Which prestigious award has been issued to 3,514 men, but only 1 woman?
That would be the Medal of Honor, bestowed upon service personnel for gallantry in action during wartime.
Signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, the medal was intended to honor sailors and soldiers who had gone beyond the call of duty, distinguishing themselves with heroic actions during combat.
Thirty-two years before, Mary Edwards Walker was born in 1832 in Oswego, New York, to ‘free thinking’ abolitionist parents who encouraged her from an early age to pursue a higher education. After graduating from the Falley Seminary in Fulton, New York, Mary began to teach, but only as a means of earning money so she could enroll in medical school. By 1855, at the age of 23, Mary graduated from the Syracuse Medical College as one of the few women physicians in America. She had been the only female in her class.
Mary established herself in private practice, and married another doctor, Albert Miller. However, the marriage did not last and since Mary had insisted upon retaining her maiden name, she was still known simply as Mary Walker.
The Civil War broke out in 1861 and Mary traveled to Washington D.C. with the intention of joining the U.S. Army as a doctor. She was rejected on the basis of her sex. Undaunted, she volunteered to serve as a surgeon. Rejected again, she offered to act as a nurse, and was sent to the field hospitals for several battles in Virginia.
In 1863 she traveled to Tennessee, coinciding with the death of the one and only surgeon of the Army of the Cumberland. By default, Mary was appointed the rank of assistant surgeon, which officially made her the first female physician of the Civil War and the U.S. Army.
As the war dragged on, Mary appeared near the Union front lines at battlefield after battlefield and began to draw attention to herself. After the infamous Battle of Chickamauga in northwest Georgia, the Union casualties streamed into Chattanooga, Tennessee only to find that the ‘doctor’ who would be treating them was in fact a woman. Mary made herself easy to find in the makeshift hospitals by often wearing a straw hat with a tall ostrich feather sticking out of it.
Obviously, not a shrinking violet.
Captured by the Confederates in 1864, Mary was sent to Castle Thunder Prison near Richmond, Virginia, where disease was rampant and food continuously spoiled. After four months of incarceration, she was released in a prisoner exchange for a Confederate officer; but her health had been adversely affected during her captivity. Still, she went right back to the battlegrounds, tending the sick and dying.
In 1865, President Andrew Johnson awarded Mary the Medal of Honor “due to her devotion of patriotic zeal to tend sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health, and for having endured hardships as a prisoner of war.”
After the war was over, Mary continued to practice medicine, wrote two books, and went on the lecture circuit advocating for dress reform and equal rights for women. To make her point, she often wore a man’s black top hat as her signature expression for the need of equality.
In an effort to make the Medal of Honor more prestigious, the Medal of Honor Board rewrote the criteria in 1917 so that only military personnel who had actually engaged in combat would be eligible. Mary received a letter explaining that she had to return her medal.
Until her death two years later at the age of 86, Mary wore her Medal of Honor every day. Had she lived but one year more, she would have witnessed the ratification of 19th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, awarding American women the right to vote.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter restored Mary Walker’s name to the list of recipients of the Medal of Honor.
To this day, in spite of the fact there are 2 million American female veterans, Mary Walker is still the only woman to have been given the Medal of Honor.
Thank you to Joan Whitener for telling me about this strong woman. If you have a woman you would like me to research, someone from the past who lived her life with conviction and passion, please respond in the comments box at the end of this page. I am always delighted to find more stories about little known women who helped make this world a better place.
Please make sure you vote on November 8th, and in the meantime, you can catch me on Twitter @lhsittig, my website at www.lindasittig.com, or on Amazon where my debut novel, Cut From Strong Cloth is still receiving 5 star reviews! That link is www.amzn.com/1940553024.
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~ Linda ~