November 26 – How to Keep Your Medal of Honor

Posted on November 26, 2014

Today is the birthday of Mary Edwards Walker. Born on this date in 1832, Walker became a doctor and acted as a surgeon during the Civil War. She crossed enemy lines to treat injured civilians, and she was captured by Confederate forces and kept for a while as a prisoner of war, just in case she was a spy!

In 1865, President Andrew Johnson awarded her with the Congressional Medal of Honor for her wartime service.

That's all pretty normal – if you can call hard work, dedication, and courage normal, and if you think that rewarding those things is normal – but then the story gets distinctly odd.

Fifty-two years after she received that medal, Congress changed its standards for awarding the Medal of Honor. Congress decided that only achievements in “actual combat with an enemy” now count toward the honor. Walker had of course battled “enemies” like disease and injury and death, but she'd also tangled with the non-metaphorical enemy, the Confederate army – hence her capture and imprisonment! – however, she hadn't been engaged in “combat” with the Confederate soldiers.

And so it was that, when the army reevaluated all the medals previously given out, Walker's name, as well as 910 other names, were struck from the Medal of Honor Rolls!

In other words, the army took away the Medal of Honor from 911 people – including Walker – to retroactively fit the new standards! Wh-wh-what???

Apparently, none of the recipients were asked to send back their medals, but some thought that the 911 people whose names had been removed from the Medal of Honor Rolls should no longer wear their medals. However, Walker reportedly wore it every day until her death.

It may have been her tenacity in claiming and proudly wearing her Medal of Honor that helped inspire others to re-evaluate Walker's re-evaluation. However it went, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter restored her medal posthumously. 

Did you know...?

Mary Edwards Walker is still the only woman to have ever received the Congressional Medal of Honor!

Walker is one of only eight civilians to win the Medal of Honor.

After the Civil War, Walker became a writer and lecturer supporting the women's suffrage movement.

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