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)