Medal of Honor Recipients of the Civil War: Doctor Mary E. Walker

On Saturday, April 20, 2024, at 1:00 pm, The National Civil War Museum will present a one-woman play called INDEPENDENCE: The True Story of Dr. Mary Walker. Starring Kathie Barnes as Dr. Mary Walker, it was written and directed by Lloyd J. Schwartz, and produced by Tina Dwyer. This play is free and open to the public.

Who was Dr. Mary Walker?

Mary Walker was born in 1832 in Oswego, New York. Her parents stressed education and defiance of traditional social norms. This upbringing led Mary to attend medical school at Syracuse Medical College, which allowed female students. After graduating with a degree in medicine in 1855 she set up a private practice in Rome, New York. In addition to her practice, Dr. Walker was also involved in social reform.

Dr. Mary Walker

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Dr. Walker went south to aid the Union Army working in temporary hospitals set up near the front lines. She was assigned duty as a contract surgeon attached to the 52nd Ohio Infantry to assist the regimental surgeon. Never one to shy away from danger, Dr. Walker was eventually captured while assisting a Confederate surgeon behind enemy lines. She was sent to Castle Thunder in Richmond, Virginia as a spy. She spent four months there before being released. During her time with the Army, she insisted on an unusual dress for the time. Feeling that a traditional woman’s clothing would get in the way of her work, she opted for the less restrictive male style of trousers and even an Army jacket on occasion. Her unorthodox ways caused a good deal of friction with her coworkers, but the men she helped to save under the most extreme conditions on the front lines, knew her worth.

Castle Thunder in Richmond, VA

By the end of the war, Dr. Walker’s exploits behind enemy lines saving many lives became well known. With the recommendation of top officials and President Andrew Johnson Doctor Mary E. Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor on November 11, 1865. She remains the only woman to ever receive the nation’s highest military honor.

Dr. Mary Walker with Medal of Honor

After the war, she continued to practice medicine and was active in women’s suffrage. Though often pressured to conform, she continued to dress in men’s clothing for the remainder of her life. In 1916 the Army Medal of Honor Board struck Dr. Walker’s name from the list of Medal of Honor recipients due to her civilian status. President Jimmy Carter reinstated her medal in 1977. And, in August 2023, Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia was renamed Fort Walker in her honor.

Fort Walker in Virginia

Discover more about the rich history of the Civil War and explore our museum’s exhibits further by visiting our home page here.