Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919) defied the conventions of her era. Born and raised on a farm in Oswego, New York, Walker became one of a handful of female physicians in the nation-and became a passionate believer in the rights of women.
Despite the derision of her contemporaries, Walker championed freedom of dress. She wore slacks--or "bloomers" as they were popularly known--rather than the corsets and voluminous ground-dragging petticoats and dresses she believed were unhygenic and injurious to health. She lectured and campaigned for woman's suffrage and for prohibition, and against tobacco, traditional male-dominated marriage vows, and any issue involving the sublimation of her sex.
From the outset of the Civil War, Walker volunteered her services as a physician. Despite almost universal opposition from army commanders and field surgeons, Walker served at Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Chickamauga, and other bloody theaters of the war. She ministered to wounded and maimed soldiers and civilians on both sides of the conflict. Captured by Confederates near Chattanooga in 1864, she served four months in a Southern prison hellhole where she nursed and tended to wounded prisoners of war.
For her services in the war, in 1865 Mary Edwards Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor, becoming the only woman in American history to receive the nation's highest award for military valor.
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About the Author
Dale L. Walker, a native of Decatur, Illinois, graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso in 1962 with a B.A. degree in journalism. A freelance writer since 1960 Walker specializes in pre-Civil War Western American history, military history, and biography and is author or editor of 21 books, 400 magazine articles, countless reviews, columns, literary studies, and short fiction.
He is a member of Texas Institute of Letters, a four-time winner of the Spur Award from Western Writers of America, Inc., and in 2000 received the Owen Wister Award for lifetime contributions to Western history and literature
Born in Illinois, the son of a career army sergeant, Dale L. Walker is a journalism graduate of the University of Texas at El Paso whose many books reflect his varied historical interests: military and Western history, 19th century "Golden Age" journalism, biography, and Jack London studies. Among his books are Januarius Macgahan: The Life and Times of an American War Correspondent; Legends and Lies: Great Mysteries of the American West; The Boys of '98: Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders; Bear Flag Rising: The Conquest of California; Pacific Destiny; and Eldorado: The California Gold Rush. He is a four-time winner of the Spur Award from Western Writers of America, the Owen Wister Award for life achievement in the history and literature of the American West, and many other awards, and is a member of the prestigious Texas Institute of Letters.
Walker, who lives in El Paso, Texas, with his wife of 43 years, Alice McCord, has been involved in virtually every aspect of the book business. He has served as a university press director, newspaper book page editor, magazine editor, fiction editor for Forge Books, book columnist and reviewer, and has written historical books, magazine articles, and fiction.
Read an Excerpt
Mary Edwards Walker
1Bunker Hill Farm1Long before the first white settlers arrived in Oswego, New York, on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario, in the mid-1600s, the Iroquois people had given it its name, a word meaning "pouring out place," referring to the point where the Oswego River emptied into the big lake. The settlers who broke the ground and built their homesteads along the river were followed by the ancient triumvirate of advancing civilization: Trade, Cross, and Flag. In 1775, fur traders made Oswego a port of call; missionaries came, seeking to Christianize the Indians; and British redcoats followed, building two forts at the mouth of the river and maintaining control of the strategic area three hundred miles northwest of New York City until 1796.In the first half of the nineteenth century, with the river crowded with packet boat and similar seagoing traffic, its shores bedecked with grain elevators and flour mills, the town boomed. Construction of the Oswego Canal, linking the Erie Canal with Lake Ontario, resulted in a heavy traffictransporting salt from Syracuse, grain from the Midwest, and all manner of products in and out of the tiny settlement. An inventive gentleman named Thomas Kingsford added a significant chapter to Oswego's development when he devised a method to extract starch from corn and built the world's largest starch factory in the town in 1848.12Oswego had a population of about three thousand when Mary Edwards Walker was born there on November 26, 1832, the fifth child of Alvah Walker and Vesta Whitcomb, who farmed a thirty-three-acre tract off Bunker Hill Road.Of Vesta Whitcomb Walker we know little except that she was a native of Greenwich, Massachusetts, born there in 1801, and traced her heritage from a long line of New Englanders. In a family connection of special interest in Mary Walker's story, Vesta was a cousin of Robert Green Ingersoll, the celebrated nineteenth-century lawyer, orator, and agnostic.He is worth noting further for he was a public figure, prominent in newspaper columns for his liberal views on religion, literature, and politics. Vesta certainly would have followed his controversial career and spoke of him, her famous cousin, in the Walker household. Ingersoll may have even paid the Walkers a visit in the course of his New York speaking engagements.Born in 1833, thus more than thirty years younger than Vesta Walker, Ingersoll came from Dresden, New York, on theshore of Seneca Lake, the son of a Congregational minister and fiery abolitionist. Robert rose to eminence as a lawyer in Illinois and later in Washington, and as a Civil War veteran known for his electrifying speeches on behalf of the party of Abraham Lincoln. From the end of the war to his death in 1899, in an era when oratory was a dominant form of