Dr. Mary Walker, the Civil War, and Thanksgiving

Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor, was born on this day, November 26, in 1832. This year, 2020, the anniversary of her birth falls on Thanksgiving, a holiday in the United States that has ties to the Civil War.

Raised as a free thinker by parents who valued education for both boys and girls, Walker graduated from the Syracuse Medical College in 1855 and went into private practice.

Mary Walker
(National Museum of American History)

A few months after the Civil War started in 1861, Dr. Walker closed her practice and went to Washington, D.C. seeking a commission as a surgeon in the United States Army. She was denied that commission because she was a woman. So she volunteered in military hospitals, both in the capital and in the field.

As historian Heather Cox Richardson wrote in a recent installment of her “Letters From an American” series, “We celebrate Thanksgiving because of the Civil War.”* To mark recent victories in the war that would end slavery and to keep up morale–assuring people their sacrifices were not being made in vain–President Abraham Lincoln designated August 6, 1863 as a national day of thanksgiving. Magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale encouraged him to do so. Two months later, he issued a proclamation identifying the last Thursday in November for the 1864 observance. Lincoln assumed Americans would have as much to be thankful for then. The president wrote:

“In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.”

Dr. Mary Walker admired President Lincoln and she likely approved of his Thanksgiving plans. But she was too busy to mark holiday celebrations. The summer of 1863 found her first in Pennsylvania, providing medical care in the wake of the battle at Gettysburg. Then she and Dr. Hettie Painter traveled together through parts of Virginia, stopping at makeshift hospitals to offer their services. In November 1864, Dr. Walker was in Louisville, Kentucky, hired by the U.S. Army as the head of the medical department of the Female Military Prison there. She had already survived a stint in a Confederate military prison in Richmond, Virginia, but refused to stop working for the army until the war ended.

According to Richardson, “Lincoln established our national Thanksgiving to celebrate the survival of our democratic government.” Dr. Mary Walker would go on to honor that survival by working to secure women’s voting rights and bring the adult female population into a fuller participation in that democracy.

*This historical information about Lincoln and Thanksgiving comes from Richardson’s November 25, 2020 letter. For the full text of Lincoln’s proclamation, see http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/thanks.htm.

Well-Behaved Women….An Update About a Work in Progress

On Election Day, I’ve moved on to the penultimate chapter of my biography of Dale Evans. It’s going to be a real struggle to finish it by the end of the year. I always have trouble with deadlines because I can never convince myself a manuscript is quite ready. But I have to let it go at some point.

So I bought myself a treat yesterday, just a little something to keep me moving forward.

Dr. Mary Walker is on Storey Time

Recently I had the opportunity to talk with author Stephanie Storey about Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War. Stephanie writes gorgeous historical thrillers set in the art world.

She also likes to give other writers a boost with promoting their books. When the coronavirus hit, Stephanie, who produced national talk shows like Arsenio Hall, put that professional experience into launching a YouTube book talk show. Now, instead of heading out to your favorite bookstore to hear about a new book, you can settle into Storey Time on YouTube and listen to some fabulous conversations.

Here I am with Stephanie, talking about Mary Walker and about writing. I hope you take the time to watch. Then check out Stephanie’s books, too.

Storey Time

Dr. Mary Walker at the History Tavern

Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War has been out in the world for one month. Podcaster Nick Thony, who has written about upstate New York and the Civil War, interviewed me for his History Tavern a couple of weeks ago.

It was great to talk to Nick, who asked very insightful questions. Ironically, Dr. Walker may have objected to the tavern connection. She had strong opinions about everything, including the value of temperance.

You can listen to the interview here. And be sure to check out the rest of Nick’s interviews.

In the meantime, I’m contemplating what a History Tavern would look like.

Raise Your Glass!: Documenting Pittsburgh's "Watering Holes" | Blog

(Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center)

 

Tom and Jerry taking Blue Ruin after the spell is broke up

(George and I.R. Cruikshank, “Tom & Jerry taking Blue Ruin after the Spell is broke up” 1820, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne)

 

After the Book Launch

Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War launched on June 1. Thanks again to everyone who followed along on the Walker Wednesdays and to all of you who ordered the book or plan to do so.

Dr. Walker has been in the news recently, not a typical thing for someone who died in 1919. (It’s interesting to contemplate that she lived through the 1918 pandemic.) Over the last week or so, her name came up in connection with discussions about renaming military bases. (Some are named for Confederates.) Walker is certainly a long shot, but as the only woman to ever receive the Medal of Honor, it’s appropriate to consider honoring her this way.

Dr. Walker (photo courtesy of Library of Congress) (Library of Congress)

I’ve been booking virtual events about Mary Walker. I add them to the News and Events section on this blog as the details are firmed up, and I post reminders on Facebook and Twitter. Hopefully, you will find something to watch and/or listen to.

If you’d like to help spread the word about the book (and please, please, please do! this is so very important!), post a review of it on any and all book sites. In terms of real oomph for boosting the book’s profile, the more reviews on Amazon and Good Reads, the better. Otherwise, Mary Walker will end up like this:

MEW freezer

(Fans of Friends will especially get this.)

Stay safe and stay well.