14 things you didn’t know about the only female Medal of Honor recipient


By Lizann Lightfoot

Since 1861, the Medal of Honor has been awarded more than 3,000 times. But only one woman has ever been given the Medal of Honor. That woman was Dr. Mary Walker. She received the medal during the Civil War for her courage treating patients on the battlefield, and for her bravery as a Prisoner of War.

Her citation stated that she “was assigned to duty and served as an assistant surgeon in charge of female prisoners at Louisville, Ky., … 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.”   

Why was this woman working as a surgeon on the battlefield instead of as a nurse? Because she was also one of our country’s first female doctors. And if that weren’t enough, she went on to champion women’s right to vote and became the first female candidate for the U.S. Senate. You will want to know more about this interesting woman who had ideas way ahead of her time:

1. The Congressional Medal of Honor is typically bestowed upon military service members for bravery on the battlefield. Dr. Mary Walker is one of only eight civilians ever to receive it.

2. She was an early feminist who wore pants underneath her wedding dress. She was teased, mocked, and sometimes arrested for wearing trousers.

3. Walker became president of the National Dress Reform Association. She wrote two books about women’s rights and dress reform. She claimed, “I don’t wear men’s clothes, I wear my own clothes.”

4. She refused to take her husband’s last name when she married. This worked out well since they divorced after he was unfaithful.

5. She attended Syracuse Medical College, becoming one of few women in the country trained as a doctor.

6. She was the first female Army surgeon. During the Civil War, she volunteered at a battlefield hospital and kept requesting appointments as an Army surgeon. She was repeatedly denied because women traditionally worked as nurses. In 1864, General George Henry Thomas finally hired her as a contract surgeon.

7. Mary Walker wanted to reduce the number of battlefield amputations performed in field hospitals since so many resulted in deaths. She had a system for double-checking wounds and counseling soldiers that they had a choice to opt out of amputation. Her approach saved limbs and lives!

8. In April 1864, Confederate soldiers captured her after she crossed enemy lines to treat civilians. They labeled her a spy and held her as a prisoner for four months. Dr. Mary Walker suffered greatly during this time. Finally, she was part of a prisoner exchange for a Confederate surgeon. She met with President Lincoln to share stories of her treatment, then requested to return to the battlefield.

9. In 1865, Dr. Mary Walker received the Congressional Medal of Honor. She was 32 years old.

10. In 1881, she became the first female candidate for United States Senate. (She wasn’t elected.)

11. Walker fought for women to vote, but she didn’t support a new amendment. She argued that the Constitution already gave women the right to vote. She testified before Congress in 1912 and 1914. The 19th Amendment, which allowed women to vote, wasn’t passed until after her death.

12. In 1917, when she was 84 years old, the military split the Congressional Medal of Honor rolls into separate lists for Army and Navy. Walker’s medal was revoked, along with 900 others. She refused to return her medal and continued to wear it. 51 years later, Jimmy Carter posthumously restored her Medal of Honor. It is now proudly displayed at the Pentagon.

13. Walker was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000.

14. During World War II, the SS Mary Walker was named after this Civil War surgeon. She has several medical clinics and medical facilities named after her, in her home state of New York, as well as Michigan, Washington, D.C., California, and Philadelphia.

Read more about Dr. Walker through the resources we used for this article here, here, here, and here.