Ask Hamilton – The Bravest Surgeon in the Civil War

Dear Hamilton,

I’m learning more and more about local Civil War history from the Chattanooga Memory Project, and I was surprised to hear about a female surgeon who was in the thick of the battles surrounding Chattanooga. Can you tell me more about her?

Sincerely,
Surprised Searcher

Circa 1860, Dr. Mary Walker was typically seen wearing trousers with suspenders underneath a knee-length dress. She refused to wear typical women’s clothing, calling the voluminous skirts unhygienic (as they picked up dust and dirt) and the corsets injurious to health (as they bruised ribs and cut off circulation).  


 


Dear Surprised,

Why, certainly! You must be referring to Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. She was surely something! Well, she was many things – doctor, feminist, first female U.S. Army surgeon, suspected spy, prisoner of war, and the only woman (ever) to receive the U.S. Military’s highest distinction, the Medal of Honor, which she was awarded for her bravery in the Civil War. And, she did indeed serve on the front lines in Chattanooga!

Born in Oswego, New York, in 1832 to Alvah and Vesta Walker, Mary was given a progressive education for the time, allowed to work on the family farm wearing boys’ clothing, and encouraged to question the status quo. In 1855 at the age of 21, she graduated from Syracuse Medical College and was just the second female doctor in the nation at that time. She married Albert Miller in 1856, and the two set up a medical practice together –but it was unsuccessful. The public was not ready for a female physician.

When the Civil War broke out, Mary applied to be an army field surgeon but was denied and offered the post of nurse. She refused and began serving as an unpaid volunteer at the U.S. Patent Office Hospital in Washington D.C. and at the First Battle of Bull Run. She finally was awarded a position as a “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)” by the Army of the Cumberland in September 1863, which happened to be in Chattanooga. She was sent to assist in the aftermath of the Battle of Chickamauga, which, as many of you know, was the second costliest battle (behind Gettysburg) of the Civil War. When she arrived, she was met with 16,170 Union casualties and 18,454 Confederate casualties.

She continued caring for the wounded from the Battles for Chattanooga in November of 1863, and worked in the region until April 1864, often crossing enemy lines to care for sick women and children. Around this time, she was appointed Assistant Surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry by General George Thomas. Her brave service in Chattanooga had finally been recognized.

It was during one of her border crossings when she was captured by the Confederacy. She was imprisoned as a spy and spent four months tending to wounded prisoners of war in a Richmond prison. In August of 1864, she was released in a prisoner exchange for a Confederate surgeon.

After the war, Generals William T. Sherman and George Thomas recommended she receive the Medal of Honor, and on November 11, 1865, she was awarded the U.S. Military’s highest distinction for ‘acts of valor’ by President Andrew Johnson.

Interestingly, in 1917, Mary’s Medal of Honor was rescinded, along with 918 other medals, as the criteria tightened and civilians were deemed ineligible. She famously refused to return it and continued to wear it proudly until her death in 1919. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill to reinstate her medal, thanks to the efforts of her granddaughter.

I hope you have enjoyed this tale of Mary Walker and her brave service in the Battles for Chattanooga. It seems Chattanooga and Chattanooga’s place in the Civil War has many more stories out there for us to uncover!

Hope this helps!

Hamilton Bush,
Resident History Hound
Chattanooga, Tennessee

On several occasions, she was arrested for impersonating a man, as she would often wear men’s clothing, including a top hat. When she was buried, she was dressed in a black suit instead of a dress, and an American flag was draped over her casket.

 

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