A New York Minute In History
A New York Minute In History
The Persistence of Dr. Mary Walker | A New York Minute in History

For Women’s History Month, Devin and Lauren tell the story of Dr. Mary Walker: physician, heroine of the Civil War, and the only woman in history ever to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Born to progressive parents in western New York, Walker would defy the odds to become a surgeon, spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, and go toe-to-toe with prominent suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Walker is buried in the Oswego Rural Cemetery.

Marker of Focus: Rural Cemetery, Oswego, Oswego County

Guests: Dr. Theresa Kaminski, author of Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War; and George DeMass, Oswego Town Historian

A New York Minute In History is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio, the New York State Museum, and Archivist Media, with support from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation. This episode was produced by Jesse Kingwith help from intern Elizabeth Urbanczyk. Our theme is “Begrudge” by Darby.

Further Reading:

Theresa Kaminski, Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War: One Woman’s Journey to the Medal of Honor and the Fight for Women’s Rights

Sara Latta, I Could Not Do Otherwise: The Remarkable Life of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

Thavolia Glymph, The Women’s Fight: The Civil War’s Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton, The Book of Gutsy Women

Teaching Resources:

Association of the U.S. Army, Medal of Honor Mary Walker

Junior Scholastic, Mary Walker’s War

Keith Negley, Mary Wears What She Wants

Continuing Teacher and Leader Education (CTLE) Credit: The New York State Museum is an approved provider of Continuing Teacher and Leader Education (CTLE). Educators can earn CTLE credit (.5 hours) by listening to this episode and completing this survey. Please allow up to two weeks to receive confirmation of completion.

Follow Along

A picture of Mary Walker used as a reference for the U.S. Mint.

Devin: Welcome to A New York Minute in History. I’m Devin Lander, the New York state historian.

Lauren: And I’m Lauren Roberts, the historian for Saratoga County. On today’s episode, we’re exploring the backstory of a marker located in the town of Oswego in western New York, on the shores of Lake Ontario, which is adjacent to the City of Oswego. The marker is located in the Oswego Town Rural Cemetery on Cemetery Road, and the text reads: “Rural Cemetery. Begun circa 1820. Medal of Honor recipients, Dr. Mary Walker, first female recipient, and James H. Lee, interred at this site. William G Pomeroy Foundation, 2014.”

So, this Rural Cemetery actually has two Medal of Honor recipients buried within its grounds. For this episode, we’re going to focus on the story of Dr. Mary Walker, the only female recipient of the Medal of Honor to this day. However, we wanted to take a moment here to acknowledge the other Medal of Honor recipient, James H. Lee, who also has a pretty fascinating story. The battle in which he served so bravely happened not on American soil, but in the waters off the coast of France, known as the Battle of Cherbourg. James H. Lee was a naval seaman during the Civil War, and served on the USS Kearsarge, a union sloop of war. The Kearsarge had been tracking down the Confederate raider, the CSS Alabama, and finally caught up with the raiding ship while it was in Cherbourg, France for repairs. Once out of the territorial waters of France, the Kearsarge and the Alabama engaged in a battle ending with a Union victory and the sinking of the Alabama. It was during this battle that seaman James H. Lee earned the Medal of Honor for “acting as sponger of the number one gun during this bitter engagement. Lee exhibited marked coolness and good conduct and was highly recommended for his gallantry under fire by the divisional officer.”

Now onto the other Medal of Honor recipient in the cemetery, Dr. Mary Walker, who also earned her medal for service during the Civil War. But before we get there, let’s take a look at her early life growing up in the town of Oswego.

Mary Walker was born in 1832 on her family’s farm. Her parents, Alvah and Vesta, were progressive thinkers and instilled these views into their many children. Alvah Walker built the first school in this area, which actually reminds me of our last episode about the Mossell family in Lockport, where the parents’ emphasis on providing quality education influenced the next generation heavily, and led to those children growing up to advocate for many different types of social justice. The farm where Mary was born was located on a hill that Alvah named “Bunker Hill.” Alvah was originally from the Boston area, and he named his farm after Bunker Hill because he hoped it would be a hill where battles would be fought — battles of social justice.

To find out more about Mary Walker’s early life, and her parents’ influence on her beliefs, I spoke with Town of Oswego Historian George Demass.

George: They had a farm. She had four sisters and a brother, and they all worked on the farm. Because of her father, who was a great abolitionist, Mary Walker in those early years knew Garrett Smith. He came, I think, to the farm to lecture one time. And of course, she knew Frederick Douglass. Her father was a great impetus in her life as far as reform [goes], including dress reform. So even as a young school girl, she started to wear trousers, because she worked in the fields and so forth with her other sisters. She taught for a couple of years in a school in Minetto, New York, which is not far away [from here], and then she went to the Syracuse Medical College.

