The Medal of Honor is the highest military honor awarded for “personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty.” It is awarded by the President of the United States in the name of the US Congress and so it is often known as the Congressional Medal of Honor. The Navy began the award in 1861 during the American Civil War with the Army following suit a year later. Since the establishment of the award, more than 3,500 have been presented – 1,523 to honorees of the Civil War.
One Medal of Honor recipient is a woman. One. Out of more than 2.2 million women veterans since the creation of the Medal of Honor, the solo female recipient is Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, a physician from New York, who volunteered for and served in the Union Army as an Army Surgeon during many battles of the Civil War from the First Battle of Bull Run in 1862 to the Battle of Atlanta in 1864.
Dr. Walker was captured by Confederate forces in April of 1864 after crossing enemy lines to treat wounded civilians in areas her fellow male surgeons refused to go. She was arrested as a spy and sent as a prisoner of war to a Confederate prison in Richmond, Virginia. When she was released in a prisoner exchange in August, 1864, she suffered from partial muscle atrophy that disabled her for the rest of her life. At the end of the War in 1865, President Andrew Johnson presented her with the newly created Medal of Honor.
Dr. Walker became a writer and lecturer following her service in the Army. She wrote two books that discussed women’s rights including their right to dress as they chose, a cause she embraced personally as she was frequently arrested for wearing men’s clothing. She had grown up working on her family’s farm and had little use for the skirts and corsets women wore routinely in the late nineteenth century.
In 1871 she registered to vote along with many other women who believed they had the right to vote already guaranteed in the Constitution. This was the prevailing strategy for suffragettes initially in this country. Later on in the Suffragette Movement, the strategy changed to push for a Constitutional Amendment which would irrevocably provide women the right to vote. Dr. Walker didn’t embrace the new strategy and distanced herself from this new wave of feminists which was ultimately successful in helping to secure the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment that granted women the right to vote in 1918.
In 1917 the Medal of Honor Board deleted 910 awards, including Dr. Walker’s, and the recipients were ordered to return their medals. Dr. Walker refused to return hers and continued to wear it every day as she had since the day she received it. She wore it until the day of her death on February 21, 1919 at the age of 87 – one year after the passage of the 19th. Amendment.
On this Veteran’s Day in 2015, I salute Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, a soldier who showed personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty in both her military service as a doctor during the Civil War which has been called one of the bloodiest wars in history and as a civilian who displayed the same courage in the battles for equal rights for women in the country she helped to unite.
I also salute the more than 2 million women veterans who have served – and are serving in the US military today. The personal sacrifices you make – and have made- are acts of valor and deserve recognition above and beyond what you receive. I find it shameful that only one of you has been awarded the Medal of Honor. Surely history will rectify this oversight at some point. Until then, you have my admiration, respect and gratitude.
P.S. President Jimmy Carter restored the Medal of Honor to Dr. Mary Edwards Walker in 1977.