A Story of Sacrifice, Lest We Forget 


the ‘Sawbones Suffragette’

By Hannah Hottenstein | Historical images courtesy of the Library of Congress

The ongoing legacy of compassionate and resolve of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker—the only female Civil War surgeon and sole female recipient of the Medal of Honor

The ongoing legacy of compassionate and resolve of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker—the only female Civil War surgeon and sole female recipient of the Medal of Honor

Mary E. Walker, M.D.,once famously said, “Let the generations know that women in uniform also guaranteed their freedom.” She rightly wanted the bravery and sacrifice of every American who served during the Civil War to be remembered, men and women alike.

Men have long been associated with stories of Civil War bravery and sacrifice. However, men only made up half the population of the United States—then and now—which inevitably leaves a lingering curiosity about the role of women at the time. 

What part did they play in this country’s generationally altering event? Where were they during the battles and afterward? Women’s contributions during the Civil War didn’t merely begin and end with nursing, as many may tend to believe. There’s so much more to the story.

Women were also doctors, soldiers, and spies; sometimes, they took on multiple roles simultaneously, much like modern-day women. Where there were needs in their communities during this difficult time, women often stepped in to fill the gaps.

Dr. Mary E. Walker is an excellent example of the balanced and true patriotism—and compassionate zeal—women had for their country and fellow countrymen and women during this time. She was the only female surgeon’s assistant contracted by the Union Army, a spy, a prisoner of war, a suffragette, and an abolitionist. She eventually became the only female recipient of the Medal of Honor, which is still valid today. 

Looking into her story can give us insight into the long and sometimes dangerous road our ancestors, like Dr. Walker, resolutely paved toward greater equality and freedom for all who live in this land.

Early Life & Education

Dr. Walker was born on November 26, 1832, in Oswego, New York. She began making waves early on in life as the fifth daughter of Alvah and Vesta Witcomb Walker, both of whom strongly encouraged independence and free thinking for their children. Her unique values began showing at an early age when she began denying the traditional women’s garb of dresses and skirts and instead embodying her early feminist values by donning bloomers, an early iteration of modern-day pants. 

In a recent live recorded discussion between Laurel S. Lipshutz, M.D., a living historian of the Civil War era, and John Lustrea, the director of education at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland, Dr. Lipshutz discussed this choice of clothing further. 

“She took her father’s idea that how women were dressed was unhealthy,” she says. Dr. Lipshutz believes that the constricting clothing women wore then, from corsets to narrow shoes, and how even their hair had to be pulled back tightly, brought 19th-century women much discomfort. Dr. Lipshutz adds, “How women were dressed during the Civil War didn’t allow them equality to men … And so [Dr. Walker] said women could never be free, they could never be equal, dressed like that.” 

Young Adulthood & Postgraduate Years

The Walker family thought highly of education, so they started the first free school in Oswego and encouraged all their children to pursue higher education—no matter their gender. After she spent time at the Falley Seminary in Fulton, New York, Walker became a teacher in Minetto. However, she had already set her sights on being a doctor. 

In 1855, Walker graduated as the only woman in her class from Syracuse Medical College, making her the second female to graduate from the institution after Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D., the first woman in the United States to earn a Doctor of Medicine degree. 

The War Begins

When the Civil War began in 1861, Dr. Walker, 29, didn’t hesitate to offer her medical services to the war efforts toward the cause. She traveled to Washington, D.C. to seek a commission.

Upon her arrival to apply as an Army surgeon, Dr. Walker was met with uncertainty by the Medical Department, who fervently turned her away. This didn’t deter her in any way, so she stayed in D.C. to volunteer her time in various camps around the area. Continuing her unpaid service, Dr. Walker volunteered her surgeon skills at a new hospital, which had once served as the patent office. At this time, she also established an organization to bring aid to women in the Washington area who were there visiting wounded relatives.