I tell everybody about a children’s book that was written maybe three or four years ago, by Keith Negley. The title is Mary Wears What She Wants, and the last line of the book is beautiful because it says it all: “And it never was the same again.”

Devin: When Mary graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855 — with honors by the way — she was only the second woman in United States history to graduate with a medical degree, with the first being Elizabeth Blackwell from Geneva, New York.

Lauren: In 1856, Dr. Mary Walker married Dr. Albert Miller, and they each opened their own medical practice in Rome, New York.

George: They were not married very long. She did not wear a typical bridal gown of that day, and she kept her own name, which was very unusual at that time. And they didn’t live together very long, but she didn’t get her divorce finalized until 1869, after the war.

Devin: Again, it’s clear that Mary Walker was a strong nonconformist for her era. She was a suffragist. She was a believer in the equality of the genders. She was known for wearing an outfit that consisted essentially of pants underneath a skirt, which was later known as the “bloomer costume,” which several suffragists would go on to wear — but none as long as Mary Walker, who for the rest of her life, would wear some version of the bloomer costume, or just pants themselves. In fact, Mary was arrested several times throughout her life for wearing pants, which was actually illegal in some municipalities around the country. She never really did any jail time for it, but it was, again, a symbol of her nonconformity. 

One of the other progressive movements of the 19th Century that Mary Walker was heavily involved in was the abolition movement. Growing up in the north, and in the burned-over district of upstate New York, she became very aware of the abolition movement and attended many speeches, including those given by Frederick Douglass, among others. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Mary went immediately to Washington, D.C. to offer her services as a surgeon to the United States Army.

Theresa: She presents herself to the Secretary of War, and she says, “I’m ready for service.” She wants a commission. She considered herself every bit as qualified as any male doctor. And I think she already started getting this idea that her position as a doctor would help her to gather information for the northern forces.

Devin: Our producer, Jesse King spoke with Dr. Theresa Kaminski, author of Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War.

Theresa: I’m not sure that she would have thought of this as directly spying, or more like intelligence gathering. But she certainly knew, for example, about Allan Pinkerton, and his security detail for President Lincoln in 1861. By the time she arrived in Washington, the big story about Rose Greenhow — the woman who was actually spying for the Confederacy — she heard this story, too. And she understood that oftentimes women go into places where men don’t think that they’re paying attention to what’s going on. She started thinking about this, and as early as 1862, she was writing to various officials offering her services as somebody who could spy or gather intelligence as she was out working in her medical capacity as a physician. I think it’s linked back to her belief in women’s rights and women’s equality, and that they should be allowed to do what they’re capable of doing, and not be barred from it just because they’re women.

Jesse: Were her efforts accepted? When she was sending these letters out to people, were they listening to them? Or were they just like, “Meh, this is…”

Theresa: Yeah, I mean, many of her requests were consistently denied. I mean, she goes and she appears before the Secretary of War, asks for a commission, and he says the U.S. Army does not commission women. He, of course, did not share her beliefs in gender equality. And the only thing she could do after that was she ends up volunteering her services to the United States Army, and so from 1861 until 1864, she is working as an unpaid physician, and she essentially starts following different armies and, you know, she’s just there serving as a doctor. And I think, as she moves along, during these years, the officers who see her in action are usually pretty impressed. She is constantly, though, trying to get a commission. She never gives up. She’s always asking for this. She wants to be an official part of the Army. And she doesn’t get this until 1864, and even then it’s not a commission. She gets hired on an official contract as a — I think her official title was “assistant surgeon,” which meant that she was a physician. And it’s largely due to the efforts of one general who was very impressed by the work he saw her doing in a military hospital in Chattanooga, and he was willing to actually go against to an Army board of medical doctors who had examined Mary Walker for her medical knowledge, and said, “She isn’t fit to be a physician, so she shouldn’t be even doing anything for the United States Army.” And General Thomas just totally ignored that advice, and gave her this contract. And off she went to northern Georgia.

Lauren: And so under this contract, she’s sent to Georgia to assist in caring for the soldiers, but also, she is being sent out to care for civilians in the countryside. And it’s during this time that she is encouraged by her superiors to essentially keep her eyes and ears open for any kind of intelligence that would be able to help the Union army. And it’s during one of these missions that she’s actually captured by Confederate forces, who were suspicious about what she was doing so far away from the battlefields. They capture her, and she becomes a prisoner of war for several months at a place called Castle Thunder in Virginia.

Theresa: It was not great. The food wasn’t great, the conditions weren’t great — but she was not tortured. She was not directly physically abused. In some ways, she was kind of a celebrity prisoner; she was still wearing trousers, and so she was sort of famous or infamous as “the lady doctor who wore trousers.” She was maybe treated a little bit better because there were lots of eyes on her, but she did suffer enough depravations in those short months that her health was compromised. Her eyesight suffered, for some reason, there was some medical condition, and for the rest of her life, she had problems with her eyesight. And there was enough that happened to her there that she did get a pension after the war. It was a fairly modest one, but she was entitled to a pension because of what happened to her as a POW. And the reason she was let out was a prisoner exchange: the Confederacy was willing to swap for some of their army medical officers. So she was very happy to be let go when the time came.

