In researching this week’s Salute to Service, I wanted to find someone to recognize for March’s Women’s History Month. Women have served, sacrificed, and died protecting this great nation throughout all of U.S. history. So, I wondered, has there ever been a female Presidential Medal of Honor recipient? As it turns out, there was. Meet Dr. Mary E. Walker: She was the first and only woman to receive the Presidential Medal of Honor.
Dr. Walker tried to join the U.S. Army as a commissioned officer during the Civil War, but couldn’t because she was a woman. She then offered to serve without pay and provided medical help to those in need due to injuries during battle working in Washington, D.C. at the U.S. Patent Office. Determined to serve closer to where the action was and where her skills were needed, she eventually moved to Virginia during the fall of 1862 and worked as a battlefield physician. In 1863, however, her persistence finally paid off as she became the first female Assistant Surgeon in the U.S. Army and was attached to the 52nd Ohio Volunteers as a government contractor.
During her time with the U.S. Army, she treated the wounded at the Battles of Bull Run, Chickamauga, and Fredericksburg, for example. She even risked her life multiple times by crossing into enemy lines to treat the injured of both the Union and Confederate soldiers.
Unfortunately, she was eventually captured by the Confederacy and became a prisoner of war where she stayed at Castle Thunder prison in Richmond, Virginia for four months. Once she was finally released, Dr. Walker continued to serve as a surgeon for ten more months. Due to the poor conditions during her stay at Castle Thunder, her health suffered and unfortunately had to resign from her post as an Assistant Surgeon with the U.S. Army on June 15, 1865.
On November 11, 1865 and endorsed by Major Generals Thomas and Sherman, Dr. Mary E. Walker received the Presidential Medal of Honor for her, “Valuable service to the Government, and her efforts have been earnest and untiring in a variety of ways.”
Even though Dr. Walker wasn’t officially in the United States Army as a military officer, she stood by her comrades during battle by treating them physically, emotionally, and rightly deserves recognition as this week’s Regiment Salute to Service.
To hear more about her remarkable story, check out the video below.