal of Honor for her efforts during the war. As mentioned, she is the only woman to receive the medal, and she is one of only eight civilians to receive it. Her medal was later rescinded based on an Army determination, and then it was restored in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter.

Walker became a writer and lecturer after the war, supporting such issues as health care, temperance, women's rights and dress reform for women. She wrote two books that discussed women's rights and dress; she herself often wore pants and a top hat. She participated for several years with other leaders in the women's suffrage movement, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The initial stance of the movement, taking Walker's lead, was to say that women already had the right to vote, and Congress need only enact enabling legislation. After a number of fruitless years working at this, the movement took the new tack of working for a Constitutional amendment. This was diametrically opposed to Mary Walker's position, and she fell out of favor with the movement. She continued to attend conventions of the suffrage movement and distribute her own brand of literature, but was virtually ignored by the rest of the movement. until her death in 1919.

Walker's Medal of Honor citation reads:
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.

Photo source 1; photo source 2

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