Lauren: Even after this, she still wasn’t able to get a commission. In lieu of this, for recognition of what she had done during the war, President Johnson awards her the Medal of Honor.

Theresa: And at the time, the criteria for the medal was very different than it is now. But by the standard of the time, she met the criteria. So this wasn’t, this wasn’t anything that was fudged just to make her fit into it. She was awarded the medal by President Johnson in November of 1865. I think there was some sort of congressional ceremonial approval in early 1866. So sometimes you’ll see those two different dates attached to the medal. And she remains today, the only woman to ever have received the Medal of Honor. 

She had it revoked in 1917. And this was not anything that was targeted at her individually — this was part of an entire review of all Medal of Honor winners. Mary Walker was one of over 900 to have their medals rescinded, and I think this was kind of in preparation [of World War I]. 1917, this is the year the United States joins the First World War. The War Department knows now that there will be more medals that will have to be given, so the Army tells her that her medal has been rescinded. And she, of course, accepts none of this. She says, you know, she was given the award by President Johnson, and as far as she’s concerned, he would be the only person who could take it away from her. So she never considered that it was rescinded. And she always wore that medal for the rest of her life.

Lauren: 60 years later, in 1977, the Medal of Honor was posthumously reinstated to Dr. Mary Walker through the efforts of her family. And it was actually given to her by President Jimmy Carter.

Devin: So it’s clear with her service in the Civil War and as a surgeon before the Civil War, that Mary Walker was someone that had the courage of her convictions, for sure. This would actually cause a rift between her and several other prominent suffragists in the period following the Civil War. Now, as we noted, Mary was famous for being a Medal of Honor winner. She used her fame to go on speaking tours and attend suffrage gatherings, and was very much a prominent suffragist during this period. But she held some non-conformist views even among suffragists, including her adherence to wearing pants, or bloomers, which was something that the other suffragists had tried and turned away from, because they felt it was too much of a distraction. They were being ridiculed for wearing pants, and they really thought that that was a distraction from their important work of getting women the right to vote. And this included Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, the two most prominent suffragists of the time.

Mary Walker was also an adherent to a philosophy within the suffrage movement called “The New Departure,” which basically said that the U.S. Constitution already grants adult women the right to vote, and that all Congress needed to do was an act enabling legislation to allow it. Now this was a departure from Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who were working towards a constitutional amendment that would allow women to vote.

Lauren: And it’s not as though other people in the movement didn’t try this. They certainly did. I’m sure we can all recall that Susan B. Anthony attempted to vote and was arrested for it. Also, the Supreme Court ruled in the 1870s that this was not the case, that the Constitution itself did not allow for adult women to have the right to vote. So after that point, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the main part of the women’s suffrage movement moved away from [the new departure] because of the Supreme Court ruling. And so this is where the big split happens.

Theresa: Most of it, I think, comes down to Mary Walker’s basic personality, which was very forceful. She totally said: “Here’s an instance where the Supreme Court is wrong. Okay, they’ve made a decision, but it’s the wrong decision.” And she continued to lecture and write about this, that women still, absolutely, have the right to vote; states had to just enable that legislation and just make it possible for women to vote.

Another thing that set her apart was her very outspoken views about divorce. Which, again, many suffrage activists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, supported liberalizing divorce laws that would help women who had gotten stuck in abusive marriages. So it’s not that suffragists didn’t believe in that, but Mary Walker was apparently very public and very blunt about her own divorce.

You know, she had been wearing trousers since she was a young woman. And this, to her, was the visual expression of her belief about women’s equality that women should be able to wear whatever they wanted. And in her case, this meant trousers. And going along with her belief in equality, was the belief that women should be able to choose what they want to do with their lives. But they’re just tired of listening to her. And she refuses to be silenced. So it does lead to this, in such a break, that if you were to read the official multi-volume history of the women’s suffrage movement, she was very consciously written out of it. She does appear mostly as lauding her work in the Civil War, but her beliefs about suffrage, all of that is just totally left out because Stanton and Anthony didn’t want her credited with her views.

Lauren: The idea of her persistence, across her life, you know, you can see it. She would not give back the medal, she would not give up the bloomer, she would not be quiet about her vocal discussion of divorce laws, and then she would not agree with the decision of the Supreme Court. So there’s a theme throughout her life that she is persistent in her beliefs, and she will not let anyone else deter her from what she believes. 

