Mary E. Walker

Mary E. Walker
52nd Ohio Regiment
November 26, 1832 – February 21, 1919

Mary Walker seated, facing right, looking at the camera.

Dr. Mary E. Walker, circa 1865, wearing her Medal of Honor. Mathew Brady; National Archives

Over 2,400 people have received the Medal of Honor from the U.S. Army since its first awarding in 1863. Eight Medals have gone to civilians and only one to a woman. Dr. Mary E. Walker earned the honor from her service as an assistant surgeon during the Civil War. As a surgeon, she treated any wounded or ill soldier regardless of their allegiance. Her efforts on the battlefield to aid a wounded Confederate soldier even resulted in her capture. In addition to her role as a doctor, Walker committed herself to campaigning for women’s rights and operating her own private practice.

Born in Oswego, New York in 1832, Mary Edwards Walker was raised by abolitionist, activist parents. They encouraged Walker to defy the social and gender norms of the time and stressed the importance of education. Walker briefly worked as a school teacher before discovering her true passion in medicine. She graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855 as the only woman in her class. Walker met her husband, Albert Miller, in medical school, and upon marrying they agreed she would keep her last name, a radical decision at the time. Together, they set up their own practice which failed a few years later, due in part to the public’s reluctance to seek aid from a female doctor. She was further alienated because of her unusual choice to avoid traditional female clothing, instead donning pantaloons or traditionally male trousers.

The start of the Civil War inspired Walker to try again to utilize her medical training. In 1861, Walker traveled to Washington, D.C. to request an appointment as a surgeon in the Union Army. Her request was denied because of her gender, and the Army instead offered her a position as a nurse. Walker declined, citing her experience and skills as too extensive for a position lower than surgeon. She remained in the city as an unpaid volunteer surgeon in the U.S. Patent Office Hospital and worked with the Women’s Relief Organization, which assisted the families of wounded Soldiers. The next year, she traveled to Virginia to again request a commission as a surgeon from Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, who turned her down. She then worked as a volunteer field surgeon, treating Soldiers during the Battle of Fredericksburg and in hospitals across the state. By 1863, Walker’s reputation and credentials as a medical professional finally spoke for themselves. Walker was commissioned as a civilian contracting acting assistant surgeon, equivalent to a lieutenant in rank. She was the first woman to ever hold the position.

Assigned to the 52nd Ohio Regiment, Walker quickly gained a reputation for bravery under fire and commitment to her profession. She was known for treating wounded Soldiers on a battlefield regardless of the color of their uniform. In April 1864, Walker was captured by Confederates and accused of being a spy. She spent the next four months as a prisoner of war at Castle Thunder in Richmond, Virginia. Conditions at Castle Thunder were poor, and made more so by Walker’s refusal to wear the dresses and petticoats provided to her. She was released in a prisoner exchange, but her mistreatment resulted in a muscular injury that virtually ended her career as a surgeon. Walker spent the rest of the war working at the Louisville Women’s Prison Hospital and an orphan asylum in Clarksville, Tennessee, until her contract with the War Department ended in 1865. While Walker never held an official Army rank, she was often referred to as “Major” in communications with Army leadership, further demonstrating the respect she earned. To show appreciation for her service and tenacious care of her patients, President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor in November 1865.

Beyond medicine, Walker was also committed to the advancement of women’s rights. She actively fought for dress reform, arguing that women should wear more “rational” clothing as opposed to the extensive petticoats and corsets common of the Victorian era. Walker was arrested repeatedly for wearing pants, charged with “impersonating a man.” In 1870, she spoke before a Louisiana state court after one such arrest, arguing her right to, “dress as I please in free America on whose tented fields I have served for four years in the cause of human freedom.” The judge sided with Walker and ordered that she never again be arrested for wearing men’s clothing. Walker continued advocating for women’s rights, testifying before Congress in 1912 and 1914 in favor of women’s right to vote.

Walker continued to stand up for herself and her rights for the rest of her life. In 1917, the U.S. government revised the requirements for the Medal of Honor and rescinded over 900 Medals, including Walker’s. Resolute in her beliefs, she ignored the ruling and continued to wear her Medal until her death in 1919. Nearly 60 years later, the Army Board for Correction of Military Records reviewed her case and reinstated Walker’s Medal in 1977. She remains the sole female recipient of the honor. Walker was buried in her New York hometown wearing her clothing of choice, a black suit. In 2023, Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia was renamed in Walker’s honor. At the redesignation ceremony, former U.S. Army surgeon general Lt. Gen. Nadja West said, “I know that if there was no Dr. Walker there would have been no Dr. West, plain and simple. She blazed a trail that I and thousands of others have been following over a century later.” As of 2024, Fort Walker is the only U.S. Army installation to be solely named after a woman.

Megan Willmes, Education Specialist
Delaney Brewer, Co-lead Education Specialist


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“Dr. Mary Edwards Walker .” National Parks Service. Accessed February 3, 2021.

Frazier, Aisha. “Virginia’s Fort A.P. Hill renamed Fort Walker in push to remove Confederate symbols.” ABC News. August 25, 2023.

Lange, Katie. “Meet Dr. Mary Walker: The Only Female Medal of Honor Recipient.” DoD News, March 7, 2017.

“Mary E. Walker.” American Battlefield Trust, March 25, 2019.

“Mary E. Walker.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health, June 3, 2015.