Installation Renamings: The Story of Dr. Mary Walker, the Only Female Medal of Honor Recipient

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After more than 80 years under its previous name, Fort A.P. Hill is now Fort Walker.

The new name for the installation, which was established as an Army facility on June 11, 1941, six months before the United States’ entry into World War II, honors Dr. Mary Walker, a Civil War surgeon who is the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor.

Born Nov. 26, 1832, to abolitionist parents who supported the Underground Railroad, Walker followed their advice to pursue an education, and in 1855 graduated from Syracuse Medical College in New York as a medical doctor (she was influenced by her father in another way: He was a self-taught country doctor). She was the second woman in the United States to receive a medical degree.

She went into private practice, but struggled because many people refused to see a female doctor. She closed the practice after four years.

When the Civil War broke out, Walker attempted to enlist in the Army as a surgeon. She wasn’t allowed to because she was a woman. She didn’t want to be a nurse, so she volunteered for the Union Army.

Walker first volunteered at Indiana Hospital, a makeshift facility set up at the then-unfinished U.S. Patent Office in Washington, using her medical skills free of charge. She organized the Women’s Relief Organization, which helped families who came to visit wounded Soldiers.

In 1862, Walker worked at field hospitals throughout Virginia, saving many Soldiers’ lives and advocating for treatment of wounded limbs that, under existing practices, would otherwise have been automatically amputated.

Her medical credentials were accepted in 1863, when she was appointed a War Department surgeon, a paid position that was the equivalent of a lieutenant or captain. Some of the surgeons she had worked with supported her efforts to be accepted.

Walker treated the wounded at the Battle of Bull Run and other battles. She would cross enemy lines to treat wounded civilians and Confederate Soldiers. In April 1864, Confederate forces captured Walker, who became a prisoner of war for four months. She and other Union doctors were freed in a prisoner-of-war swap. Not long after being freed, Walker was assigned to work as medical director at a hospital for female prisoners in Kentucky.

In November 1865, President Andrew Johnson awarded Walker the Medal of Honor, even though she was a civilian who had never been a commissioned officer in the military. Johnson’s citation stated that Walker “has devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded Soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health.” Under existing laws, Walker could not be given an honorary rank because she had not been a commissioned officer, so Johnson awarded the Medal of Honor instead.

Because of her civilian status, Walker’s Medal of Honor was rescinded in 1917 (more than 900 men also had their medals rescinded). Walker would not return the medal, and wore it on her lapel until she died two years later. In 1977, at the recommendation of the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records, President Jimmy Carter restored the honor.

Walker defied the conventions of her time, and was an outspoken of women’s rights, including the right to wear clothing that was less restrictive than the corsets and layered skirts that were the current fashion. During the war, she wore what was known as a “Bloomer costume,” a dress-and-trouser combination that had long gone out of style. She was arrested several times for wearing men’s clothes, but said that she was given special permission by the government to dress that way.

In addition to the efforts of the Eastern Region, preparing the Fort Walker Exchange for the name change affected nearly every directorate, including IT, MD, FA, Corporate Communication and more. Located near Bowling Green, Va., the Fort Walker Exchange is part of the Fort Belvoir Exchange.

“The Exchange is privileged to be part of the recognition for such a unique figure in our nation’s history,” said Fort Belvoir General Manager Alex Mamaril. “Dr. Walker is a shining example of the perseverance and dedication that are hallmarks of America’s heroes. We look forward to serving those who serve at the installation that honors her name.”

For much more on Walker, you can view a video from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society here.

Sources: U.S. Army, Congressional Medal of Honor Society

 

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2 Comments

  1. Gayle L Middaugh on August 25, 2023 at 4:43 pm

    Great story!

  2. Anthony Tigner on August 26, 2023 at 11:43 am

    Well done Dr. Walker.

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