Later in her life, Mary Walker continued to lecture about equality for women, and write books about it. But she really had to cobble together a living because, due to her being a prisoner of war and her disability with her eyesight, she was no longer able to practice as a surgeon — and she did receive a pension from the government because of that disability, but it wasn’t enough to live on. So she continued to lecture across the United States and she was able to earn a living, but she had a fall one time when she was visiting Washington D.C., and she was sent back to her hometown of Oswego, where she eventually died in 1919. 

Even in her hometown, the views about Dr. Mary Walker and her progressive ideas were mixed. There were some people who really felt that she was a visionary, and there were some people who disagreed with her ideas. Even so, she was famous at the time. And people in her hometown knew right away that it was important to collect many of the objects and her writings and photographs. And so that’s part of the reason that the local town and county museums have so many of her items now on display, and for people to research.

George Demass also tells us how Mary Walker is being honored today.

George: The forts that are named after Confederate people — and not all were generals, in fact, a couple were not even in the Confederate Army — they are being renamed. There was a congressional renaming committee, and Fort A.P. Hill, which is about 40 miles north of Richmond, Virginia — it’s really a training fort — and it’s going to be renamed Fort Mary Walker. And this is the first fort that has been named after a woman. And then there was a press release from the U.S. Treasury and the U.S. Mint that Mary Walker will be one of the five women in 2024 to be on the quarter. This is a program, I think it’s a five year program. I think it was started in 2021, where there are five women a year that will be on the quarter.

One of several design options for the Dr. Mary Edwards Walker quarter.
See the rest at the US Mint’s Official Website

I was contacted for the Fort as well as the quarter, because I was the town historian, to find the nearest living relative of Mary Walker. They want to pass these things by the family. Mary Walker’s nearest relatives really would be in Washington state now — the great, great, great nieces and nephews. But what has really amazed me is the depth that they take to make sure everything is accurate. You know, I was asked, “Do you have any idea what hairstyle she had during the war?” Of course, we have pictures. And “What was the medical kit like?” Well, we have a couple of those. It wasn’t a regular doctor’s bag, but really a woman’s clutch purse that she carried. So, it’s been really humbling and an honor to work with the Mint on the design of the quarter.

I want to highlight — at the time she died in 1919, Mary Walker was great friends with another doctor in Chicago, a younger doctor, Dr. Betha Van Hoosen. After Mary Walker died, Dr. Van Hoosen wrote these words about her, and I think it’s very appropriate. She said, “Dr. Mary’s life should stand out to remind us that when people do not think as we do, do not dress as we do, and do not live as we do, that they are more than likely to be a half a century ahead of their time. And that we should have for them not ridicule, but reverence.”

And of course, she had a lot of ridicule. Growing up, I heard good stories, and I heard bad stories. They said she was loud, but she had to be loud. She was a woman, and in those days, women weren’t heard. And again, her ideas were so far ahead of the time. Her second book, written in 1878, is called Unmasked, or The Science of Immorality. There she deals with spousal abuse, child abuse, sexual abuse. She has diagrams of the male and female sexual organs, and in 1878 that was quite a step in the future there. And she couldn’t find a printer. So it’s interesting to see the people here now in the town of Oswego looking back on those days. And I tell some of my contemporaries, I say, “Well, if Mary Walker was still around today, many people still wouldn’t be agreeing with her.” Because, let’s just say, she was a visionary.

She sat in every president’s office from [Abraham] Lincoln through Woodrow Wilson. She befriended Queen Lili’uokalani, the last queen of Hawaii, and testified before the Senate that they should not annex Hawaii. So she stood up for that. A very, very colorful person, she was, and she just dreamed of justice for everybody.

Devin: I think Mary Walker lives what anyone would consider to be an extremely interesting and important life. I mean, she was a surgeon, when women were not surgeons, essentially. She was a war surgeon when women were not surgeons. She was a spy. And she went on to become a prominent suffragist, only to fall out with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and essentially be written out of their history of the suffrage movement. And of course, she’s to this day, the only woman to have ever won the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Lauren: Yes, Dr. Mary Walker really leaves behind a legacy of being a visionary and of persistence. We see a common thread throughout her life, that despite people telling her, “This is something you can’t wear, or you can’t be, or you can’t interpret,” she continues to hold on to her convictions, and she does make a difference. And we can attest to that today, with having a fort named after her, being chosen to be on a coin. And her story still persists, people know who she is. And through things like historical markers funded by the William G Pomeroy Foundation, and these other accolades that she is receiving (there’s also a wonderful statue of her in Oswego), we can continue to talk about the importance of education when you’re young, the importance of having ideals and sticking to those ideals — even when people tell you you can’t.

A New York Minute In History is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio, the New York State Museum, and Archivist Media, with support from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation. This episode was produced by Jesse Kingwith help from intern Elizabeth Urbanczyk. Our theme is “Begrudge” by Darby.