by Miguel Ortiz
In 2024, the U.S. Mint will issue quarters featuring five prominent American women. This run, the third year of the American Women Quarters Program, includes Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. She was an abolitionist, surgeon, prisoner of war and the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor.
Walker poses for a photo wearing her Medal of Honor (Library of Congress)
On November 26, 1832, Walker was born in Oswego, New York. The youngest of seven children, the entire family worked on a farm. Walker’s parents encouraged independence and instilled a strong sense of justice in their children. At an early age, Walker showed an interest in medicine and read her father’s books on anatomy and physiology in her free time.
Walker taught school in Minetto, New York, until she saved enough money to attend medical school. In 1855, she graduated from Syracuse Medical College with honors as the only woman in her class. Later that year, she married a classmate named Albert Miller. Walker kept her last name and the couple started a joint practice in Rome, New York. However, female doctors were not trusted or accepted at the time and the practice did not do well. Walker and Miller later divorced in 1869.
Walker served as the Army's first female surgeon (Public Domain)
When the Civil War broke out, Walker volunteered to serve as a surgeon in the Union Army. Despite her years of experience in private practice, Walker was rejected for being a woman. She was offered a military position as a nurse which she declined. Insisting on serving, Walker volunteered as a civilian surgeon. With no female surgeons, military or civilian, the army initially restricted her to nurse duties.
At the beginning of the war, Walker served as a nurse at the First Battle of Bull Run and a hospital in Washington, D.C. She later served as the Union Army’s first female surgeon, albeit unpaid, near the front line including the Battle of Fredericksburg and the Battle of Chickamauga. Walker wore men’s clothing, citing that it was easier to perform her duties compared to traditional women's clothing at the time.
Walker after the war c. 1870 (Public Domain)
In September 1862, Walker volunteered her services as a Union spy. While her offer was declined, the following year, Walker was employed as a civilian “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon” for the Army of the Cumberland. This made her the first female surgeon employed by the U.S. Army Surgeon. Later in the war, Walker was appointed assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry Regiment.
On April 10, 1864, after assisting a Confederate doctor in performing an amputation, Walker was captured by Confederate troops. She was arrested as a spy and held at the Castle Thunder prison in Richmond, Virginia. During her time as a prisoner, Walker refused to wear the female clothes provided to her. On August 12, 1864, she was released in exchange for a Confederate surgeon.
Walker was known for wearing men's clothing (Library of Congress)
After the war, Walker received a disability pension for a partial muscular atrophy that she developed during her time as a POW. She became a writer and lecturer, championing temperance, healthcare and women’s rights, among other issues. Walker was frequently arrested for wearing men’s clothing.
Seeking to validate her service during the war, Walker lobbied for a retroactive brevet or commission. President Andrew Johnson directed Secretary of War Andrew Stanton to look into the matter. The Army Judge Advocate General determined that there was precedent for commissioning a woman. Instead, it was recommended that a commendatory acknowledgment could be issued instead of a commission. Dissatisfied, Johnson personally awarded Walker the Medal of Honor on November 11, 1865, which we proudly wore until her death in 1919.
The back of the coin depicts the Medal of Honor and Dr. Walker wearing her medal while holding her pocket surgical kit (U.S. Mint)
From 1916-1917, the Army’s Medal of Honor Board struck 911 names from the Army Medal of Honor Roll for ineligibility. Among these recipients were Walker and Buffalo Bill Cody. Walker was removed because of her civilian status during her service. Major General Leonard Wood, who also served as a civilian surgeon when recommended for the award, was not removed from the Roll. It wasn’t until 1977, at the recommendation of the Board for Correction of Military Records, that the Army's Assistant Secretary for Manpower and Reserve Affairs posthumously restored Walker’s Medal of Honor.