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.

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)

 

Dr. Mary Walker Wednesday #9

A big thank you to everyone who has been dropping by every week to read these teasers, and some have been kind enough to leave messages about how much they are looking forward to reading the book. Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War launches on June 1. If you follow me on Facebook and/or belong to the Nonfiction Fans group there, you will start seeing more book promotion activity. Preorders are still important to raise the book’s visibility. You can do that through Bookshop and help local bookstores in the process!

Now, on to the main event.

Chapter Nine: Women’s Rights During Radical Reconstruction

Although Mary Walker proudly wore her Medal of Honor, she understood the award allowed the government to recognize her achievements without giving her the retroactive commission she desired.

Dr. Mary E. Walker wore her Medal of Honor around her neck for the rest of her life. (National Archives photo)

(National Archives)

This is my favorite photo of Walker. It captures her intensity and dedication; it signals her commitment to learning.

This was also one of my favorite chapters to research and write. Dr. Walker’s fight shifted from helping to save the Union to securing voting rights for women. Though it is easy to cheer her on for that, her views on race were not as laudable. You will be able to read more about that in Chapter Nine.

 

Dr. Mary Walker Wednesday #8

We’re closer to the end of Dr. Walker’s story than the beginning. Chapter Eight is the first one about her postwar life. Still a young woman at the conclusion of the Civil War, she had much to yet accomplish.

Chapter Eight: The Medal of Honor

The war may have ended, but not Dr. Mary Walker’s work.

Trinity Episcopal Parish | Clarksville, Tenn.

In Clarksville, Tennessee, she provided medical care for women. While attending services at the Trinity Church, Dr. Walker got into a dispute with its minister over issues of loyalty, a controversy that spilled into the community. During the months following the warm she considered various job opportunities as she struggled, physically and emotionally, with the transition to peacetime life.

At the end of August 1865, after receiving testimonials about Mary Walker’s accomplishments, President Andrew Johnson asked the secretary of war to find out “if there is any way in which or precedent by which” any recognition could be made of the doctor’s wartime service.

U.S Army Civil War Medal of Honor | Per Wikipedia: "The Meda… | Flickr

Learn how Edwin Stanton and Joseph Holt, the judge advocate general, decided how such recognition could be made–all in Chapter Eight.

Remember, Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War releases on June 1!

Stay safe and stay well. See you next week.