Dr Mary Edwards Walker: Army Physician, Feminist, Eccentric Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Dr Mary Edwards Walker: Army Physician, Feminist, Eccentric

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Mary Edwards Walker in a trouser suit, seated, wearing her medal

On 25 August, 2023, a ceremony of note took place at a US military installation near Bowling Green, Virginia. Fort AP Hill, a US Army training facility encompassing nearly 76,000 acres (approximately 300 km2) in Virginia, was renamed Fort Walker1. With this move, the army had completed its project of renaming all military facilities formerly named for officers of the Confederate States of America.

Speaking at the redesignation ceremony, army doctor Nadja West, former Surgeon General of the US Army, said, 'I know that if there was no Dr Walker, there would have been no Dr West.' Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919), a pioneer women's suffragist and abolitionist, would no doubt have been pleased at this tribute from an African American military doctor – but she would not have been surprised. She'd said, 'I will always be somebody.'

What Did Mary Walker Do in the War?

When the US Civil War broke out, Mary Edwards Walker was a practising physician in Rome, New York, fighting the prejudice of locals who didn't like female doctors, especially those who dressed in the Bloomer costume. She was also working on a divorce. Her husband, whose name she never took and whom she never vowed to obey, had turned out to be doing more than treating his lady patients. When he suggested an 'open marriage', she opened her own office above the Shelley Brothers' clothing store.

Realising the war meant a sudden need for surgeons, Dr Walker headed to Washington, DC in 1861. When nobody would hire her, she volunteered. The makeshift hospital in the Patent Office had the advantage of gaslight. She enjoyed being second in charge at the facility. She wasn't afraid to walk around the capital at night: she was armed with a pistol and once shot at an importunate young man who accosted her in an alley. This tiny woman, only five feet (152 cm) tall, was a force to be reckoned with – as the Confederates found out.

Beginning in the autumn of 1863, Dr Walker was working in Chattanooga, Tennessee, treating wounded from both sides and crossing enemy lines to visit civilians in need of her services. In April 1864, she was arrested by Confederate troops and thought to be a spy. She ended up spending four months as a prisoner of war in Richmond, Virginia, housed with others in a converted tobacco warehouse called Castle Thunder. One of her letters appeared in newspapers.

A later [sic] dated 'Castle Thunder,' Richmond, has been received by the mother of Miss Dr. Mary Walker, from which the following is an extract: 'I hope you are not grieving about me, because I am a prisoner of war. I am living in a three story brick castle, with plenty to eat, and a clean bed to sleep in. I have a room mate, a young lady about twenty years of age, from near Corinth, Mississippi, (Miss Martha Manus.) I am much happier than I might be in some relations of life where I might be envied by other ladies. The officers are gentlemanly and kind, and it will not be long before I am exchanged.'
–   Alexandria Gazette, 15 June, 1864

'Miss Dr Walker' was not very pleased when the local press reported that she wore 'male attire'. She sent in a correction to the Richmond Daily Dispatch:

Castle Thunder, Richmond, April 21st, 1864.
Editor of Richmond Dispatch:
Sir – Will you please correct the statement you made in this morning's Dispatch, in regard to my being 'dressed in male attire.' As such is not the case simple justice demands a correction.
I am attired in what is usually called the 'bloomer' or 'reform dress,' which is similar to other ladies', with the exception of its being shorter and more physiological than long dresses.

– 25 April, 1864

Dr Walker was exchanged after four months. She was pleased to note that she was exchanged for a major who was six feet (182 cm) tall. She went back to doctoring soldiers, but still failed to score a commission in spite of proving that she was worth at least a major. She met with President Lincoln and later wrote a letter to the Inspector General urging him to secure a commission for her.

I told the President of the risks I encountered in being taken prisoner on purpose and preventing their attacking our army when we were hardly able to act 'on the defensive'   – that I found them on general review and learned the fact of such an immediate intention & that I so fully followed my instructions what to say about our western army, that success crowned our efforts when we were ready, and recently my statements to Gen. Grant in relation to their moves if he continued operations around Petersburg – to say nothing about the thousand other matters.
– 23 September, 1864 (Gilder Lehrman Collection)

This letter tells us three things:

  1. Dr Walker met Abraham Lincoln.
  2. She wasn't intimidated by him (but then, nobody was) and was completely willing to 'blow her own horn' and, possibly exaggerate her role in things more than a little – a habit she kept all her life.
  3. She underlined for emphasis almost as much as Queen Victoria, who was a champion underliner.

Dr Walker was unsuccessful in persuading Lincoln to override the army doctors and give her a commission. However, she was hired as a 'contract surgeon' and given back pay of $432.36. She spent the rest of the war away from the front, supervising a women's prison hospital and an orphan asylum and attending to the needs of refugees.

