[Mary Edwards Walker]…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 endured hardships as a prisoner of war for four months in a southern prison while acting as a contract surgeon.
—President Andrew Johnson, November 11, 1865, upon signing the bill to present Mary Edwards Walker with the Congressional Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service (quoted in Leonard 1994, 155)
Throughout the Civil War, physician Mary Edwards Walker pursued a commission as a surgeon in the Union army. This ambition spurred her to contribute her medical expertise in field and general military hospitals in Washington, DC, Virginia, Tennesses, and Ohio. Though she never stopped trying to achieve her goal, and though the military willingly accepted her medical services, the army never recognized her with the commission she craved. Her battle to win acceptance as a full-fledged army surgeon was not a complete failure, however. In November 1865, President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Congressional Medal of Honor. She was the first woman to be so recognized.
Mary Edwards Walker was born and raised on a farm in Oswego, New York. As a young woman, she vowed to become a doctor and at age 22, she graduated from the Syracuse Medical College in 1855. One of her professors later acknowledged that she was a “faithful and diligent student” who had made “rapid and meritorious progress, ” graduating “with honor” (quoted in Leonard 1994, 251).
From her graduation until the Civil War, Walker practiced medicine in New York State. She married, but separated from her husband after a short time. During the 1850s, she was an ardent advocate of dress reform, although her parents had championed the health benefits of nonrestrictive attire for women long before this time. Walker’s costume varied over her lifetime, but in the 1850s and 1860s, she often wore a modified version of the bloomer costume (named for temperance and women’s rights activist Amelia Bloomer), which included a full knee-length skirt worn over trousers.
As soon as the war began in 1861, Walker traveled to Washington, DC. Like physician ESTHER HILL HAWKS and other female DOCTORS, she failed to convince military officials to