Mary Walker's Quest to be Appointed as a Union Doctor in the Civil War

Tale as old as time: Woman does "man's job" in the military, military resists giving her credit.


In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln penned a carefully worded letter to Dr. Mary Edwards Walker:

The Medical Department of the army is an organized system in the hands of men supposed to be learned in that profession and I am sure it would injure the service for me, with strong had, to thrust among them anyone, male or female, against their consent.

Lincoln would not invite a national controversy about women's work during the Civil War by appointing a female physician to the Union Army, even one he knew had been acting in such capacity on nearly half a dozen battlefields. While the military ban on women in combat has only just been lifted, a small but determined number of women have found their way to front lines since the very establishment of this country. Walker could have posed as a man, like the nearly 400 women who fought during the Civil War did, but that was never an option for her. The Osewgo, New York native desired public acknowledgment, and obscuring her sex would negate that primary goal.

Before the Civil War, Walker often wrote about women's rights and abolitionism, but her primary commitment was to her education, marriage, and medical practice. When the war began in earnest during the spring of 1861, Walker responded by shutting down her practice, writing that she "was confident that the God of justice would not allow the war to end without its developing into a war of liberation."

In the end, Walker's most ardent desires would be realized. Lincoln would issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, freeing all slaves in Confederate territory, and two years later the Thirteenth Amendment, banning slavery in the United States, would ratified. While Walker would die just one year before the Nineteenth Amendment gave her the right to vote, she is still, to this day, the only woman to have ever received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

She lit out for the nation's capital and found a city overrun with soldiers wounded during the Second Battle of Bull Run, and an insufficient number of medical professionals struggling to treat them. She went straight to Secretary of War Simon Cameron and presented herself as a willing and able surgeon. Cameron found Walker's reform dress, a shortened dress atop slacks, totally absurd, and would not consider the idea of commissioning a woman for any rank above nurse. He turned her away, but it did not matter.

Walker was determined to be a useful patriot, and her services were readily accepted by Dr. J.N. Green, the lone surgeon of the Indiana Hospital, a makeshift infirmary hastily set up inside the unfinished U.S. Patent Office. Eager for Walker to be compensated, Green requested that Surgeon General Clement A. Finley formally appoint her assistant surgeon, which he refused. Entangled in a long divorce with a philandering husband who impregnated at least two patients, Walker was not a woman of means, yet she returned to work, politely refusing to share Green's salary.

Indiana Hospital soon received additional doctors, but Walker did not hold them in high esteem. By 1861, the Sanitary Commission recommended amputations be conducted when a limb had serious lacerations or compound fractures, but the practice was controversial, with disconcerting mortality rates: Nearly 60 percent of leg amputations done at the knee resulted in death, while less than 20 percent survived hip-level amputations. Walker observed her colleagues senselessly amputating for want of practice. She wrote, "It was the last case that would ever occur if it was in my power to prevent such cruel loss of limbs." She began double-checking their work, surreptitiously counseling soldiers against the surgery when appropriate. Many wrote her thankful letters after the war, reporting their limbs to be fully functional.

Word quickly spread throughout what Walt Whitman called the "mad, wild, hellish" wartime capital: Dr. Mary Walker was a friend to soldiers. Knowing she was bold and skilled, anxious families begged her to seek out their injured sons, brothers and husbands, marooned near raging battles. In an 1862 letter published in The Sibyl, she wrote:

It is literally impossible for one with any force of character and humanity to remain 'in the background,' when convinced by knowledge and reason, that their mission is evidently one that will result in great good in those whose necessities demand that they have not the power to gain for them selves. For such let us labor. Virtue is as much higher than innocence as angers are higher than mortals.

Two years into the Civil War, Walker was mired in a frustrating cycle. She wrote endless letters requesting an official post, and received just as many refusals. Regardless, Walker continued to treat wounded soldiers, and military surgeons and generals on the ground were grateful for her sudden appearances. Dr. Preston King penned a letter describing Walker's contributions in the aftermath of a brutal defeat at Fredericksburg, resulting in 13,000 casualties, but the secretary of war responded that there could never be a commission for her, as there was no "authority of law for making this allowance to you."

Walker could have agreed to the title of nurse, but she was obstinate. Each refusal seemed to reinvigorate her. After one letter, she designed a blue uniform for herself, replete with a green sash, the sign of a physician on the battlefield. The New York Tribune took notice in December of 1862:

Dressed in male habiliments...she carries herself amid the camp with a jaunty air of dignity well calculated to receive the sincere respect of the soldiers...She can amputate a limb with the skill of an old surgeon, and administer medicine equally as well. Strange to say that, although she has frequently applied for a permanent position in the medical corps, she has never been formally assigned to any particular duty.

Walker was now famous, and on occasion she appeared onstage alongside the likes of "Wild Bill." The Tribune continued to criticize the military's reluctance to recognize her efforts, asking "What 'ism' is more absurd than Conservatism? If a woman is proved competent for duty, and anxious to perform it, why restrain her?"

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Alexis Coe is a writer in San Francisco and a columnist for SF Weekly.

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