Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Quite Contrary (1865)

Apr 12, 2022 by Marlene Wagman-Geller

      In the film Forrest Gump, Lieutenant Dan snarls at Forrest saying, “They gave you, an imbecile and a moron, the Congressional Medal of Honor.” While President Johnson conferred the award for Gump’s valor in Vietnam, an earlier President Johnson conferred the award for a lady’s valor in the Civil War. Dr. Mary Edward Walker was the first and the only woman to have received the Medal of Honor.   

        In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed a bill introducing the Medal of Honor for the bravest of the brave in the field of battle. The original design depicted Minerva, the Roman goddess of War and Wisdom, (though the two traits seem paradoxical,) banishing the allegorical figure of Discord. Ironically, although a female emblazoned the award, the 19th-century zeitgeist was it belonged in the provenance of men. 

      While there is a Miss Congeniality title, if there were one for Ms. Unconventionality, it could well have gone to a woman born in 1832 in Oswego, New York, the youngest of the seven children of Alvah and Vesta Walker. They gave their youngest daughter, Mary, the middle name of Edward, and christened her sisters Vesta, Aurora Borealis, and Luna. The Walkers were “free thinkers” and abolitionists whose home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. They embraced a radical philosophy for their era and raised their offspring devoid of traditional gender roles. The Walkers eschewed dresses as they felt corsets and tight lacing an impediment to circulation and long skirts a magnet for germs. Because of Mary’s clothes, boys pelted her with rocks; as an adult, her unorthodox manner of dress resulted in an arrest. She said that nobody would ever know what she had to go through just to step out of the door each morning. On one occasion, criticized for wearing pants, she insisted, “I don’t wear men’s clothes. I wear my own clothes.”

     Because of their different drummer values, Alvah and Vesta founded their own elementary school, and its pupils were taught to be independent thinkers. During her free time, Mary poured over her father’s medical journals-he was a self-taught physician- and eagerly read newspaper accounts of the first Women’s Rights Convention held in nearby Seneca Falls. Mary enrolled in the progressive Falley Seminary in Fulton, New York, and as with most educated women of her time, became a teacher, and obtained a position in Minetto. She earned enough money to attend Syracuse Medical College (the first institute for physicians in the United States to admit both sexes on an equal basis) and graduated with honors in 1858, the only female in her class and the second in the country to earn a medical degree. 

      In 1856, Mary married fellow physician and free-thinker Albert Miller; both bride and groom wore a suit and top hat. Other nontraditional twists were Mary did not take her husband’s last name and refused to repeat the vow “promise to obey.”  The couple established a private practice in Rome, New York, but neither it nor their relationship proved a success. Patients did not care to visit the cross-dressing Dr. Walker, and Albert’s “free-thinking” extended to adultery. Mary left them both in 1859 and petitioned for a divorce that the court took ten years to grant.

      As news of the devastating number of casualties at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863-the second bloodiest battle of the Civil War-spread through the country, Mary desperately tried to obtain a commission in the Army’s Medical Department. Since the beginning of the conflict, she had worked as a volunteer at a makeshift hospital set up in the Patent Office in Washington and treated wounded troops on the battlefields in Warrenton and Fredericksburg, Virginia. But what she really wanted, and what she was repeatedly denied because of her gender, was a surgeon’s commission that would have allowed her to use her skills to save more lives. Dr. Walker could have served disguised as a man, something nearly 400 women resorted to in the Civil War, but she never considered that option. Mary wanted women to receive public acknowledgement for their efforts and obscuring her sex would have negated her goal.

       Undeterred, Mary went to the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, and presented herself as a dedicated physician. He found Walker’s attire reprehensible and held firm in his refusal to commission a woman for any rank other than nurse. Unwilling to accept his decision, in 1864, Mary wrote a letter to President Lincoln stating that she had been denied a commission “solely on the ground of sex” and requested “a surgeon’s commission with orders to go whenever and wherever there is a battle.” Lincoln replied that he could not interfere with the Army’s Medical Department.

      In contrast, Dr. J.N. Green, the lone doctor of the Indiana Hospital, was grateful for her assistance and gladly took her on as a volunteer. In addition, he petitioned the Attorney General Clement A. Finley to formally grant Dr. Walker a position so she could receive a salary, a request he denied. Nevertheless, Mary designed a blue uniform, replete with a green sash, the sign of a battlefield physician. Proud of her service, Walker wrote, “I let my curls grow while I was in the army so that everybody would know I was a woman.”

