In 1916, the Board of Medal Awards, concerned that too many Medal of Honor awards were given away too expediently, reviewed all previous Medals of Honor given out before World War I.
The review would end with nearly 1,000 medals taken away, many from veterans who had had their medals for a half-century. The recipients were ordered to return the medals to the board, and told that wearing a medal unearned was a crime.
Included in this group was Dr. Mary Walker, an Oswego resident who served as the only acting assistant surgeon of her gender during the Civil War.
Walker, 85-years-old at the time, did not take the ruling lying down. She countered with an impassioned defense of her medal and refused to return it. She wore the medal, despite what anyone in Washington D.C. had to say, every day until her death three years later.
The medal was eventually restored by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 after lobbying done by Walker’s ancestors, 58 years after her death. To this day, she is the only woman to receive the honor.
That Walker never got to see the day her honor was restored is in line with her legacy. As a woman ahead of her time, her efforts were rarely recognized as they occurred.
“I have to die before people will know who I am and what I have done,” Walker once said. “It is a shame that people who lead reforms in this world are not appreciated until after they are dead.”
Walker’s words were prophetic, as she would not live to see the extent of her influence on Oswego and the rest of the country.
“When you enter the town now you see the signs ‘Home of Dr. Mary Walker,’” said George DeMass, the president of the Oswego Town Historical Society. “Well, she’d be flabbergasted.”
A life of activism
While not the first woman to practice medicine, she was among the first ever practitioners. And while she was not the first woman to abandon traditional dress, Dr. Walker was one of the most vocal advocates of dress reform for women, lecturing around the U.S. and even in England.
She was also one of Oswego’s most well-known personalities during the nineteenth century, though she was often known more for her eccentricities than her beliefs.
“She had to be very forceful in getting some of the things that she believed in and fought for,” DeMass said. “So the neighbors back then would think ‘oh, she’s really eccentric,’ and so forth, and she wouldn’t wear the corsets and the dresses, because they weren’t healthy, and so most of them just didn’t really understand her.”
Walker was born on Bunker Hill Road in the town of Oswego in 1832. The youngest of four sisters, Walker often did the boys’ work on the farm.
Walker’s parents were non-conformists in their time as well. They believed in educating women and were against the corsets and bustles of women’s clothing at the time.
While trying to treat himself for a lengthy-illness, Walker’s father, Alvah, purchased several medical treatises. Mary Walker read each, and later entered Syracuse Medical College in 1855.
After receiving her degree, she opened a practice in Columbus, Ohio. The public was not receptive to a woman as a physician, however, and her practice did not last. She returned to Oswego after five years and married former classmate Dr. Albert Miller, though she kept her last name. They opened a practice together in Rome, N.Y., but two years later the two separated.
The Civil War was a breakthrough for Walker, providing ample opportunity to practice medicine. She went right to the front door of the Surgeon General to apply for a position as an acting surgeon, but was denied. She even wrote to President Abraham Lincoln, who replied to her, but said he was unable to intervene. With her first application rejected, Walker volunteered to assist in a Washington Patent’s Office hospital, and eventually earned a contract to serve as an acting surgeon.
She treated sick and wounded troops at Chickamauga and in Georgia during the Battle of Atlanta. It is also widely believed that Walker served in some capacity as a spy for the north.
Confederate troops captured Walker in April of 1864 and held her for four months before she was exchanged for a prisoner of equal rank.
President Andrew Johnson signed a citation recommending Walker for the Medal of Honor the next year. The document cited her hardship as a prisoner of war and the way that 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.”
Even after the highest military honor had been pinned to her, the transition to post-war life for Walker was not made any easier. She opened a practice in Washington D.C., but without many clients to fill her time, focused more on championing women’s issues. She fought for pensions, including her own, for women who served as nurses in the Civil War.
Walker would eventually become well-known in the capitol, constantly campaigning for women’s rights issues.
“They knew her in Washington, and I’m sure to some of the senators it was like ‘oh no, here she comes again,” DeMass said. “But, you look back now, and everything she did wouldn’t be questioned at all today.”
DeMass said his favorite story about Walker is that, after becoming acquainted with Liliuokalani, the last queen of Hawaii, she went in front of Senate and argued against the annexation of Hawaii.
Walker also got involved with the Woman’s Suffrage Movement, sharing podiums with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Walker, however, differed from the movement’s leaders in that she did not want an amendment passed. She believed a woman’s right to vote was inherent in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution and that women could put pressure on the government by showing up to voting booths in numbers.
For this difference in opinion, Walker was mostly shunned from the movement, denied admittance to councils and unable to speak at events. She actually testified in Congress against the Nineteenth Amendment. As phrased by historian Charles M. Snyder in his book “Oswego: From Buckskin to Bustles,” Walker was “unwilling to concede to men the prerogative of deciding whether women might vote!”
Though Walker became more eccentric in her later years, dressing almost entirely in male attire, DeMass said he hopes she is remembered more for her bravery in the Civil War and efforts in the women’s rights movement than for her different manner of dressing.
“Toward the later years, she was eccentric,” DeMass said. “But I’m finding, as we get older, we all become eccentric in different ways.”
DeMass, who first learned of Walker at 9 years old when his grandmother took him to the Richardson-Bates House history museum to see a collection of her things, said he thinks people today are aware of her significance.
“Growing up, I knew people who were elderly who did remember her as a kid, and they told funny stories,” DeMass said. “But even then, once in a while, you’d find some who said, yes she was strange in some ways, but you knew that she was on the ball and doing the right things.”
DeMass said one of the photos of Walker that he enjoys most is from her post-war days in Oswego. A photographer from Century Magazine came to Walker’s home on Bunker Hill Road to photograph her for a feature that would run in the magazine. In one of the photos, Walker is in her living room with her arm around a patient’s neck, pulling out a tooth.
“And then there hangs Dr. Mary’s medal,” DeMass said. “She was wearing it even as she pulled the tooth.”
Walker’s influence today
Walker’s name is a constant presence in Oswego today. As DeMass noted, her name is the first things visitors read driving into town and the health center on campus is named after her.
“I know that when I came to work here, I learned about her, just because she was a very special person,” Liz Burns, nurse practitioner and director of Mary Walker Health Center, said.
Burns described Walker as a “lady before her time.”
“I certainly admire her,” Burns said. “I’m a feminist myself, and just realizing the times and history and women weren’t allowed to vote, and here she was a physician, and there’s certain things she wasn’t allowed to do because she was a woman. And how awful it was that she got the medal taken away, but then Jimmy Carter gave it back. But even during those times, just being on the battlefield like she did.”
The U.S. Postal Service created a stamp in Walker’s honor in 1982, and there are buildings named after her in Michigan, Washington D.C., California and Pennsylvania. During World War II, a liberty ship, the SS Mary Walker, was named in her honor.
Her most recent recognition was the creation of a statue in her honor in front of the Oswego town hall. The statue was unveiled in May 2012 after a nine-year campaign by the Oswego Town Historical Society to raise the $55,000 necessary to create the statue.
The statue, created by Syracuse artist Sharon BuMann, shows Walker standing in front of a podium with her dress blowing in the wind. Walker is pointing with her right arm to the Medal of Honor clipped to her jacket.
On the podium is Walker’s quote about it being a shame people who lead reforms are not appreciated before they die.
But read further into the quote, and it’s clear Walker understood that, though the world she lived in may not have understood her value, one day everyone would.
“I would be thankful if people would treat me decently now instead of erecting great piles of stone over me after I am dead,” Walker continued. “But then, that’s human nature.”