Speed Reads

A little piece of history

A look back at the first — and only — woman to receive the Medal of Honor

Library of Congress

Mary Edwards Walker was an assistant surgeon and Union spy during the Civil War, an advocate for women's rights and dress reform, and the first and only woman to receive the Medal of Honor.

NBC News has an in-depth look at the trailblazer, who lived life on her own terms: she wore men's trousers and collared shirts (her fashion choices caused her to get arrested and charged with impersonating a male) and started her own medical practice in New York after earning a degree from Syracuse Medical College. Walker asked to join the Union Army when the Civil War started, but was rejected. Instead, she volunteered, and ended up as an assistant surgeon and spy, ultimately becoming imprisoned for almost six months by the Confederates.

Walker received the Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service in 1865, and according to author Sharon Harris, wore it "every day of her life, from the moment she received it to the day she died," often with a top hat and bow tie. In 1916, Congress changed its criteria for awarding the Medal of Honor, making it necessary to have engaged in actual combat with the enemy. More than 1,000 recipients had their medals revoked, but Walker refused to give up her Medal of Honor. It was posthumously reinstated in 1977, almost 60 years after Walker's death in 1919. Read more about her incredible life at NBC News.