Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.5, RH.6-8.8, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.3, SL.6-8.1, SL.6-8.2, SL.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.1

C3 (D2/6-8): Civ.2, Civ.6, Eco.1, Eco.2, Eco.6, Eco.9, Geo.4, His.1, His.4, His.5

NCSS: Time, continuity, and change; Culture

Enjoy this free article courtesy of Junior Scholastic, the Social Studies classroom magazine for grades 6–8.

Mary Walker’s War

Armed with courage and determination, Mary Edwards Walker made history in 1863 when she became the first female surgeon in the U.S. military

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker proudly wears her Congressional Medal of Honor.


*Caleb March, *Emily Withers, people in Oswego, New York

*Josie Withers, Emily’s daughter

Mary Edwards Walker

Alvah Walker, Mary’s father

Vesta Walker, Mary’s mother

Albert Miller, a medical student

*Belle Brady, *Jack Hexam, people in Columbus, Ohio

*Clerk, at a U.S. Army office

Confederate soldier

Narrators A-E

*Indicates a fictional or composite character. All others were real people.


Narrator A: It didn’t bother Mary Edwards Walker that people often turned up their noses at her or called her strange. She held her head high through many tough battles in her fight for gender equality—and won more than she lost.

Narrator B: Walker’s struggles may seem hard to imagine today, when girls and women can go to school, become doctors, and join the military—not to mention wear pants instead of skirts. But in her day, Walker was considered odd—if not downright insane—because she did all those things and more.

Scene 1

Narrator C: Mary Edwards Walker is born in Oswego, New York, in 1832. Her parents have a farm there. But the Walkers are no ordinary farm family.

Caleb March: That Walker clan is a strange bunch. Even with all the farmwork that needs to be done, they pile the kids into that school­house Alvah built instead of having them do chores.

Emily Withers: Book learning is fine for their boy. But educating their five girls is a waste of time. The only thing they need to learn is how to be good wives and mothers!

Josie Withers: But Mama, Mary says she’s going to be a doctor.

March (laughing): Goodness, child, that’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. Everybody knows there’s no such thing as a lady doctor!

Narrator D: That was true then—but not for long. In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell becomes the first American woman to earn a medical degree. Young Mary, determined to be a doctor herself, is thrilled by Blackwell’s achievement.

Mary Edwards Walker: Doctor Mary Edwards Walker. Doesn’t that sound grand?

Alvah Walker: It does indeed. But your mother and I can’t afford to send you to medical school.

Mary Walker: I know. That’s why I’m going to start by teaching school and saving every penny.

Vesta Walker: It won’t be easy, Mary. People will turn away from you, laugh at you, call you names—

Mary Walker: Let them! I don’t care what other people think. I’m going to be a doctor, and that’s that.

Scene 2

Narrator E: Medical schools turn down her applications, but Walker keeps trying. Finally, she’s accepted at Syracuse Medical College in New York. In December 1853, she begins her studies. She faces many obsta­cles, including jeers, pranks, and cold shoulders from male class­mates and instructors. But one day . . .

Albert Miller: Excuse me, miss. I’m one of your classmates. I’d just like to say that I admire what you’re doing. Ignore those bigots.

Walker: Don’t worry, I do. If they want to be foolish, it doesn’t bother me. I’m here to learn.

Narrator A: Learn she does, and she earns her medical degree. In 1855, she becomes Dr. Mary Edwards Walker at last.

Narrator B: Walker then sets up a private practice in Columbus, Ohio. But few people are willing to trust a female doctor. Those who do balk when she insists on being paid the same as a male doctor.

Belle Brady: Who does that Walker woman think she is?

Jack Hexam: She sure is strange. She goes out in public wearing those baggy trousers that Mrs. Amelia Bloomer promotes for women.

Brady: People call them bloomers!

Hexam: We’ll soon be rid of her though. She’s moving to Rome, New York, and getting married.

Brady (amazed): Really? Who’d marry someone like her?

Scene 3

Narrator C: Albert Miller would—and does. But Walker stuns him (and even her own family) by showing up for her wedding dressed in trousers and a long dress coat. She also insists on keeping her own last name—something very few women do at that time.

Narrator D: Walker and Miller share a medical practice. Some people allow Walker to treat them. But after a few years, her outspoken­ness and insistence on wearing pants alienate the patients and her husband. Eventually, she and Miller split up.

Narrator E: In 1861, the U.S. is ripped apart by the Civil War (1861-65). Eager to be of service, Walker goes to Washington, D.C., and tries to sign up as a surgeon for the Union Army.

