By Liam Nolan
The Medal of Honour (often erroneously called the Congressional Medal of Honour) is awarded by the President of the United States “in the name of the U.S. Congress.” It is its country’s highest and most prestigious military decoration.
It is awarded for (and this is the official language): “Conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.”
Over 3,500 Medals of Honour have been awarded since the first one in 1863. In all the time since then, one, and one only, has been awarded to a woman. That was in 1865, and they tried to take it back from her in 1917 — but she wouldn’t give it! She refused. So they revoked it.
But she still held onto it, and wore it constantly, right up to the day she died two years later, in 1919.
Eventually, in 1977, the Medal of Honour was restored posthumously to Dr Mary Edwards Walker, and it resides now in the museum in the town where she was born.
That town, where she became the fifth daughter of Alvah and Vesta Whitcolm Walker, was Oswego, a city in north-central New York, about 35 miles north of Syracuse. Its name comes from the Iroquois tribal language. It translates as ‘the pouring out place’.
Mary Walker and her four sisters became teachers, but Mary left the profession at the end of her teen years and enrolled in Syracuse Medical College. After qualifying as a doctor she married another physician, Albert Miller, and they moved to Rome, New York, to set up in private practice. Theirs was a very short lived marriage.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861 Mary went to Washington and volunteered to join the Union effort as a doctor. Because she was a woman, they turned her down. They offered her, instead, a job as a volunteer nurse. She accepted, and worked for a short while in a temporary hospital in the capital.
But what she really wanted to do was use her knowledge, training and expertise in providing medical care for the wounded soldiers on the battlefield.