Skip to main content

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker Gets Hers… Back

April 2023
1min read

For thirty-five years, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker enjoyed her standing as the only woman ever to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor; then in 1917 they took it away from her; then in 1977 they gave it back. This was of little comfort to Dr. Walker, who died in 1919, but of more than a little to Anne Walker of Mt. Vernon, Virginia, a distant relative of Dr. Walker who campaigned for the reinstatement of the medal.

Dr. Walker had received the medal in 1865 for her work during the Civil War as the U.S. Army’s first female surgeon. The medal was recommended by Generals George H. Thomas and William T. Sherman, approved by President Lincoln, and presented to her by President Johnson after Lincoln’s death. She wore it proudly on many occasions.

Unfortunately, what she chose to wear it on was formal evening dress— men’s evening dress, including top hat and tails. For Dr. Walker was a militant feminist at a time when such a calling was not highly regarded by her male contemporaries. It may well be that male chauvinism was behind the loss of her medal.

In all fairness, it should be pointed out that Dr. Walker was not exactly singled out for special treatment. In 1917, the Adverse Action Medal of Honor Board, in the only massive award review ever held, disqualified 911 medals-including 864 received by members of a Maine infantry regiment through some clerk’s error. In Dr. Walker’s case, the board decided that her status with the Army had been ambiguous; Generals Thomas and Sherman might not have agreed, but they were not around in 1917 to argue the point.

At any rate, her medal was gone, and it was not until June 10, 1977, that Army Secretary Clifford Alexander, acting on the recommendation of the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records (which suggested that the earlier board “may have erred”), restored the medaland Dr. Walker’s place in history.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "December 1977"

Authored by: The Editors

A National Institution That Began With Buggies and Buckboards

Authored by: Stephen W. Sears

It was called “the most extraordinary and astounding adventure of the Civil War”

Authored by: Ray Allen Billington

Our Frontier Heritage of Waste

Authored by: Charles Mack

An American Success Story

Authored by: Hays Gorey

The Era of Hubert H. Humprey

Authored by: Bruce Catton


Authored by: James Thomas Flexner

The Unknown Alexander Hamilton

Authored by: The Editors

A Volunteer’s Eyewitness Account of the War With Spain

Authored by: C. W. Gusewelle

The Seasons of Man in the Ozarks

Featured Articles

The world’s most prominent actress risked her career by standing up to one of Hollywood’s mega-studios, proving that behind the beauty was also a very savvy businesswoman. 

Rarely has the full story been told about how a famed botanist, a pioneering female journalist, and First Lady Helen Taft battled reluctant bureaucrats to bring Japanese cherry trees to Washington. 

Often thought to have been a weak president, Carter was strong-willed in doing what he thought was right, regardless of expediency or the political fallout.

Why have thousands of U.S. banks failed over the years? The answers are in our history and politics.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.