Only woman to receive Medal of Honor celebrated at exhibit in Tennessee
By BEN BENTON | Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn. | Published: June 20, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — The only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor had it taken away more than a century ago just before she died, then posthumously restored by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 in a back-and-forth not unlike the pitched battles she waged on the front lines for equal rights.
The Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center in Chattanooga, beginning Saturday, will feature a new exhibit honoring the contributions of Dr. Mary Walker.
The exhibit recognizing Walker's life and accomplishments is fitting for a celebration of the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage, center officials said. The temporary exhibit will be on display June 20 to Oct. 19.
Dr. Walker – subject of the new exhibit titled "Dr. Mary Walker: Surgeon, Spy and Patriot" – was an unapologetic, groundbreaking civil rights activist who tested the status quo during the Civil War and afterward. She was captured and imprisoned as a Union spy and arrested for impersonating a man because of her attitude toward women's clothes.
"This exhibit tells an important story of a woman that few know but every American should learn about, as her story is relevant to the issues being discussed today in our community and across the nation," Heritage Center curator Molly Randolph said. "Dr. Mary Walker was a person who cared so deeply about our country and gave so much to make it better. She campaigned her whole life, often putting herself in harm's way, and ultimately she was vindicated in so many areas that helped to create lasting changes and equality for women in our country."
Standing by a work table filled with the last few items and informative panels for the temporary display about Walker, Randolph said Thursday that she wanted to "create an exhibit that would be all-encompassing in Dr. Mary Walker's life, one of the biggest exhibits about her anywhere, with the exception of Oswego, New York."
The special exhibit opening Saturday includes the medal that President Jimmy Carter returned to the family in 1977, according to the Heritage Center's executive director, Keith Hardison. Hardison said that, to his knowledge, the medal has never been displayed anywhere but the Pentagon's Military Women's Corridor exhibit until it came to Chattanooga.
Hardison said Walker embodies the six character traits shared by Medal of Honor recipients – "Patriotism," "Citizenship," "Courage," "Integrity," "Sacrifice" and "Commitment" – that are emblazoned above the different sections of the center's displays featuring recipients across more than a century of American military history.
Walker didn't wage her war with the establishment without cost, according to remarks she made reflecting on the price paid for her outspoken opinions and dress.
She had "never seen the day when it was not a trial to me to appear in public in a reform dress," Walker said later in life, referring to the garment she fashioned for herself to work in comfortably instead of the restrictive women's clothing common to the period.
Center officials say Walker, one of the first women to graduate from Syracuse Medical School, believed that in order for women to achieve their full potential and to gain equality with men, liberation from the confining garments of the day was a necessity.
At the time, women were expected to wear corsets – sometimes choosing to remove a rib to appear smaller – and up to six petticoats, which made it extremely difficult to move, according to the center's historical information on Walker.
Throughout her life, Walker was unrelenting about her right to wear pants and was arrested many times for impersonating a man. A judge would eventually order police never to arrest Walker on that charge again, center officials said.
In March 1864, Walker came to Tennessee to volunteer as an assistant surgeon for the U.S. Army in the aftermath of one of the bloodiest and most intense campaigns in the Civil War, and for a time, worked out of converted churches in and around Chattanooga, Randolph said. Treating the wounded meant grueling, long hours with up to 100 patients a night, and supplies were often very limited.
Randolph and Hardison said Walker did some of her spying while making doctor visits to homes around the community, giving herself a cover as she collected information on the Confederacy to relay to the Union. Those efforts eventually led to her arrest and imprisonment at the rat-infested Castle Thunder Prison in Richmond, Virginia, they said.
Walker's capture was fodder for much publicity and conversation, center officials said, noting that people who saw her "gawked at the 'lady physician in bloomers.'"
Confederate Capt. Benedict J. Semmes wrote, "This morning, we were all amused and disgusted too at the sight of a thing that nothing but the debased and depraved Yankee nations could produce, a female doctor," according to the center's historical information on Walker.
Often referred to as the "notorious surgeoness" of the 52nd Ohio Regulars, Walker gained a reputation for hardiness and defiance, and would demand that malnourished prisoners be fed wheat and fresh cabbage, according to center information. Walker was also known for writing letters to help secure pardons and releases for other prisoners.
Semmes noted Walker had "tongue enough for a regiment of men."
Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor for her courageous war efforts in late 1865.
But in 1917, the U.S. government changed the criteria for the Medal of Honor and withdrew Walker's medal – though she continued to wear it until her death at the age of 86. That medal remains at the museum in Walker's hometown in New York.
When it was posthumously restored 60 years later by President Carter, that was an unawarded Medal of Honor from the Civil War period and now it's the centerpiece of the new exhibit.
"I think what surprises me most about Dr. Mary Walker was her tireless energy," Randolph said. "After she received the Medal of Honor, Dr. Walker began this life of writing, speaking and campaigning for change on issues to improve the lives of women.
"It's kind of heartbreaking that she didn't get to see the impact of her life's work," she said. "Just one year after she died, women finally got the right to vote and attitudes about women's dress began to change radically. The 100th anniversary of women's suffrage was the perfect time to tell her amazing story."
Randolph – herself a descendent of Civil War-era Medal of Honor recipient John Mitchell Vanderslice – said she loves bringing amazing stories of valor, courage and sacrifice to life.
"The National Medal of Honor Heritage Center makes these stories jump off the page," Randolph said. "Our goal is to connect people with the personal stories of Medal of Honor recipients in a way that speaks to their lives and issues being discussed today."
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