Dr. Walker was wearing many hats, which would continue to be a common theme throughout her life. Continuing her push to be recognized as the surgeon she was, she came to some sort of revelation and ditched her bloomers to wear modified men’s attire instead. However, she purposely kept her hair long, encouraging her patients and colleagues to remain fully aware that she was still, in fact, a woman. In fall 1862, Dr. Walker finally was taken on as a field surgeon by Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, though still in an unpaid volunteer capacity. 

The Battle of Gettysburg

In summer 1863, Dr. Walker’s whereabouts were uncertain; however, separate accounts placed her in several local areas, including traveling around Gettysburg.  Barbara Franco, former founding director emerita of the Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum, recalls Frederick Law Olmstead, a prominent abolitionist and general secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, writing about Dr. Walker in a letter to another member of the commission. In that July 15, 1863, letter, Olmstead wrote “…the hermaphrodite medico, Dr. Mary E. Walker MD… is on the warpath, as one of ours describes her.” Outdated language aside, for Franco, this is definitive proof that Walker spent a large amount of time in the Gettysburg area during this period.

First Female U.S. Army Surgeon

Another account, a journal entry from a Virginian surgeon on September 4, 1863, mentions Dr. Walker coming through his camp. Franco believes she was heading back south to join the Army of the Potomac. By the late summer or early fall, Dr. Walker was in Chattanooga, assisting those in need from the Battle of Chickamauga. Shortly after this battle ended, she again applied to be an army doctor and was finally granted the position of assistant surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland by MG George H. Thomas in September 1863. 

She continued working under the 52nd Ohio Regiment and was praised for her service. Dr. Lipshutz mentions that, at this time, Dr. Walker had also applied to be a spy with the War Department and the Pinkertons, a private detective agency. Both turned her away. 

Captured as a Spy, Kept as a Prisoner of War

By April 1864, Dr. Walker was captured by the Confederate Army in Tennessee. It is believed by some that she was purposefully captured to act on her ambitions to be a spy for the Union; however, this idea remains in dispute.

She was held in the women’s ward at the infamous Castle Thunder Military Prison in Richmond, Virginia, as a prisoner of war. Dr. Walker was captured and arrested for being a spy, and her non-traditional clothing worked against her, further proving her occupation within the Union Army. She moved around to several prisons before her release in August 1864 in exchange for a Confederate surgeon who also held the title of captain. This was quite an honor, according to Dr. Lipshutz, as
Dr. Walker held no title herself. 

“When she left the Confederate prison, she lost about half of her vision. She got a muscle infection and wasn’t able to see very well after that,” Dr. Lipshutz says. “Initially, she supposedly only weighed about 100 pounds. Allegedly after her time in the prison, she only weighed like 60 pounds because she didn’t eat for four months.” 

Unfortunately, the disabilities she acquired during her imprisonment would eventually lead to the end of her career as a surgeon, and she retired from service in June 1865.

Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient

After her release, Dr. Walker was immediately summoned to Washington, D.C., by President Abraham Lincoln to discuss her imprisonment. Not long after, in October of that same year, the Medical Department granted her the position of acting assistant army surgeon. She requested battlefield duties, but they were not granted to her, and she served the rest of the Civil War as the superintendent at a female prison hospital in Louisville, Tennessee, and at an orphanage in Clarksville, Tennessee. 

At the war’s end, Dr. Walker pushed for the title of “Major” for her wartime efforts; she was again denied. However, President Andrew Jackson gave her a Medal of Honor in January 1866, an incredible and unusual act of recognition of how she “devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health. She has also endured hardships as a prisoner of war for four months in a Southern prison.”

In 1917, the criteria changed for recipients of the Medal of Honor, and Dr. Walker, along with many others,
were stricken from the list. Although she no longer officially was a Medal of Honor recipient, she continued to wear the medal for the rest of her life. 

In 1919, at the age of 86, Dr. Walker passed away from illness.
In 1977, her great-niece worked to have the honor reinstated, and President Jimmy Carter obliged. Dr. Walker remains the sole female recipient of a Congressional Medal of Honor to this day. 

