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 Wednesday: Finale

It has been wonderful spending these past Wednesdays introducing you to Mary Walker. I hope you found the teasers enticing enough to read the book.

Epilogue: The Medal of Honor Restored

A somebody in her lifetime, Mary Walker was not forgotten after she died.

Photo of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker wearing her Medal of Honor

(public domain)

Though Mary Walker was stripped of her Medal of Honor (along with many others), she refused to acknowledge that and continued to wear the decoration throughout her life. Not long after she died, a quiet campaign began to have the medal restored. In the Epilogue, I show how timing was instrumental to that success.

I’ll resume this blog feature for my forthcoming biography of Dale Evans. It will re-emerge as Queen of the West Wednesdays. (I’ll let you know when it’s time to saddle up!)

Until then, I’ll continue posting about other interesting women in American history and about my reading adventures.

Stay safe and stay well.

 

Dr. Mary Walker Wednesday #10

We’ve reached the penultimate chapter of Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War. The book launches on Monday, June 1, and that is the day I will post the first line of the final chapter. Wednesday, June 3 will be the last Walker Wednesday, and it will cover the Epilogue.

Chapter Ten: Outcast and Erased

In the great divide of the women’s suffrage movement, Mary Walker took her own path.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony published The Revolution, a weekly women’s rights newspaper, from 1868-1872. Mary Walker did not always get along with the two women, but she certainly agreed with their paper’s slogan: “Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less.”

Stay safe and stay healthy.

 

 

Guest Post: Nancy B. Kennedy on Frances Willard

I am happy to welcome author Nancy B. Kennedy to the blog today. We share an interest in the women’s suffrage movement, and Nancy recently published a book for young readers called Women Win the Vote! It focuses on nineteen people involved in the passage of the 19th Amendment, so I thought she would be the perfect person to talk to about other women’s rights supporters of Dr. Mary Walker’s time. Here’s what Nancy had to say:

Would you think it frivolous if I talked about the fashion choices of the American suffragists? Well, a hundred and more years ago, clothing wasn’t a simple matter of personal style and taste. It was serious business that proscribed much about a woman’s life.

My friend Theresa Kaminski has written a book about Dr. Mary Walker, a Civil War surgeon who had a lot to say about clothing. In my book about the suffragists, Women Win the Vote! 19 for the 19th Amendment, I also had occasion to address women’s clothing.

In the time period we write about, women’s clothing was heavy and restrictive: petticoats and corsets, multi-layered bodices with long sleeves and high collars, heavy skirts that swept down to the floors. Women couldn’t even get a break at the beach, where they had to wear woolen stockings even to dip a toe in the water.

Fierce fashion from 19th century Puerto Rico | National Museum of ...

(Smithsonian)

Theresa’s Mary Walker (1832-1919) wore men’s clothing because of its comfort and appropriateness for her work as a doctor. In her time, women could be arrested for wearing men’s clothing, yet she persisted!

From the same time period, I write about Frances Willard (1839-1898), a suffragist and president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Hearing these credentials, you might think she was a battle-axe with strict rules for women’s lives. In fact, she was one of the most relaxed and relatable suffragists I encountered.

Frances Willard at 23

(Willard at 23, FrancesWillardHouse.org)

In her memoir, Frances Willard despairs over her 16th birthday — the day she calls her martyrdom. On that day, she had to abandon her child’s loose dresses and sturdy shoes and adopt the attire of a woman. To the petticoats, corsets and long skirts, she had to add ribboned bonnets and gloves. She had to grow out and pin up her hair — it took eighteen hairpins, she tells us.

Frances bemoans the restrictions that clothing imposed on women. She lists the articles of clothing women had to don just to go for a walk — a list so onerous that women rarely bothered. Some suffragists did try the so-called “bloomer costume,” a short dress worn over loose trousers, but they were so relentlessly ridiculed that they gave it up, fearing the controversy would hurt the suffrage cause.

Kean Collection / Getty Images

(Kean Collection)

Frances not only wanted freedom of movement, but also educational and financial freedom. “Girls should definitely be set at work after their school days end, even as boys are, to learn some bread-winning employment that will give them an independent status,” she wrote. She knew that dress reform would enable women to move comfortably in a world that until then had been organized around men.

Even when talking about the vote, Frances’s thoughts went to clothing. If women had the vote, she opined, they could enter politics as men did, “clad in the garments of power!”

Willard in the 1890s

(Willard in the 1890s, FrancesWillardHouse,org)

In her 50s, Frances learned how to ride a bicycle, an activity that was thought unseemly and unhealthy for women. On a bike, she could shed some of her hated clothing and whiz through the world as never before. She wrote a book about her experience, A Wheel Within a Wheel, that became a bestseller. Clearly, many women wanted freedoms that had long been denied them.

Frances Willard riding her bicycle, Gladys

(Willard on her bicycle, Gladys; FrancesWillardHouse.org)

Now back to Dr. Mary Walker. She persisted in wearing men’s clothing, even clapping top hats on her head. Unfortunately, suffragists weren’t happy about her choices, again fearing that their cause would be hurt by the outliers. Victoria Woodhull came under the same censure — her bohemian dress and unrestrained lifestyle caused a huge rift in the suffrage movement.

But as you follow the suffrage cause into the 1900s, you see hemlines inching upward. Petticoats  and corsets disappear — at least on the younger generation — dresses become loose and flowing, and feet are shod in more comfortable shoes that allowed women to march in suffrage parades and protests. Women, and therefore their causes, became visible to the world.

So you see, clothing was more than a matter of fashion — it was no less a matter than women claiming their place in the public and political life of our country.

Thanks to Nancy for this insight on fashion and suffrage. You can find out more about Nancy and her work on her website.

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.