Dr. Mary Walker at Work On the Field

Randolph Hollingsworth's picture

"A Woman Captured by Champ Furgeson," 405-406 In Deeds of Valor: How America's Heroes Won the Medal Of Honor... Vol. I. Edited by W.F. Beyer and O.F. Keydel. Detroit, MI: The Perrien-Keydel Co., 1905.

Illustration title: "Dr. Mary Walker at Work on the Field" (406)

Thanks to Steve Munson of the Civil War Museum and the Women's Museum of the Civil War in Bardstown for alerting us to this resource.

I actually devoted a chapter of my recent book to Walker's MoH saga, and noted that this text contains a few inaccuracies. The text claims that she was made "assistant surgeon in the regular army, which carried with it the rank of first lieutenant." Assistant surgeons did not hold that rank- they were purely contractors, and this was the subject of some longstanding legal opinions, which is why she later was stripped of her medal (the law strictly required that the recipient be a soldier). I have read that Walker falsely represented that she had received a commission, which perhaps is the source of the claim in the book. Thus, she would not have worn the uniform depicted here; the drawing clearly shows her as a lieutenant. The Johnson administration gave her the Medal of Honor as a consolation prize; she asked them for the postdated commission, and they gave her the medal instead. At that time there was no policy attached to the award, so it was simply issued directly from the White House.

Please advise where "Walker falsely represented that she had received a commission."

In a letter to President Abraham Lincoln, dated January 11, 1864, Dr. Walker states that "she has been denied a commission, solely on the ground of sex." In the same letter, she requests an assignment in the female ward of Douglas Hospital in Washington, D.C., "as there cannot possibly be any objection urged on account of sex" though she would prefer a "surgeon's commission with orders to go whenever and wherever there is a battle." (Mary Edwards Walker Papers, Syracuse University Library Special Collections Department, Syracuse, NY, noted in Leonard, Elizabeth D. Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994, 129-131, 256.)

Eight months later in a letter dated September 14, 1864, from Dr. Walker to General (William Tecumseh) Sherman, she notes that she has served "without a Commission for our Government & three years of Service having Expired." (Harris, Sharon M., Dr. May Walker: An American Radical, 1832-1919. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009, 61-62.)

In the contract of October 5, 1864, between Mary Edwards Walker and Col. Robert C. Wood, Assistant Surgeon General of the United States Army, Dr. Walker agrees to "perform the duties of a Medical Officer" in Louisville, Kentucky. The contract does not commission Dr. Walker. (Facsimile of contract appears about mid-way through https://www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov/library/document/0234/1509914.pdf)

Senate Joint Resolution No. 82 signed by President Lincoln on July 12, 1862, creating the Army Medal of Honor directs that medals shall be presented to "such non--commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier-like qualities, during the present insurrection (Civil War.)" (http://www.cmohs.org/medal-history.php)

Dr. Walker sought a commission as stated in the two letters above, making it clear that at those times, at least, she did not claim to be commissioned. Though certainly not a private as required by SJR 82, she was a "Medical Officer" toward the end of the Civil War as per the contract cited above.

Calling the Medal of Honor a "consolation prize" belittles the patriotism, bravery, and dedication of Dr. Walker, especially in light of the four months she spent as a prisoner in Castle Thunder, a notorious Confederate prison, following her capture as an alleged spy. According to an 1865 report of the Judge Advocate General, intelligence gathered by Dr. Walker "led General Sherman to so modify his strategic operations as to save himself from a serious reverse and obtain success where defeat before seemed inevitable [in the Atlanta Campaign]." (Records of the War Department, Office of the Adjutant General, Record Group No. 94, The National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. (NARA), noted in Harris, Sharon M. Dr. May Walker: An American Radical, 1832-1919. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009, 57-58, 261.)

Regarding Dr. Walker being "stripped of her medal," she was not alone. In 1917, the War Department named an Medal of Honor review board, which withdrew the medal from 911 recipients, including "six civilians, whose courage was not questioned but who were deemed ineligible for the medal as civilians. Among these were five scouts, including Buffalo Bill Cody, who had served in the Indian Campaigns, and Civil War surgeon Mary Edwards Walker. The medals of Dr. Walker, Cody, and the other scouts were later restored in 1977." (http://www.historynet.com/americas-medal-honor-heroes.htm)

I'll dig through my files to see if I can find it, but a quick search reveals that several books (the one the thread is referencing as well as at least one modern book) reference her as a first lieutenant. She obviously was not a first lieutenant, and to the best of my recollection she was the source of the claim. She wrote the War Dept. repeatedly to obtain a retroactive commission, and the medal was the result of this-- it wasn't for heroism, but rather a substitute for a commission (the TJAG was directed to study the commission request, and concluded that it was impermissible under period statutes). I don't have any motive to belittle her medal, but the simple fact is that the MoH of that day wasn't the same as today's. She wasn't recommended for it-- it was purely the product of her own requests to the government, and was not the result of heroism. That's true of many of the medals of the period-- many hundred came 30-40 years after the fact, and were requested with nothing more than affidavits from the requestors. It was an unfortunate consequence of the fact that there was only a skeleton law governing the award, and no regulations whatsoever. So, there were no requirements at all for timelines (no statute of limitations at that time), no evidentiary requirements, no heroism requirements.

