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No doubt the Civil War was a dark time in America’s History. However, like most dark times in history, heroes are b often times born during these hard times. There were larger than life heroes, men like Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Robert E. Lee, and women like Clara Barton and Harriet Tubman. But, there were also lesser known heroes that while not a popular or published about, were amazing as well. One such hero was Mary Edwards Walker, a civil war nurse and later surgeon, who may have very well been born before her time.
Mary was born in November of 1832 in Oswego, New York (Biography 1). Her own father was a doctor and always believed that his daughters, all five of them, deserved to have the same education as the men of their time (Biography). He even felt that his daughters need not dress like the majority of women, but that women’s fashion was too restricting and let them dress in more manly clothes. This totally went against the customs of the time, but neither father nor daughter seemed to care.
Mary decided to attend Syracuse Medical College in 1853. It was one of America’s first medical schools and one of the few in the country that would allow women to attend. Mary graduated as a doctor in 1855 when she was only twenty-one years old! She and her husband tried to set up a practice in Rome, New York, but because people couldn’t seem to want to see a female doctor, it eventually closed its doors.
In 1861 the Civil War broke out, tearing the country in two. Mary immediately wanted to contribute to the cause (Infoplease 1). She enlisted on the Union side, but they would not allow her to be an army surgeon even though she was more than qualified (Biography 1).
This didn’t deter her though, she volunteered instead as an assistant surgeon at the U.S. Paton Office Hospital in Washington (Biography).
She didn’t stay there long, so she was transferred to the front lines and she worked as a field surgeon right alongside with male doctors. It didn’t take long for her to be recognized for her excellent work, and in 1863 she became an assistant surgeon of the Army of the Cumberland (Biography). She was the first female army surgeon ever, quite an honor during that time in history.
In 1864 Confederate troops captured her and sent her to prison claiming she was a spy (Wikipedia 1). To this day, no one knows if she actually was a spy or not, but after four months she was released when the two sides agreed to trade twenty-four Union doctors for seventeen Confederate doctors(Biography 1). She was known for being very happy that she had been exchanged “man for man” during that trade (Biography). She took great pride in being compared to her male contemporaries.
In November of 1865, Mary received a great privilege, the Congressional Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service. This was the one and only time before or since that this medal was given to a woman, and one of only a few medals given to civilians (Wikipedia 1). She was extremely proud of it and wore it every day until the day she died (Biography). She did so even though it was taken away from her in 1917 when Congress changed their standards to make it so that only those that actually fought in battle could receive the award. In 1977 this decision was reversed and her medal status was reinstated, however, she had died long before knowing it was given back to her (Biography).
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was a true hero. Not only because of what she did in helping the Union soldiers in the Civil War, it was also in paving the way for all the women following her that want to be doctors or any other profession that were originally all male. She also broke fashion norms, not to stand out or to prove a point, but because that was how she felt comfortable and happy. She was true, a hero before her time.
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