Our nation’s bloodiest conflict afforded many individuals the opportunity to distinguish themselves. One of the most famous women to emerge from the American Civil War was the nurse Clara Barton. Known as the “angel of the battlefield,” she followed the Union army and cared for the injured, sometimes in the midst of battle itself. Her greatest moment of fame came at the Battle of Antietam when a bullet tore through her sleeve and killed the soldier she was tending. She was not, however, the only woman to serve on the front lines. There was another woman who garnered fame, but not as a nurse. Instead, she was a fully-certified doctor. The Union army never granted her a commission, but this did not stop her from winning the hearts of her patients or her commanders. Her name was Mary Edwards Walker. This is the story of how she became the Union’s female battlefield surgeon.
As she matured from a little girl to a young woman, Mary Edwards Walker set her sights on joining the elite group of women granted access into the medical profession. She was born in November 1832 in Oswego, New York to a country doctor. Her parents’ belief in social equality persuaded her she was as good as any man. Determined to prove herself, she entered Syracuse Medical College, a non-regular institution that taught new practices like water-therapy and herbal remedies that opposed regular practices like bloodletting and heavy reliance on mercury. Mary came to value a more modern approach to medicine and put it to use upon her graduation in 1855. She established an office in Rome, New York, but her reliance on the new techniques countered the views of more orthodox physicians. They also opposed her decision to abandon skirts and petticoats for more masculine garb like men’s slacks and suspenders. Her willingness to wear a knee-length dress did not pacify them. Her practice suffered due to the opposition, but she refused to back down, and change was coming irregardless. War was on the horizon, and she knew it was only a matter of time before fighting erupted. When war did come, she saw an opportunity to prove herself to those who believed women did not belong in medicine.
Mary Edwards Walker had been a doctor for six years when she decided to offer her services to the Union army. Unable to gain an appointment in one of the new state regiments, she closed down her practice and moved to Washington, D.C. She arrived in the city in the aftermath of the First Battle of Bull Run and immediately paid a visit to the Army’s Medical Department. She was rejected not only because she was a woman but also because she had graduated from a non-regular school. She was not deterred, however, and began to visit the local hospitals. One hospital housing Indiana soldiers was located inside the U.S. Patent Office. She offered her services to the chief surgeon, J. N. Green, who gratefully accepted her help. Dressed in a U.S. military uniform, she toured the hospital regulating the soldiers’ diets and prescribing medicine for those ill with smallpox. She also remained calm when she assisted Dr. Green in surgical operations. He urged the medical corps to grant her official status, but the request was ignored. In the meantime, she began to feel the need to offer her services to those who most desperately needed it — soldiers suffering on the battlefield.
By the fall of 1862, Mary decided she had to get as close as possible to the frontlines. She made her way to the Army of the Potomac’s camp outside Warrenton, Virginia where thousands of soldiers were sick with typhoid fever. The army was in desperate need of qualified doctors, so her help was greatly appreciated. She was given charge of the sickest soldiers and dove into the task. With the care of a mother, she ripped up her nightgown and dipped the pieces in bowls of water before laying them across the soldiers’ sweat-soaked faces. She remained at her work day and night. Word of her actions spread all the way up the chain of command to General Ambrose Burnside, the army’s commander. He insisted on meeting this rare woman and listened to her case for moving the soldiers to Washington, where they could receive better care. He was so impressed by her argument that he personally drafted orders giving her total control of the operation. She supervised the loading of the soldiers and accompanied them on the journey back to the capital. Once the soldiers were unloaded and settled into hospitals, she realized there was no reason for her to remain in Washington.
As soon as her orders were fulfilled, she hurried back south to Fredericksburg, Virginia. She arrived just in time to see the devastating aftermath of the futile charges Union soldiers made against the Confederate high ground along Marye’s Heights. There were thousands of wounded troops. The senior surgeons directed her to tend to the survivors, including one soldier who had a hole in his skull big enough to see his brain. Regardless of the medical tasks she undertook, Mary found the time to visit with the soldiers, learning of their needs and taking it upon herself to fulfill them. A captain once petitioned her to obtain mittens so his soldiers could endure the harsh winter. She also secured a leave of absence so a soldier could check on his family, and on another occasion, she gained the release of several soldiers being held under false charges. These actions won the hearts of the soldiers who saw her as one of their greatest advocates. Each of these actions was done unofficially, but they earned her the respect of several important officials. One of the most important was Assistant Surgeon General R. C. Wood. He had long been one of her greatest admirers, and it was she that he turned to when medical help was requested in the western theatre of war.
