Mary Edwards Walker
Above and Beyond
Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919) defied the conventions of her era. Born and raised on a farm in Oswego, New York, Walker became one of a handful of female physicians in the nation-and became a passionate believer in the rights of women.
Despite the derision of her contemporaries, Walker championed freedom of dress. She wore slacks--or "bloomers" as they were popularly known--rather than the corsets and voluminous ground-dragging petticoats and dresses she believed were unhygenic and injurious to health. She lectured and campaigned for woman's suffrage and for prohibition, and against tobacco, traditional male-dominated marriage vows, and any issue involving the sublimation of her sex.
From the outset of the Civil War, Walker volunteered her services as a physician. Despite almost universal opposition from army commanders and field surgeons, Walker served at Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Chickamauga, and other bloody theaters of the war. She ministered to wounded and maimed soldiers and civilians on both sides of the conflict. Captured by Confederates near Chattanooga in 1864, she served four months in a Southern prison hellhole where she nursed and tended to wounded prisoners of war.
For her services in the war, in 1865 Mary Edwards Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor, becoming the only woman in American history to receive the nation's highest award for military valor.
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A women's rights advocate, a Union spy and an "indefatigable foe of traditional female dress," Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919), one of the first female doctors in the United States, was a pioneer. In this compact entry in Forge's American Heroes series, Walker (The Calamity Papers) brings her many accomplishments to light. Unfortunately, while the doctor's history is fascinating-under the guise of a civilian contract surgeon, she spied for the Union, was imprisoned by the Confederate army for five months and was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1865-this brief, just-the-facts recounting doesn't hint at Walker's personality. As the author notes in his preface, Walker's voice is curiously missing from historical records and her own writings were perfunctory, presenting a challenge for any historian looking to capture the woman, not just her deeds. In an effort to make up for this lack, the author attempts to contextualize Walker's life, and often does so with great success. For example, the details of the famous John Brown trial and the political elections leading up to the Civil War shed light on her involvement with the anti-slavery movement; however, the book occasionally misses, drawing scant connections between historical anecdotes and Walker's life. Although this brief chronicle succeeds more as a textbook lesson than as a nuanced biography, it is nonetheless a thorough overview of one of history's most enigmatic heroines.