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Women Soldiers in the American Civil War

Mary Edwards Walker, who became the first, and still only, women to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor. Walker never led a conventional life. First, she became a doctor in the period before the American Civil War, when few women were even credentialed in nursing. Second, she also divorced her husband, an act most women feared and most men denounced because women in her era were primarily defined by their roles as wives and mothers. Walker also often wore men's clothes, and advocated that other women should do the same. She lectured on women's rights and challenged medical practices.

After Walker graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855, the Union Army initially denied her a commission. She persevered, however, and was eventually commissioned as an assistant surgeon in the 52nd Ohio Infantry. Walker often had cause to cross into Confederate territory to treat civilians, and, like Newcom, eventually became a spy for the Union. The Confederate Army took her prisoner in 1864 and imprisoned her in Richmond for four months until they exchanged her and two dozen other Union doctors for 17 Confederate surgeons. In his citation awarding her the Medal of Honor, President Andrew Johnson stated that Walker "has 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, and has also endured hardships as a prisoner of war four months in a Southern prison while acting as contract surgeon." However, despite this quality of service, Walker was paid a monthly pension for her service lower than that of most war widows. Moreover, in an attempt to make the Congressional Medal more valuable, Congress changed retroactively the criteria for the award and rescinded Walker's medal. Walker refused to return the medal, and continued to wear it. Finally, in 1977, President Carter restored her award of the medal.


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Women Soldiers in the American Civil War. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 18:34, July 20, 2017, from
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