NPR : News

She Was The Only Woman To Get The Medal Of Honor

In all of American history, only one woman has been awarded the Medal of Honor — and Congress tried to take it back.

Her name was Mary Edwards Walker, and she was a doctor at a time when female physicians were rare. She graduated from the Syracuse Medical College, and at the outbreak of the Civil War traveled to Washington with the intention of joining the Army as a medical officer. When she was rejected, she volunteered as a surgeon and served in that capacity for various units through the war years, continually agitating for a commission.

Walker was captured by the Confederate Army in April 1864 and held for a few months at Castle Thunder prison near Richmond, Va. Finally, that October, she was given a commission as acting assistant surgeon, the first female physician in the U.S. Army.

President Andrew Johnson signed a bill awarding Walker the Medal of Honor in 1865, because she "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."

She continued to practice medicine after the war, and took up the cause of women's rights with a passion. Walker had long preferred to wear men's clothing, and was even arrested several times for "masquerading" as a man.

In 1917, Congress changed the criteria for awarding the Medal of Honor, restricting it to those who had engaged in actual combat with an enemy. Hundreds of medals, including Walker's, were rescinded. She refused to return hers, however, and wore it proudly until her death in 1919.

Fifty-eight years later, President Jimmy Carter reinstated Walker's Medal of Honor, recognizing her "distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

National Museum of African American History Opens Its Doors

More than 100 years after it was originally proposed, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is opening its doors in Washington, D.C.
NPR

While Everyone Was Partying At Woodstock, I Was Stuck At Schrafft's

The chain restaurant that catered to women helped redefine how Americans eat, according to a new book. For NPR's Lynn Neary, it also defined how she did and didn't fit with the counterculture.
NPR

Newspaper Endorsements Matter Most When They're Unexpected

The New York Times endorsed Hillary Clinton on Saturday, but an endorsement that came the day before from a smaller paper may matter more to its readers, for the simple fact that it was unexpected.
NPR

As Our Jobs Are Automated, Some Say We'll Need A Guaranteed Basic Income

How will the economy provide economic opportunities if employers need fewer workers in the future? A growing number of people in Silicon Valley are saying the only realistic answer is a basic income.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.