         The Indiana Hospital soon received more doctors who immediately conflicted with the lone female surgeon. They regarded practicing next to a female as “a medical monstrosity.” A further source of animosity arose when the Sanitary Commission recommended amputations whenever a limb had sustained a serious injury, a practice Dr. Walker described as “wickedly cruel.” She surreptitiously told the wounded to refuse the operation, and after the War, many wrote letters of appreciation for saving both their extremities and their lives. As news of her medical prowess spread, there was an outcry to grant her an official post. The Board of Medical Officers agreed to review her case, but their representative, Dr. G. Perin, without watching her operate, dismissed her skills as “not greater than most housewives possess.”

      Dr. Walker proved to be an intrepid soldier and was not afraid to cross enemy lines. Confederate soldiers became accustomed to the sight of the unconventional woman, who one described as “a thing that nothing but the debased and depraved Yankee nation could produce...She was not good-looking, and of course had tongue enough for a regiment of men.” For once, the Union soldiers concurred with the Confederacy.

       While on these missions, Walker collected information on the enemy, and during an assignation, she gleaned information that led Major General William T. Sherman to modify his war operations, thus staving off defeat. Despite her success, the days of the doctor- turned- spy came with a short expiration date. A Confederate sentry captured her, and the South sent her by train as a prisoner of war to the brutal, filthy, and overcrowded Castle Thunder in Richmond, Virginia. Her captors reported the new prisoner’s arrival, describing her odd appearance and her unladylike defiance, “We must not admit to add that she is ugly and skinny, and apparently above thirty years of age.” The maltreatment and starvation she endured at Castle Thunder haunted her for the rest of her life. Four months later, the South released her in exchange for a Confederate officer. Her health and eyesight suffered from captivity, but her fiery spirit remained undaunted.  

       Dr. Walker returned to Washington and steadfast in her desire for official army status wrote to General Sherman to assign her the rank of a major and to send her to care for female prisoners in Louisville, Kentucky, most of whom were held on suspicion of spying. He complied, and she received a salary of $100.00 a month in addition to $434.66 in back pay. After six months, Mary was worn down by officials who felt she was too lenient, and her patients who were distrustful of one of their sex in a man’s role. She asked for a transfer that would allow her to once again treat wounded soldiers, but instead the authorities placed her in charge of a refugee Home in Clarksville, Tennessee. Her military career concluded in 1865, a month after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House.

       In 1865, Mary experienced the apogee of her life when President Andrew Johnson signed a bill awarding her the Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service, thus making Mary its first female recipient. The bill said Walker had “devoted herself with patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospital, to the detriment of her own health, and has also endured hardships as a prisoner-of-war four months in a Southern prison.” Thrilled with her medal, she wore it every day and affixed it to her left lapel when she delivered feminist lectures, always clad in formal male garments.  

         Throughout the 1870s, Marie worked in the Suffrage headquarters in Washington alongside Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Belva Lockwood. However, Dr. Walker soon ran afoul of her fellow suffragettes who felt her wardrobe made them a target of ridicule that detracted from their great cause. A New York Times reporter described Mary as “that curious anthropoid.”

      A further source of contention was Anthony and Cady Stanton were engaged in the struggle to add an Amendment that would enfranchise women while Mary argued that they already had the right to vote as the words, “We the people” was not gender based. There was no need to change the Constitution for a right it already promised.

      In 1917, the Medal of Honor Board rescinded Dr. Walker’s prized possession, an act that must have elicited some choice words she had picked up at Castle Thunder. She reportedly told the government that, “you will receive it over my dead body.” The Board members argued that the award could be only given to those who had served “in actual combat with the enemy, by gallantry or intrepidly, at risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty.” Mary was vociferous in her complaints, refused to hand it over, and displayed the medal until her passing in 1917.

      Fifty years after Mary’s death, her descendant, Anne Walker, led a campaign-one she likened to a full-time job- to right the historic wrong. She took her plea to Presidents Nixon and Ford before President Jimmy Carter reinstated Dr. Walker’s medal. Of the 3,500 Medals of Honor awarded only one has been bestowed to a woman. The award with the unique history resides in the Oswego Historical Society.

        At the top of the Medal of Honor is the word VALOR that aptly embodies the spirit of Dr. Walker. The words of a nursery rhyme describe her as well, “Mary, Mary, quite contrary...”