Doctor Mary Edwards Walker

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

The Civil War brought Syracuse Medical College graduate Mary Edwards Walker from her native New York to Washington, D.C. seeking military service as a physician. By 1863, after two years of persistence, she was attached to the 52nd Ohio Infantry as a contract surgeon – the first female to serve as such in the U.S. Army. Finding traditional ladies dress too confining for her work, Walker typically wore what she termed “bloomer” or “reform dress” - trousers underneath her knee-length dress with a tight waist and full skirt. Walker frequently crossed enemy lines to attend to the medical needs of nearby civilians. Ultimately, these actions led to her capture on April 10, 1864 by Confederate forces near Chattanooga, Tennessee. She was sent to Castle Thunder in Richmond.

“After four months’ imprisonment she was haggard, worn out, a wraith of skin and bones, having lost precious weight from her already small physique, and experiencing a recurring eye infection.” Her activist spirit, however, remained strong as she wrote a letter from prison to the editor of the Richmond Daily Dispatch demanding correction to an earlier printed statement about her being dressed in “male attire.” Dr. Walker left Richmond on August 12, 1864 as part of a prisoner exchange. She returned to medical service and continued to advocate for women’s rights. On November 11, 1865, President Andrew Johnson awarded Dr. Mary Edwards Walker the Medal of Honor for “Meritorious Service.” She remains the only woman to have received this honor.

Mary and Molly Bell

Mary and Molly Bell are examples of the roughly 400-750 women who disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War. These women served for the same reasons as their male companions: a thirst for adventure, the prospect of reliable wages, fervent patriotism, or a desire to share in their loved ones’ experiences.

Once their uncle left Virginia to fight for the Union, cousins Mary and Molly Bell donned Confederate uniforms and joined the fight to offset their uncle’s perceived disloyalty. At twenty-two years old, Molly assumed the identity of Bob Morgan while fifteen-year-old Mary became Tom Parker. By cutting their hair, wearing thick woolen shirts, deepening their voices and adopting male mannerisms, Mary and Molly served undetected in the Confederate army for two years. Their horsemanship skills learned on the farm gained them initial assignments in the cavalry. Mary and Molly soon switched to infantry, served in the Shenandoah Valley, and attained the ranks of corporal and sergeant respectively. Their charade ended when a young lieutenant reported them to General Early at the Battle of Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864.

The cousins were incarcerated and sent to Castle Thunder in Richmond. While Mary and Molly claimed they only enlisted in the army for patriotic reasons, General Early declared the women were prostitutes, or “camp followers.” Richmond newspapers even blamed these women soldiers for the failure of General Early’s 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign. After being held prisoners at Castle Thunder for nearly a month with no formal charges brought against them, Mary and Molly were released and returned to their home in Pulaski, Virginia, wearing their Confederate uniforms.

Last updated: September 27, 2017

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