Clerk: Ma’am, there’s a war going on! I have no time for silly pranks.

Walker: This is no prank. I am a doctor! How dare you waste my skills when thousands of wounded boys need medical attention?

Clerk: Want to help? Do what other ladies do: Be a volunteer nurse.

Narrator A: So Walker spends the first years of the war doing volunteer nursing and other war-aid work. She also earns another medical degree. But she keeps trying to get an army surgeon post. In September 1863 . . .

Clerk: Lady, you’re a real pest. But our men are getting torn up bad and the generals need every surgeon they can get at Chatta­nooga, Tennessee. They’ll even take you. It’s not an official post—

Walker: Just point the way!

Scene 4

Narrator B: The North has just lost a fierce, two-day battle at Chicka­mauga, Georgia. Thousands of wounded Union troops are pouring into a field hospital at nearby Chattanooga. No one has time to care that one of the surgeons is a woman.

Walker (writing home): You would not believe how awful it is here. Men are crowded together in the filthiest of conditions. Blood and mud are everywhere, and the tents offer little shelter. Doctors are so busy that few take time to figure out the best treatment for each soldier. If he’s wounded in the arm or leg, they just chop it off and go on to the next man. The sawed-off limbs are tossed in big piles, to be taken away later. I disagree with this practice. I believe we could save most boys’ limbs, but I seem to be in a minority in thinking this way.

Narrator C: Walker usually dresses just like the men: in a blue jacket with brass buttons, blue pants with a gold stripe down the side, and a green surgeon’s sash. When she has time, she rides into the countryside to treat civilians—mostly Southern women and children. Everywhere she goes, people gossip and stare. But the need for medical aid is so great that most people accept her help. In April 1864, as she is crossing enemy lines to help civilians . . .

Confederate soldier: You! Halt!

Walker: I’m a doctor. Folks at that farm need medical attention.

Soldier: That’s what you say. Come with me. I’m taking you prisoner.

Walker (angry): How dare you!

Soldier: Ma’am, you’ve ridden from the other army’s side to ours way too often. You must be a spy!

Narrator D: Walker is sent to a prison in Richmond, Virginia.

Walker (writing in her diary): My room is tiny and airless, and the food is awful. But what’s worse is that they won’t let me treat the sick and wounded. There are so many!

Narrator E: In August 1864, Walker is freed in a prisoner exchange. She renews her efforts to win official army status. At last, on October 5, 1864, she is granted a com­mission as an assistant surgeon, and major, in the U.S. Army.


Narrator A: After the Civil War ended in 1865, Walker became the first woman ever given the Congressional Medal of Honor for meritorious service—the nation’s highest award for bravery.

Narrator B: She remained contro­versial all her life: for speaking up in an “unladylike” manner, trying to vote, and wearing pants. For her “fashion,” people spat at her, pelted her with rotten eggs, and called her names. She was even arrested for disturbing the peace when a crowd gathered to stare at her clothes.

Narrator C: In 1917, the U.S. government revoked (or canceled) Walker’s Medal of Honor, saying it had been given by mistake and that she had never officially been in the U.S. Army. But she wore the medal proudly until she died in 1919. And in 1977, the U.S. Army restored Walker’s official status—and her Medal of Honor. 

Write About It! How did most people who met Walker react to her and why? Would she stand out the same way today?

Marching Into History

Louis Brems/The Citadel Photography Department 

Sarah Zorn, the Citadel’s first female regimental commander 

More than 150 years after Mary Edwards Walker became the U.S. Army’s first female doctor, women are still breaking through military barriers. In May 2018, Sarah Zorn became the first female regimental commander in the 175-year history of the Citadel, one of the nation’s most prestigious military colleges. She now leads 2,000-plus cadets through the school’s rigorous academic and physical program.

American women had no official paths to military service until separate support units were created after the U.S. joined World War II (1939-1945). In 1994, women were allowed to serve in the same military units as men—except in combat. The combat ban was finally lifted in 2016. Today, more than 210,000 women are serving in the U.S. armed forces—making up 16 percent of active-duty troops.

A Deep and Bitter Divide, 1861-1865

The Civil War split the nation, claiming some 750,000 lives. This is what the nation looked like during the conflict.

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

Like what you see? Then you'll love Junior Scholastic, our Social Studies classroom magazine for grades 6–8.

videos (1)
Skills Sheets (2)
Skills Sheets (2)
Lesson Plan (2)
Lesson Plan (2)