By Daniel Arkin
In 1916, a high-ranking U.S. military board revoked Medals of Honor from nearly 1,000 recipients, a move that sent shockwaves across the country as former service members suddenly found themselves stripped of their hard-won awards.
A former Army surgeon who had braved some of the most harrowing years of the Civil War was among the many veterans ordered to return their honors. But the physician, who was partial to wearing the glinting Medal with a top hat and bow tie, refused to part with the prize.
It was not the first time Mary Edwards Walker refused to play by the rules.
“She wore the Medal every day of her life, from the moment she received it to the day she died,” said Sharon Harris, author of “Dr. Mary Walker: An American Radical, 1832-1919” and a professor at the University of Connecticut.
Walker — the first and only woman to receive the Medal of Honor — was a tough, tenacious iconoclast who stood firm before her foes, be they Confederate soldiers or Army bureaucrats, Harris said.
An enemy of social convention
Walker had ruffled feathers from an early age, attracting jeers and insults as she walked the streets in men’s trousers and starched collared shirts, according to Harris.
“Boys chased her and threw rocks at her,” Harris said. “She once said that nobody would ever know what she had to go through just to step out the door each morning.”
And yet Walker was relentless. She pushed her way to a degree from Syracuse Medical College, the nation’s first medical school, and later set up an independent medical practice in Rome, N.Y., with a husband she later divorced after 13 years of unhappy matrimony.
She met her greatest challenge at the outbreak of the Civil War. As the republic broke on ideological fault lines, Walker descended on Washington, D.C., and demanded a spot in the Union Army. Her bid for a commission as a medical officer was rejected, but she volunteered anyway, earning a spot as an acting assistant surgeon — the first of her kind in the U.S. Army.
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