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File photo / Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, in her top hat and coat, advocated for dress reform, noting that restrictive corsets and petticoats limited women's ability to serve equally.

One of the first rotating exhibits at the new Heritage Center will feature Dr. Mary Edwards Walker — the only woman to ever receive the Medal of Honor.

Walker was born in Oswego, New York, in 1832 and raised by Transcendentalists and abolitionist parents. Young women at the time typically became teachers, but Walker chose medicine. She graduated from Syracuse Medical College, making her the second woman in U.S. history to earn a medical degree and the first female surgeon.

When the American Civil War began in 1861, Walker tried to offer her services to the Union Army's medical command but she was rejected, according to Hamilton County historian Linda Moss Mines. Walker then served as an unpaid volunteer and organized the Women's Relief Organization to aid the families of the wounded. She managed to treat wounded soldiers near the front lines in Virginia and in 1863 was finally accepted as a "Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon" attached to Ohio troops, Mines said.

During the Battles for Chattanooga, Walker established her hospital near the foot of Cameron Hill — the current site of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. Mines said official reports note her efforts to minister to medical needs, with little concern about her own personal safety. Her work drew the attention of several of the Union Army's leadership and subsequently, she was recommended for the Medal of Honor.

In November 1865, she was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Andrew Johnson, who wrote: "[Walker] has devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health, and has also endured hardships as a prisoner of war."

She strode the battlefield in her short skirt, trousers and black top hat, an attire that distinguished her from both Union and Confederate soldiers, Mines said.

"She was a little sassy and quite a bit spunky," Mines said. "I love the idea of the top hat on the battlefields. Everyone would know that she's the female surgeon, and because she at times treated men from both sides, why would you shoot a surgeon that would save your life?"

Walker was often criticized, ridiculed and even arrested for wearing men's clothes, but responded by saying, "I don't wear men's clothes, I wear my own clothes," according to an article from the American College of Surgeons.

President Woodrow Wilson rescinded her medal in 1917, after new criteria required the honor only be given to those who had engaged in "actual combat with the enemy." However, she refused to surrender it and proudly wore it every day until her death in 1919. Her medal was later reinstated in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter, and to this day she remains the only woman recipient of the Medal of Honor.

Mines says she often uses Walker as an example of what can be done if you're willing to work hard and persevere.

"Mary Walker just was resilient, step by step by step. She didn't take no for an answer, and in doing so she changed the face of the battlefield," Mines said. "She was ornery and stubborn. But on the flip side, if she hadn't been, she wouldn't have been able to accomplish what she did."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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