September 20, 1863, brought the end of the Battle of Chickamauga in northwest Georgia, some of the hardest fighting of the Civil War. As Union casualties streamed into Chattanooga, Tennessee, many soldiers were surprised to find that the doctor tending their wounds was a woman dressed in gold-striped trousers, a green surgeon’s sash, and a straw hat with an ostrich feather.
Mary Edwards Walker had graduated from Syracuse Medical College eight years earlier, becoming one of America’s first female doctors. That was unusual enough, but Walker set herself even further apart by refusing to wear long, heavy dresses, opting instead for pants. She was born to break molds. When the Civil War began, she volunteered to serve as a doctor. The Army wasn’t sure what to make of her, but doctors were in short supply, and she was soon working near Union lines as a volunteer field surgeon. She requested a commission as an officer but was turned down since she was a woman. She went on volunteering, treating both soldiers and civilians. In April 1864 she was captured and spent four months in a Richmond prison until exchanged for a Confederate officer.
After the war the Army awarded Dr. Walker the Medal of Honor in recognition of her service. To Walker, the medal represented the recognition she had so long wanted. She was outraged when, in 1916, the Army decided to rescind more than 900 medals as undeserved – including hers, because she had never officially been in the Army. Walker refused to return her award. On the contrary, she proudly wore it every day for the rest of her life.
In 1977 the Army restored Mary Edwards Walker’s medal on the grounds that, had she been a man, she would have been commissioned as an officer. She remains the sole female recipient of the Medal of Honor.