Dr. Mary Walker Wednesday #7

Last week, we saw hints of a very dramatic and traumatic time in Dr. Walker’s life. This week, as the Civil War moves through its final months, we get a glimpse of how she picked up the pieces.

Chapter Seven: Surgeon in Charge

The newly released prisoner returned to Washington, DC, with only a set of well-worn clothes on her back.

Union Prisoners, Andersonville

(A.J. Riddle photo, 1864, New-York Historical Society)

This is a photo of the infamous Andersonville prison, officially known as Camp Sumter, located in southwest Georgia. Mary Walker had the good fortune never to step foot inside. About 45,000 Union soldiers were held prisoner there, and close to 13,000 died, mostly because of malnutrition.

Read more about prisoners of war in the forthcoming Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War.

Until next week, stay safe and well, as always.


Dr. Mary Walker Wednesday #6

Today marks the halfway point of the Dr. Walker Wednesdays. Last week, we found her tirelessly working in Washington, D.C. and in the field with Union troops. This week, we see a dramatic turn as a result of her time in the field.

Chapter Six: Union Spy

At the beginning of 1864, Dr. Mary Walker immersed herself in women-led organizations.

(Dept. of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of Rochester Libraries)

One was the Women’s Loyal National League (or Women’s National Loyal League), organized in 1863 by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who were suffragists and abolitionists.

As the chapter title indicates, Dr. Walker also engaged in some risky activities while she was away from the nation’s capital tending to sick and wounded soldiers:

On her way back to Lee and Gordon’s Mills on April 10, 1864, a few of Confederate general Daniel Harvey Hill’s soldiers, weapons drawn, detained Dr. Mary Walker.

A photograph of Daniel Harvey Hill in confederate uniform. Image from the University of Arkansas.

(Gen. Hill, University of Arkansas photo)

What was Dr. Walker doing there? What did the Confederate soldiers do with her? The rest of that story is in Chapter Six.

Until next week, stay safe and stay healthy.


Dr. Mary Walker Wednesday #4

This is the fourth in my Dr. Mary Walker Wednesdays series. Each week I’ll post the first sentence of a new chapter, along with an image (or two) that relates to material in the chapter. This week features Dr. Walker’s medical work in the field, caring for sick and wounded soldiers. Since this first sentence is short, I’ve included a couple extra.

Chapter Four: Field Surgeon

Dr. Mary Walker still could not secure a commission.

[In November 1862, she decided General Ambrose Burnside’s sick and wounded men at Warrenton, Virginia, needed help, so she went.]

Carrying with her a blank book for keeping track of the names of patients, Dr. Walker found some men on the floor of an old house, many suffering the effects of typhoid.

(General Burnside and staff at Warrenton, 1862)

[In December] Dr. Mary Walker volunteered at Lacy House in Falmouth, a behind-the-lines station where soldiers received treatment before being sent on to Washington.

(Smithsonian Institution)


Dr. Mary Walker Wednesday #3 (plus a little bonus)

This is the third in my Dr. Mary Walker Wednesdays series. Each week I’ll post the first sentence of a new chapter, along with an image (or two) that relates to material in the chapter. This week features Walker’s medical work in the nation’s capital. And since we’re all thinking a lot about containing the spread of disease, I’ve added some bonus content from the book that explains how Americans dealt with this during the Civil War.

Chapter Three: Volunteer Surgeon

Dismissed by the secretary of war, Dr. Mary Walker searched Washington, DC, for a position at one of the new military hospitals.

(both images from the Smithsonian Institution)

Dr. Walker volunteered her services at the Indiana Hospital, situated inside the US Patent Office Building. One of her primary responsibilities was to perform pre-admittance examinations of patients to make sure they did not have smallpox. “Patients were daily brought in ambulances to the west sidewalk of the Patent Office Building,” she later wrote. Dr. Green, the physician in charge, would send for her “to come down and examine the cases so that no cases of possible smallpox might be taken up there” to the hospital ward.

A viral infection, smallpox spread through face-to-face contact via coughing and sneezing. Fever and body aches were followed by a red rash in the mouth and on the tongue, culminating in a pustule rash on the rest of the body. Three out of every ten people who caught it usually died. A successful vaccination had been developed, but it was not widely used in the early 1800s. During the Civil War, desperate soldiers fashioned their own vaccine, taking pus from an afflicted compatriot and scratching it into their skin. Their limited knowledge made this a high-risk proposition.

Doctors like Mary Walker managed to contain smallpox during the war. Pure, unadulterated vaccines reached enough soldiers to prevent an epidemic, but not enough to eradicate the disease. Quarantine, the primary method Walker relied on, also helped to stem the contagion.

Next week’s entry will provide a glimpse of some of Mary Walker’s other wartime activities.

Stay safe and stay healthy.


Happy Birthday to Dr. Mary Walker

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the only female recipient of the Medal of Honor, was born on November 26, 1832, in Oswego, New York.

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was born in the town of Oswego in 1832. She served as a surgeon in the Civil War before being captured crossing enemy lines to treat wounded civilians. She was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for her valor; the only woman in history to receive the distinction. She devoted her life to social causes, becoming a prominent writer and lecturer and advocating for the abolition of slavery as well as promoting women's suffrage and dress reform. Image courtesy of the Matthew Brady Collection of Civil War Photographs in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.(National Archives)

She grew up believing in abolition and women’s rights. During a time when most medical schools refused to admit women, Mary Walker found one that did–the Syracuse Medical College–and graduated in 1855.

In 1861, not long after the start of the Civil War, Dr. Walker shuttered her private practice in Rome, New York, and traveled to Washington, D.C., where she requested a commission as an assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army. Denied because of her gender, Walker volunteered, working at hospitals in the capital city as well as in the field. In 1865, President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor for her services as a physician during the war.

Mary Walker was a controversial figure. Not only had she chosen a “man’s profession,” she also adopted reform dress. Commonly known as the Bloomer costume, Dr. Walker wore trousers under a shortened skirt. She was arrested several times for wearing “men’s clothing” in public yet she never gave up her bloomers. It was a woman’s right, she believed, to wear what she wanted and to do the kind of work she wanted.

A prolific writer and public speaker, Dr. Mary Walker campaigned for women’s voting rights after the Civil War. She died in 1919, the year before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.

The details of her extraordinary life can be found in my forthcoming book, Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War, available for preorder now.