entertainment (as Mary Walker would soon learn), Ingersoll became America's most eloquent public speaker, nonconformist thinker, and agnostic. A tall, high-domed, handsome figure, called "Royal Bob" by his admirers, he was a beloved friend of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other pioneers of the women's movement, and spoke movingly of the importance of family and the virtues of hearth and home. He thrived on theological controversy--he praised the Bible as literature but was a confirmed antireligionist, especially critical of fundamentalist Christianity--and to many among the religious orthodoxy he represented all the evils of atheism.If he visited his cousin Vesta in the Walker home after the Civil War, he would have shared his war stories and progressive ideas with Mary and her parents, especially her free-thinking father.3Alvah Walker, who traced his ancestry to a Plymouth Colony settler who came to America in 1643, was born in Greenwich, Massachusetts, in 1798. An itinerant carpenter as a young man, he traveled and worked framing and shingling houses in New York State, Pittsburgh, Boston, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana. By 1821, according to the pioneering research into Walker's youth by Professor Charles M. Snyder, Alvahvisited the New Orleans battlefield where Andrew Jackson defeated the British six years before, and saw cannonball marks on trees and the unearthed bones of the combatants.Mary, when she made a brief attempt to compose an autobiography after the Civil War, added a bit to the Walker family history, writing,My great-grandfather, who was in the army long before the Revolutionary War and whose name is on the Record of the State of Massachusetts as Jessie Snow of Hardwich, Mass., kept a daily journal, portions of which, with the date on nearly every page, is still in existence. He was also a Revolutionary soldier and suffered the hardships of those trying times.Jessie Snow's daily journal-keeping was a habit Alvah Walker emulated, Mary said, keeping such a daily record from about the age of ten and continuing it "up to the time of his death which was upon his eighty-second birthday." He urged all his children to keep such a record and Mary did so sporadically, to improve her writing, but, as she wrote later, neither she nor her sisters "kept up their daily journal for any great length of time."Alvah Walker was about twenty-four when he returned from his travels to Boston and there met twenty-year-old Vesta Whitcomb. They married in 1822 and settled first in Syracuse where he worked at his carpentry and apparently also became attracted to farming. During the decade they lived in the Syracuse area, the Walker family grew to six with the birth of four daughters, all given vaguely Latin, celestial,names: Vesta (born in 1823), Aurora (1825), Luna (1827), and Cynthia (1828). The fifth child, Mary Edwards (1832)--the middle name honoring a Walker aunt in Massachusetts--was born shortly after Alvah sold their Syracuse home and settled on the Bunker Hill farmland in Oswego. There, too, in 1833, a son, Alvah Jr., was born.Father Walker was intelligent and industrious. He cleared the Bunker Hill land and built a home, barn, and the town's first schoolhouse on the property. Later, when the Oswego district opened a school, he converted his to a "mechanic's shop" where he made doors, sashes, coffins, and whatever cabinetry work came his way, and served as general handyman to his neighbors. With a family of eight to support, Alvah was never able to pay off the mortgage on the farm but the family prospered intellectually if not economically. He read up on medicine, became a self-taught country doctor, an outspoken foe of liquor and tobacco, a churchgoing Christian who claimed to have read the entire Bible six times yet remained free of dogmatic ideas. He was curious, studied the heavens and nature, followed the news, tinkered, fixed, and invented.Like his grandfather Snow, Alvah kept a daily journal but filled it with mundane notices of work done: "Trim apple tree"; "Chop wood"; "Skinned a calf"; "Fix the well"; "Cleaned cistern," "72 years old, went to city got a file, kerosene"; "Went to hear a Mormon preach, twice"; "Read the Tribune"; "My mare had a foal today." He scarcely mentioned his family, nor did he record his ideas, impressions of the news he read, least of all his innermost thoughts.A steadfast Yankee abolitionist, his farm served as a "station" in the Underground Railroad system that assisted southernslaves to freedom--many of whom were conveyed to western New York and into Canada. And, perhaps because of the influence of his forebears, Alvah's education (about which nothing is known), as well as his naturally curious and inventive nature, some of his ideas were those of a freethinker. In the nineteenth century, this was synonymous with skeptic and, as with Robert Ingersoll, agnostic, but in Alvah's case, it signified independence of mind and what came to be called progressive.One of his many egalitarian ideas had a lifelong effect on his fifth child. Since all the daughters were expected to perform a man's work on the farm, he forbade them to wear corsets or any tight-fitting clothing, believing such garments impeded the circulation of the blood.4Mary's education began among the books in her father's farmhouse and in the one-room school conducted by Alvah, Vesta, and the older sisters on the family farm. There is also a vague reference to her attending a nearby seminary where she received instruction in mathematics, philosophy, grammar, and hygiene--enough education in all so that in 1852 she was hired to teach school in the village of Minetto, five miles south of Oswego.While her sisters were content to teach, and her brother Alvah Jr., to farm (and perform as magician and ventriloquist in regional puppet shows), Mary had other plans. She had pored over her father's medical texts, watched him "doctor" sick and injured farmhands, even assisted him in his primitive farmhouse medical practice, and was determined to save her minuscule teacher's salary and find a place to study medicine.Copyright © 2005 by Dale L. Walker
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