The only woman ever awarded the Medal of Honor —- Dr. Mary Walker, American Civil War
During the outbreak of the US Civil War in 1861, Dr. Mary Walker abandoned her private practice in Rome, New York to volunteer with the US Army medical services. Though a trained and certified physician, she was at first only permitted to work as a nurse, often only on a volunteer basis with no pay. In 1863 due to exceptional performance and a greater demand for trained medical personnel, Walker was hired by the US Army as a civilian army surgeon, the first and only woman to be directly employed to such a position during the war.
Dr. Walker served with incredible distinction, making a reputation for herself among the soldiers. Her most defining characteristic was her willingness to brave any danger to treat her patients. Unlike most medical personnel of the age, Dr. Walker often treated soldiers directly on the battlefield, braving musket and cannon fire to rescue and triage wounded soldiers. Dr. Walker also would not hesitate to cross enemy lines if needed. Unfortunately on April 10th, 1864 her courage got the best of her when she was captured by the Confederates and arrested as a spy. Since she was a woman the Confederates chose not to hang her, the traditional fate of spies. Rather she was imprisoned as a POW until she was released as part of a prisoner exchange on August 12th, 1864.
Throughout the remainder of the war she served as a surgeon during the Atlanta campaign and Sherman’s march to the sea. After the war Gen. William T. Sherman and Gen. George Henry Thomas recommended her for the Medal of Honor, the highest military award in the country. President Andrew Johnson present her with the medal on November 11th, 1865.
After the war Dr. Mary Walker made a living as a writer and lecturer. She was an outspoken supporter of women’s rights, equality, feminism, and women’s suffrage. In 1917 the military reviewed the Medal of Honor rolls, determining that the award should be only exclusively granted as a military award. Her Medal of Honor, along with that of seven civilians who earned the award, was stripped from her and her name removed from the official registry of recipients. Regardless of the ruling by the military Walker continued to wear the medal until her death in 1917. She had earned the medal, and be damned the man who tried to take it away from her.
In 1977 President Jimmy Carter restored her status as a Medal of Honor recipient. She remains the only woman to ever win the award.