In 1865, President Andrew Johnson signed the bill that granted Mary Edwards Walker the Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service2. She remains the only woman to have received this honour. She was proud of it and wore the medal in public for the rest of her life.

What Did Mary Walker Do After the War?

Mary Walker tried several careers after the war, none of which panned out. As a public speaker, she wasn't interesting enough to command large audiences on the lecture circuit. As a writer, she frustrated editors by her tendency to veer off-topic and air her own opinion of the moment. As a member of the women's suffrage movement, she was an embarrassment to the national leadership, almost all of whom had long ago given up wearing Bloomer dresses. In the 1880s, Dr Walker moved back to her family home in Oswego, New York, where she practised medicine and cared for her elderly parents.

When they died, she inherited the farm and spent the rest of her life annoying her neighbours and feuding with most of her family members. Oswegonians still told stories about the town's eccentric years after her passing.

  • The local doctors' association were horrified when she attended one of their meetings, but they found a way to get her to leave voluntarily: they all lit cigars or pipes. Dr Walker was staunchly Temperance and anti-tobacco.
  • A local woman once offered Dr Walker a glass of milk. She drank half and then said she'd 'save the rest for in the morning' – and then proceeded to stay overnight.
  • Her nieces adopted a circuitous route to school to avoid running into their unusual aunt.
  • Local boys played pranks on the doctor – such as rehitching her horse head-to-carriage while she was on a house call. (The horse must have been very patient.)

Dr Walker continued to have an interest in world affairs. Two years before her death, when the US entered the Great War – which she disapproved of – she sent a letter to Kaiser Wilhelm, inviting him to hold a peace conference with other international leaders at her farm in Oswego. Magnanimously, she offered to forego her opposition to smoking during this important time. (She had a 'No Smoking' sign in her parlour.)

Shortly before her death, Dr Walker offered her home to the town as a museum – dedicated to her life and work, of course. Inexplicably, the town turned down the gift. The farmhouse was destroyed by fire a few years later. She also posed for a photograph in her coffin, to see how she would look as a corpse.

It seemed as if Dr Walker wouldn't continue to be 'somebody', after all. But then the 21st Century came calling. The decision to change the names of the military bases offered a chance to honour a woman who, despite – or perhaps because of? – all her eccentricities, possessed the courage and determination to forge a path that has since shown the way to so many others.

Dr Walker, Medicine Woman

What was Mary Walker like as a doctor? Well, she did get credit for preventing a number of unnecessary amputations during the war. Civil War doctors were too quick to amputate, she insisted. Soldiers who recovered with limbs intact were grateful.

On the other hand, she was an anti-vaxxer: Mary Walker refused to be vaccinated against smallpox. She didn't believe in the germ theory. She had no problem with phrenology as a diagnostic method – her sister Aurora Borealis Walker Coates, with whom she was on the best of terms, was a popular phrenologist in their farm community. Dr Walker had no problem with seances, either.

Dr Walker's sex manual would make good horror reading for a Halloween night. [Trigger Warning: There are drawings.] For those brave enough, Unmasked: The Science of Immorality: To Gentlemen is available online from the Internet Archive. (Please do not try any of her 'tips' at home.)

Dr Walker's opinions on other matters can be learned from her 1870 book of essays, enigmatically entitled Hit. You can learn why she thought hoop skirts were bad for women's health (they were) and society as a whole. Also about marriage (needs reforming), divorce (she's all for it and it should be easier to get), tobacco (against!), Temperance (for!), and religion. When it comes to religion, it's hard to tell what Dr Walker thinks: she starts off promisingly enough to discuss the idea of a child's concept of the deity, but soon veers off course and ends up on her favourite topic, which is how evil men are in general. The book is highly entertaining.

If this Entry has whetted your appetite for more Mary Edwards Walker lore, we can only recommend the excellent 1962 biography by Charles McCool Snyder called Dr Mary Walker: The Little Lady in Pants3. This book has two advantages: it was written during the Civil War centenary years, when topics of interest were somewhat different from those of the 21st Century, and Professor Snyder was able to view family document sources, such as diaries and letters, as well as interview older Oswegonians who knew Dr Walker and her relations. It's a rich trove of anecdotal background.

1The US Army's website for Fort Walker describes the facility, which includes a 27,000-acre live fire complex, as 'Where America's Military Sharpens Its Combat Edge.' All branches of the US armed forces train on the installation. 2The Congressional Medal of Honor is the United States' highest award for military bravery in action. Between 5 March, 1863 (the first award) and 5 September, 2023, 3,525 medals were awarded, 618 of them posthumously.3In the US, 'pants' denotes 'trousers' and cannot be mistaken for a reference to undergarments. It is true that Dr Walker had recommendations regarding undergarments: see sketches in her book Unmasked.

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