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.