The Medal of Honor is the US military’s highest decoration and recognizes those who have gone above and beyond the call of duty. There has been 3,495 Medal of Honor recipients since the first medal was awarded to Bernard J.D. Erwin in 1861. Only one of these recipients was a woman, however. Her name was Mary Edwards Walker.
Walker graduated with a medical degree from Syracuse Medical College in 1855 and went into private practice in the years leading up to the Civil War. At the beginning of the Civil War, she attempted to get a commission in the Union Army as a medical officer but was denied because she was a woman. She instead volunteered and earned a spot as an acting assistant surgeon, a position no woman had ever held in the US Army.
Walker moved to Virginia in 1862 and treated wounded soldiers in the field. In 1863, she was appointed as a War Department surgeon, which was a paid position. She had been on the front lines for almost two years when the Confederate Army captured her in 1864.
Walker was imprisoned in Richmond, Virginia, for four months before being released in exchange for captured Confederate medical officers. She was awarded the Medal of Honor on November 11, 1865, by President Andrew Johnson because of her care for sick and wounded soldiers in the field and hospitals that was considered a detriment to her own health. She also received it because of the hardships she endured while a prisoner of war.
Her medal was rescinded, however, when Congress changed the eligibility to be awarded the medal in 1917. Walker and 910 other recipients were ordered to return their medals because they didn’t fit the new criteria and were considered civilian employees and not a part of the armed forces. She refused to return the medal and wore it until her death in 1919. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter restored her medal posthumously.