The Only Female Recipient of the Medal of Honor

Hello everyone, Winnie Griggs here.

One of the writer-related questions I get most often is where do my ideas come from. The answer is a bit complex. As a writer, I see stories everywhere – in snippets of conversation, in song lyrics, in throwaway scenes from movies and TV shows and just from everyday life. But story ideas are also very fragile – they can disappear like mist when the sun beats down or like dream fragments once you’re fully awake.

So, whenever I get an idea for a new story, even if it’s just for a character or scene, I’ll set up a document in my Ideas folder to capture it before it gets away. From time to time I’ll go back in and add to one or more of the files, depending on what snags my interest at the time. And eventually one of these ideas will tell me it’s ready to be turned into a full blown book.

All of the above is backdrop to explain that one of these idea files contained a snippet of a story set in the late 19th century with a female doctor in the lead role. Of course a story like this requires a lot of research – questions such as what educational options were available for women and where could these be found, how well received were female doctors, what difficulties would they have faced due to their gender and just in general what medical treatments and a medical practice looked like during that time period.

And as often happens, while I was happily ensconced in researching some of this, I stumbled upon an unexpected and totally intriguing story about a fascinating woman.  Her name was Mary Walker. She was born in 1832, in upstate New York to parents who encouraged all of their children to pursue formal education. Mary took full advantage of her parents’  ideals and at the age of 25 graduated from Syracuse Medical School  with a doctor of medicine degree – she was the only woman in her class.  She then went into private practice and eventually married another physician, Dr. Albert Miller. However, in an action that was typical of her fierce independent spirit, she retained her maiden name. Eventually, she and Miller divorced due to his alleged infidelity.

When the Civil War broke out, Mary wanted to serve in the army as a surgeon, but because she was a woman she was unable to do so. Not willing to give up, she worked for free in a temporary hospital in Washington D.C.   From there she moved on to Virginia, treating the wounded at numerous field hospitals throughout the area.  Finally, in 1863, her medical credentials were acknowledged and she was appointed as a War Department surgeon. A year later she was captured by the Confederate Army and remained their prisoner for about four months.



In 1865, Dr. Walker became the first woman to ever be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, an acknowledgement for her services during the Civil War.

Mary’s unconventional life extended past her service during the war.  She was an active and vigorous proponent of women’s rights.  She became an author and a lecturer, focusing on issues such as temperance, health care and dress reform.  And putting action to her words, she could often be seen garbed in bloomers or even men’s trousers and  a top hat. Dr. Walker was a member of the Woman’s Suffrage Bureau in Washington D.C. and testified before committees in the US House of Representatives on woman’s suffrage issues.

In 1917 her name, along with 910 others, was stricken from the list of Medal of Honor recipients. The reason given was that none of these had ever officially served in the military. However, despite orders to return her medal, Mary refused and continued to wear it for the remainder of her life. She passed away in 1919 at the age of 86.

But that’s not the end of Dr. Walker’s story.  In 1977, thanks to efforts made by her family who pushed for a Congressional reappraisal of her accomplishments, President Jimmy Carter restored her medal posthumously. She is one of only six people to have this honor restored after it was rescinded. And to date she is still the only female to ever have this medal awarded to her.

So what do you think of this very unorthodox woman? Is there something about her life that particularly intrigued you?  Comment on this post for a chance to win an advance copy of my upcoming December release Once Upon A Texas Christmas.


Partners for the Holidays 

Abigail Fulton is determined to find independence in Turnabout, Texas—and becoming manager of the local hotel could be the solution. But first, she must work with Seth Reynolds to renovate the property by Christmas—and convince him she’s perfect for the job. If only he hadn’t already promised the position to someone else… 

Ever since his troubled childhood, Seth yearns to prove himself. And this hotel is his best chance. But what does someone like Abigail know about decor and furnishings? Yet the closer the holiday deadline gets, the more he appreciates her abilities and her kindness. His business ambitions require denying Abigail’s dearest wish, but can they put old dreams aside for a greater gift—love and family?



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Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
Winnie loves to hear from readers. You can connect with her on facebook at or email her at

38 thoughts on “The Only Female Recipient of the Medal of Honor”

  1. I like a woman like Mary who bucked society to make her own way in the world…thus making history! Being a Doctor in her days was very unconventional and not many women made it. I’m glad to see she didn’t let that deter her!

    I really love reading posts like this where an author shares how they get their story ideas! I like how you keep adding snippets to your idea folder until it’s time to write that story 🙂 What a fun way of doing it.

    Thank you for the interesting post and giveaway chance Winnie!

  2. I’m glad her Medal of Honor was restored. She was rejected for war service but persisted in serving in any way she could. Thank you for sharing your research–it was great to read!

  3. Thank you for sharing this story, Winnie. I too am glad her Medal of Honor was restored. It blows my mind that they would give it to her and then take it away.

    Cindy W.
    countrybear52 AT yahoo DOT com

  4. What an interesting story! As a woman physician myself, I am thankful for those who paved the way and bravely forged into the world of medicine. She totally deserved that Medal and glad that it was officially restored to her name.

  5. Loved this post and I am so proud of her for not giving up her Medal she should have had it. What a amazing women.

  6. Mary Walker was certainly a woman to admire and emulate and I’m surprised that someone hasn’t made a movie of her life! I wasn’t familiar with her story and I appreciate your post.

  7. She was definitely woman ahead of her time. Shame on them taking away her Medal of Honor. She showed her ability and grit during service and continued to do so in her later years. I admire her for sticking to her beliefs and working for those issues she believed in. It is sad that she has disappeared from the history we are taught.
    Thank you for making us aware of her.

  8. Love this story, and the fact she refused to give back a medal she was given and earned. I am seeing in my head, this Lady in her boomers and top hat doing her doctoring.

  9. What a fascinating story and woman . Thank you for sharing her story with us. She definitely was a woman ahead of her time. Good for her that she refused to give up her medal, which she clearly earned and deserved.
    Carol Luciano

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