Mary Edwards Walker Appointed First Female US Army Surgeon

September 20, 1863/2013
Volume 4, Issue 38 (154 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

Mary Todd Lincoln’s Brother-in Law, a Confederate, Killed at Chickamauga

Benjamin Hardin Helm

Benjamin Hardin Helm

September 22, 1863. “Lincoln’s sorrow at the bloody Union defeat [at the Battle of Chickamauga, in Georgia] was intensified by the death [there] of his wife’s brother-in-law, Confederate Brigadier General Ben Hardin Helm. Mary Lincoln wept privately but remained stoical in public; she hoped all her Confederate relatives would be killed, she told a friend: ‘They would kill my husband if they could, and destroy our Government — the dearest thing of all of us.'”


Geoffrey C. Ward, The Civil War, An Illustrated History, p. 256, 258

Mary Edwards Walker Appointed First Female US Army Surgeon, Later, Awarded the Medal of Honor

September 22, 1863. “Born in 1832 in Oswego, New York, Mary Edwards Walker graduated from Syracuse Medical College. When war broke out, she served initially as a nurse, but in September 1863, over the strong objections of male doctors, Walker was appointed assistant surgeon of the Fifty-Second Ohio Infantry Regiment, the first woman to be appointed to such a position.

Dr. Mary Walker, 1860-1870, courtesy Library of Congress

Dr. Mary Walker, 1860-1870, courtesy Library of Congress

Walker was known for looking after the wounded of both sides. She was captured by Confederate forces on April 10, 1864 after she had stopped to treat a wounded Confederate soldier, and she spent four months in a Confederate prison camp.

After the war, Walker wrote and lectured on behalf of temperance, women’s rights, health care, and dress reform; she wore men”s clothing and was arrested several times for impersonating a man.

Shortly after the end of the war, she became the first woman to be awarded the Medal of Honor, but in 1919, the Board of Medals revoked her award and that of 910 other individuals. The eighty-seven-year old physician said, “You can have it over my dead body.” (The medals did not have to be returned; the 911 names were simply deleted from the official list of recipients.) She died six days later, a year before the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed women the right to vote. She was buried in her black suit rather than a dress; an American flag was draped over her casket.

Note: Walker’s Medal of Honor was restored to her posthumously in 1977.


Phillips and A. Axelrod, My Brother’s Face, p. 112.

Editor’s Note: All entries were submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Executive Director, Vermont Humanities Council.

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Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1863

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