Ok, I found the source. It's her own response to the MoH roll determination in early 1916, which I pulled from the National Archives. She signs it "Mary E. Walker, M.D., A. A. Surgeon in War of 1861-5 with rank of 1st Lieutenant." PM me and I'll send you the photograph, as I'm uncertain how to post it here. NARA (DC), RG 94, E496, W-2068-vs-1863, letter of May 24, 1916.

Ok, here's my attempt to link a few pertinent files. Walker claimed to hold the rank of first lieutenant on both the 1916 MoH roll/pension reply I mentioned earlier, as well as least one other official pension application in 1912 (which was rejected). That is problematic, since she knew very well that she did not hold that rank-- she asked for a retroactive brevet/commission at the war's conclusion, and the reply from the War Dept. was an unequivocal rejection. The medal of honor was authorized as a substitute, which is clear from the executive orders language: "whereas, by reason of her not being a commissioned officer, in the military service, a brevet or honorary rank cannot be conferred upon her . . . ." (Ford Library, Bobbie Greene Kilberg Files). Further, her Civil War reimbursement and pension authorized by bills of relief in the 1870s and 1880s were enacted on the basis that she did not qualify for a regular pension as a soldier (meaning, there would be no confusion on her part that she could not apply for both). The private pension was expressly authorized because "by reason of her not being a commissioned officer in the military service, a brevet or honorary rank can not, under existing laws, be conferred upon her" (Senate rept. 1349). In any event, she did not make these claims of having a commission or rank while she was serving as a contract surgeon, or in any of the many prior letters or applications to the War Dept. prior to 1912 (at least the dozens in my possession), which apparently means that she started making the claims about 47 years after her service with the Army ended. I think one could certainly rationalize that she ought to have been commissioned (arguable, although it was standard practice to not commission surgeons upon initial appointment, I think as a probationary employment measure). However, I do not see any way to rationalize applying for both a soldier's pension and a private pension when they appeared to be mutually exclusive. What confuses me is why she made these representations to the government knowing full well that they had the evidence readily available to disprove these assertions. Perhaps she was in cognitive decline by that time, although her letters seem coherent to me.


I've focused most of my research on her medal, since that was my scholarly interest. My conclusions are that she was definitely unqualified for the original medal under the literal text of the statutes in force at the time (since they clearly specified category of service, however ambiguous they were otherwise), that the medal was lawfully but inequitably rescinded in 1917 since she was treated differently than some other contract surgeons by the MoH review board (probably due to favoritism, or possibly sex discrimination), and that the BCMR exceeded its authority by contradicting at least three separate statutes when it unilaterally restored the medal in 1977. I think the restoration, however equitable, could only be lawfully accomplished by bill of relief. The BCMR simply lacks the authority to contradict standing law, particularly when the intent of Congress is abundantly clear.


Referenced files:

Letter from Mary Walker to Gen. Sherman, Sept. 14, 1864, RG 94, E496, W-2068-vs-1863, NARA (DC).

Letter from Asst. Adj. Gen. to Mary Walker, Nov. 2, 1865, RG 94, E496, W-2068-vs-1863, NARA (DC).

Andrew Johnson Executive Order, Nov. 11, 1865, Box 9, Bobbie Greene Kilberg Files, Gerald Ford Library.

Senate rept. 1349, "Mary E. Walker," June 25, 1898, 55th Cong., 2d Sess.

Claim for pension under Act of May 11, 1912, Certificate No 142715, Mary Walker pension file, SC 142 715, RG 15, NARA (DC).

Letter from Mary Walker to MoH Roll Board, May 24, 1916, RG 94, E496, W-2068-vs-1863, NARA (DC).




Thanks for these links and your comments. I agree with you that Dr. Walker had mental issues later in life though that doesn't change her bravery and tireless commitment to her country during the Civil War. The letter you cite in which she indicated she held the rank of first lieutenant was written in 1916, when she was 83. When Dr. Walker was assigned to the 52nd Ohio Volunteers, her pay was the "equivalent of a lieutenant's salary," according to the biography "Dr. Mary Walker, An American Radical, 1832-1919" by Sharon M. Harris (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009), p. 52. Perhaps there was some confusion in Dr. Walker's mind between being paid the same as a lieutenant and her actual rank. And of course, her 1912 and 1916 appeals were written to people who could easily confirm her actual rank during the war; thus, I don't think she was intentionally lying. I think she was unintentionally confused! Thanks for your interest in setting records straight.

The book, The Medal of Honor: The Evolution of America's Highest Military Decoration, is out tomorrow, in the event anyone is interested. Walker is mentioned a number of times, including her award revocation (which was discriminatory, since other contract surgeons like Leonard Wood were knowingly allowed to keep their medals), and an in-depth treatment of the BCMR's restoration of the medal (an action that they lacked the statutory authority to perform, making the present award questionable).