Memorial Day is being celebrated across the country today to honor those who have died serving in our military. While we give remembrance to fallen soldiers, we should also remember the men and women who have supported them on the battlefield.
One of these wartime heroes is Dr. Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919). Walker served as a Surgeon during the Civil War and was the first and only woman awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor. She was a New York native and graduated from Syracuse Medical College with a doctor of medicine in 1855. At the time, this was the nation’s top medical school according to a report by NBC News.
In her online biography by the U.S. National Library of medicine, Walker is praised for two important contributions to society: she healed our wounded soldiers and was a fierce social activist. She played a pivotal role in the fight for women’s rights and a their place in public and professional society. Her work as a surgeon during the war proved to other women that they too could make significant contributions to society.
A mere ten years after graduating, Walker was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for her work during the Civil War, becoming the first women in history to receive the honor. However, in an interesting turn of events, she and nearly 1,000 other recipients had their awards revoked by a high-ranking U.S. military board in 1916. Technically, the award should have been given to military personnel who experience “actual combat with the enemy.” This put into question what actually merits a war-time hero and a patriot, something that is still debated today.
In true revolutionary fashion, Walker refused to relinquish her award and insisted on wearing the medal of honor to the grave. She also fought to secure an Army commission after the war ended but was continually denied. Finally in 1865, she was awarded the Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service by President Andrew Johnson.
Another thing Walker refused to give up? Men’s clothing. She was known for her suits, ties, and top hats and was even arrested several times for her trademark garb.
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker will go down in history has a solider, revolutionary, and gender-bender, breaking the gender mold long before contemporary activists and at a time when it was way more risky. To this day, Walker remains the only woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Memorial Day honors her and her bravery.