Gettysburg Women in Medicine

Although Dr. Walker was the only female surgeon during the war, she was not the only woman in the medical field. Franco and Peter Miele, the executive director at the Seminary Ridge Museum and Education Center of Gettysburg, explain that many women involved in the medical field then did so because medicine was the family business. “If you were married to a doctor, you were going on calls with him and making deliveries as well as many other things … Some of them, even if they didn’t go to medical school, probably had some very good medical background,” says Miele.

Miele points out that women were often nurses. “They helped with the relief efforts, and it was always in reaction to what men were doing. Historians and men of the time often recounted women’s efforts in a cursory, after-the-fact manner, such as, ‘…and women were here too,’” he says. “More and more, we are seeing that these women have more historical agency.” Meaningfully contributing to the war effort and rebuilding their communities added to this agency.

People like Dr.  Walker showed their peers and fellow countrymen by example that women were more than capable of ‘taking the reins’ and proving their abilities when the need arose.

Stories that Must Be Told

Others who tirelessly performed much-needed medical service during the war were women like Cornelia Hancock, the youngest Civil War nurse; Dorothea Dix, the Union Army’s head of nurses; and Georgia McClellan, who became a Union nurse in Washington, D.C. after her sister, Jennie Wade, became the only civilian killed during the Battle of Gettysburg, are three more examples of women who stepped in to help their community. McClellan and many other women offered crucial help even amid profound personal tragedy. 

Some other extraordinary women who didn’t have a medical background but should be rightfully mentioned include Lydia Hamilton Smith, who collected donations—including her own life savings—to assist field hospitals at the time. Elizabeth Thorn is another brave soul, the wife of the keeper of Evergreen Cemetery, where 105 soldiers were buried, and Marie Tepe, who herself served as a Union soldier and fought in 13 battles during the war.

These women’s stories, and many others, are shared by Patricia “Patty” Hawthorn, a local guide who currently gives The Women of Gettysburg tour and talks about 16  Gettysburg women at the time of the Civil War. The 45-minute tour involves a pleasant walk through downtown Gettysburg as Hawthorn regales with stories and shares moving insights about these women—their struggles and triumphs—during and after the battle.

Women’s Lasting Legacy of Service

By taking on these traditional “male” roles, the women of the era set into motion ripples through history, culminating in more equal opportunities, including voting rights and employment prospects that women had never been granted previously. This brought attention to women in ways men had overlooked, but now recognize just how vital and capable women are in all aspects of society. 

Dr. Lipshutz reflects on Dr. Walker’s work, both on the battlefield and off, as a suffragette. “I think she is more relevant than ever. I think women have had to fight to be equal forever. We have made progress. We’ve continued to work on it,” she says. “And I think we have to learn from [the]Mary Walkers that we can’t be laid back about it, that we have to take charge, we’re going to have to fight, we’re going to need to be ‘put down’ about it. 

“In our present time, we’re going back to questioning all the things that maybe we have won along the line in terms of reproductive rights, and I think overall, the equality of women,” she continues.
Dr. Lipshutz believes strongly that “we need to learn from our history, or history gets repeated,” and that in “our present time right now, it is just critically important for all of us to take a little bit of Mary Walker inside of us and be a little more like her.” 

What would that practice look like? Well, Dr. Mary E. Walker, like many of her brave, forward-thinking peers in her day, resolutely believed that everyone deserved the right to be free and to be treated equally. As she was sometimes called, this “Sawbones Suffragette” doctor—a valiant, determined, pragmatic, intelligent, and compassionate rebel—worked tirelessly throughout her life toward this very goal. 

We have much we can learn from Dr. Walker’s life and work. We cannot forget where we have come from as a country, how much more work needs to be done yet, and how vital equality is for everyone. 

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About Author

Hannah Hottenstein

Hannah Hottenstein is an experienced technical writer specializing in content about emerging tech, personal finance, entrepreneurship, and psychology. She’s also a small business owner, a classically trained artist, an avid home cook and recipe tester, a gadget enthusiast, and an ardent AI lover. After living in Colorado for 3 years, she has recently returned to Adams County to set down new roots.

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