Mary Edwards was born in Oswego, New York, on November 26, 1832; she was the youngest of five daughters, followed by one son, born to Alvah and Vesta Walker. Her father expected all of his children to be well educated and to pursue professional careers.
Mary was determined that she was going to become a doctor and graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855. Afterwards, she established a practice in Rome, New York and was married to a physician, Albert Miller. Their relationship did not last very long, and the couple separated in 1859. Mary, always a bit controversial, had insisted on wearing trousers and a man’s coat. Their wedding vows did not include anything about ‘obeying', and she had insisted on keeping her last name.
Mary, always a strong feminist, travelled to Washington when the Civil War broke out and offered her services to the Union army. For awhile, she worked as a volunteer nurse and was not sent to the front-line until September, 1863 when she was appointed by as assistant surgeon in the Ohio Infantry at Cumberland. She was the first female surgeon commissioned in the army.
Mary was captured by a band of Confederate soldiers and spent four months at Castle Thunder prison in Richmond, Virginia.
Then, in August of 1864, she was exchanged, along with 24 other Union doctors, for 17 Confederate doctors. Released to tend the sick and wounded, Mary would later claim that she used this opportunity to spy on the enemy. In 1865,upon recommendation of Major Generals William T. Sherman and George H. Thomas, on President Andrew Johnson signed a bill to present Dr. Mary Edwards Walker with the Congressional Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service. The citation recognized her:
“valuable service to the Government,” devoting “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 enduring “hardships as a prisoner of war.” The citation also stated that “by reason of her not being a commissioned officer in the military service, a brevet or honorary rank cannot, under existing laws, be conferred upon her” so, therefore, “in the opinion of the President an honorable recognition of her services and sufferings should be made.”
She was the only women in the Civil War to win the Congressional Medal of Honor.
After the war, Mary was active in feminist organizations and was arrested several times for masquerading as a man. She worked diligently to get relief bills for the war nurses, but the
Congressional bills died in committee. She also began writing and lecturing throughout the U.S. and abroad on women’s rights, dress reform, health and temperance issues. She argued that the use of tobacco resulted in paralysis and insanity, that women's clothing was both immodest and inconvenient.
Then, in 1917, Congress revised the standards for the Medal of Honor to include only “actual combat with an enemy,” and took away the medals of 911 honorees, including Mary's. But she refused to give it back, and despite it becoming a crime to wear an ‘unearned’ medal, she had worn it,right up until the day she died.
At the same time, while on a trip to Washington, Mary fell on the Capitol steps. She was 85 years old at the time and never fully recovered. She died two years later, on February 21, 1919, while she staying at a neighbor’s home in Oswego. Mary was not so much remembered for her service to her country as she was for being “that shocking female surgeon in trousers!” She was buried in the Rural Cemetery. That same year, the 19th Amendment was ratified.
Mary’s great-grand niece Ann Walker fought for many years to have Mary's medal restored, and finally on June 11, 1977, President Carter reinstated Mary’s it, citing Mary for her “distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex.” Today, the medal can be seen on display in the Pentagon’s Women’s Corridor.