In November 1863 Mary left Washington for Chattanooga, Tennessee where she joined the Army of the Cumberland. She found the army in disarray in the wake of the Battle of Chickamauga, which had occurred in September. There were 7,500 wounded soldiers housed in makeshift hospitals scattered in and around the city, and it was clear the army’s medical corps was unable to provide relief for any of them. She presented a letter from Assistant Surgeon General Wood to the army’s chief surgeon recommending her employment in a hospital. The surgeon insisted she could only work as a nurse. Mary was annoyed, but she refused to allow the doctor’s intransigence to interfere with her work. She visited the hospitals and began tending to those most in need of care. She was not alarmed by the Confederates’ siege of the town and the fierce battles that erupted as the Union soldiers drove the Confederates back. Her courage under fire once again drew the admiration of an army commander, this time General George H. Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga.” Thomas recognized that she deserved a chance to prove herself as a surgeon.
In early January 1864 Mary Edwards Walker’s dream of becoming part of the U.S. Army’s medical corps finally came true. “The noble Gen’l,” as Mary referred to General Thomas, appointed her to be an assistant surgeon and assigned her to the 52nd Ohio Volunteers. Despite being deemed unfit by a board of medical examiners because of her gender and medical training, she travelled to Gordon’s Mill outside of the city and took up her new position. She was warmly greeted by the regiment’s commander, Colonel Daniel McCook, and soon gained his confidence. She wrote how he even asked her to review the regiment once when he was unable to do so. She took pride in being part of the regiment, but during her inspections, she saw her services were largely unnecessary since most soldiers were in good health. With little to do for the soldiers, she received permission to attend to the nearby civilians who were suffering. In the beginning, four soldiers accompanied her on the rounds, but it was not long before she insisted on going alone. This led several soldiers to speculate that she was actually spying on the Confederates. Whether true or not, she continued to ride out alone. Unfortunately, she was captured by a Confederate sentry on April 10th and was soon on her way to a Confederate prison in the capital of Richmond, Virginia.
For the next four months, Mary was held in Confederate hands until an exchange was arranged. Many Confederate officers could not believe the Union would allow a woman to occupy so important a position as regimental surgeon. One officer declared it was “a thing that nothing but the debased and the depraved Yankee nation could produce.” She was locked up in a filthy tobacco warehouse with 350 other prisoners and survived on foul rations. In August 1864 she was pleased to learn she had been exchanged for a Confederate major. Her ability to survive such conditions led the army to pay her $432 for her military services. With the help of Generals Thomas and William T. Sherman, she was named “Surgeon in Charge” of all Confederate female prisoners being held in Louisville, Kentucky’s military prison. She ensured the prisoners did not engage in “disloyal talk” or fraternize with male guards. Her willingness to act harshly at times drew criticism, but she retained the faith of her superiors until March 1865. Shortly after she completed her duty in Louisville the war ended, but Mary still desired recognition for her services.
Mary spent the rest of her life speaking of her wartime service, described by some as heroic, and her desire for proper recognition. She wrote dozens of letters to President Andrew Johnson asking to be named a medical inspector in the new Freedman’s Bureau and later a commissioned surgeon in the army. Those who had served alongside her in the war and who had championed her efforts joined her in the quest. Her closed-minded opponents rallied against her, however, and persuaded Johnson and the War Department to deny her request. Seeking to reward her efforts, however, President Johnson signed a bill on November 11, 1865 awarding Mary the Congressional Medal of Honor, the only woman ever granted our country’s highest award for bravery. With medal in hand, she then set out on a lecture tour across the U.S., often appearing in her uniform and speaking about her actions in the field. The public celebrated her for her actions, and she used her platform to call for more opportunities for women. She added her voice to those urging the government to adopt a nurses’ pension bill. She called for women to follow her example and join male-dominated professions like medicine. If more women joined, she said, they would have to be paid for their services. Well ahead of her time in seeking equal opportunity for women, she worked relentlessly for years to achieve fair treatment. Sadly, her fierce attitude alienated many people, and she died virtually alone in February 1919.
Mary Edwards Walker was not one to allow societal barriers to stop her from reaching her full potential. On the battlefields of our country’s most devastating war, she sought only to use her skill and training to ease the suffering and pain of those who needed her most. Under the most difficult conditions, she never failed to show unflagging dedication to the troops who depended on her for survival. She never earned the fame that Clara Barton did, but she is every bit Clara’s equal in sacrifice, service and selflessness. Clara Barton may have been the “angel of the battlefield,” but Mary Edwards Walker was the “soldiers’ surgeon.”