The Most Fulfilling Kind of Immortality

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2017-2018, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the December 2017 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.


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Mary Edwards Walker

In its most basic sense, immortality simply means to live forever. However, there are several different concepts of immortality. In a religious sense, immortality means to pass into the afterlife and exist for all eternity. Napoleon Bonaparte characterized his view of immortality when he asserted, “There is no immortality but the memory that is left in the minds of men.” Comedian and filmmaker Woody Allen expressed a desire for a more practical immortality in his remark, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.” The kind of immortality that Woody Allen wished for was granted to the ancient Greek mythological character Tithonus, but with a very unpleasant side effect. According to the myth, Tithonus became the lover of Eos, the goddess of the dawn. As a result, Eos beseeched Zeus to make Tithonus immortal, so that he could remain her lover for all time. Zeus was not at all pleased that a goddess would take a mortal as her lover, but in spite of that, Zeus granted Eos her wish. However, he did so with a tragic twist. Zeus made Tithonus immortal, but he did not bestow eternal youth on Tithonus. As a result, Tithonus lived forever, but never stopped aging, and eventually his body became so crippled by the ravages of age that he was uselessly infirm. Technically, the immortality that was conferred on Tithonus conforms to the immortality that Woody Allen said he desires. But if Woody Allen realizes that Tithonus’ immortality is an option that fits his request, then he might be more specific about the immortality he craves.

Perhaps the most lofty expression of immortality is found in an ode by the ancient Roman poet, Horace. In that ode, Horace described his concept of immortality as “a monument more lasting than bronze and higher than the royal structure of the pyramids, which neither devouring rain, nor the unrestrained North Wind can destroy, nor the immeasurable succession of years and the flight of time. I shall not totally die, and a greater part of me will evade death.” Horace’s concept of immortality is the kind of immortality that comes to people who live on in history through their deeds and accomplishments. This type of immortality fits with Napoleon’s version, and while it does not satisfy Woody Allen’s version of immortality, it at least avoids the highly unpleasant aspects of the immortality of Tithonus. Moreover, the immortality of which Horace wrote is especially fulfilling, because, as Horace wrote regarding his concept of immortality, “a greater part of me will evade death.” While the immortality that was espoused by Horace is not perfect, it is certainly very desirable. This kind of immortality came to many people who were part of the Civil War, and it came to one Civil War recipient of the Medal of Honor in a way that remains unique to this day.

The person who has this unique immortality is Mary Edwards Walker. Mary was born on November 26, 1832 near Oswego in upstate New York. She was the youngest of five daughters, and she had a younger brother. Her parents, Alvah and Vesta Walker, were abolitionists who were strong supporters of education for all of their children. Alvah and Vesta instilled in their children the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. Mary’s father had an interest in medicine and owned a number of medical texts. During her youth, Mary read these books and became interested in medicine. After she spent a few years working as a teacher, Mary entered Syracuse Medical College (which is now Upstate Medical University). She was the only woman in her class, and she graduated in 1855 with honors. She was reputedly the second woman in the United States to receive a medical degree. Shortly after graduation Mary married one of her classmates, Albert Miller. Mary’s feminist views were evident in three aspects of her wedding. First, she kept her own surname rather than take the surname of her husband. Also, she deleted the word “obey” from her wedding vows. Lastly, she wore trousers and a coat rather than a wedding dress. Mary’s clothing choice for the wedding was due to her belief that women’s clothing of that time was unnecessarily restrictive and also unhealthful, which is an opinion that was instilled in her by her father. Even during her youth, Mary did not wear women’s clothing. Instead, she wore clothing that was not conventional for young women of her time, which led to her being taunted. Mary and her husband went into medical practice together, but their marriage quickly began to unravel, and there is evidence that Mary’s husband was unfaithful. They separated around the time that the Civil War began, and their divorce was finalized in 1868, 13 years after their wedding.

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Mary Walker in her army surgeon’s uniform

Shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War, Mary attempted to join the Union army as a surgeon, but she was denied. She was able to volunteer as a civilian, and her first duty was in a hospital in Washington. She later served in hospitals at a number of battlefields, including the first battle of Bull Run, in Chattanooga after the battle of Chickamauga, and in Atlanta. Although Mary worked as a surgeon, she was listed as a nurse, and she actively petitioned to have her designation changed to reflect her true status, but without success. Finally, in September 1863, Mary was appointed a contract acting assistant surgeon (civilian) in the Army of the Cumberland. During her service in battlefield hospitals, Mary designed and made clothing for herself that consisted of a calf-length skirt over trousers. This clothing allowed her to more easily move about and care for the wounded.

In April 1864, seven months after her appointment as a surgeon, Mary was taken prisoner in northwest Georgia when she went alone behind enemy lines to treat some wounded civilians. She was held as a prisoner of war in Castle Thunder near Richmond, Virginia. While Mary was there, her captors voiced disdain for her. This contempt is apparent in a description of Mary that was written by a Confederate captain. This Confederate wrote that those who saw Mary were “both amused and disgusted,” and he went on to characterize Mary as “a thing that nothing but the debased and depraved Yankee nation could produce—’a female doctor.'” He also took note of Mary’s clothing when he added that she was wearing “the full uniform of a Federal surgeon, looks, hat & all, & wore a cloak.” Regarding Mary’s appearance and feistiness, the Confederate captain described her as “not good looking and of course had tongue enough for a regiment of men.” A Richmond newspaper wrote about Mary, “She is ugly and skinny, and apparently above thirty years of age.” Mary spent four months as a prisoner of war until an exchange of prisoners swapped her and a number of other Union physicians for some Confederate physicians. At the time of her release, Mary, who weighed 110 pounds when she was captured, weighed only 65 pounds. Mary spent a few weeks recuperating and then returned to duty in Georgia. Her title was soon changed from contract acting assistant surgeon to acting assistant surgeon, and she was assigned to a female military prison in Louisville, Kentucky, where 2,000 inmates, mostly spies, were confined. Mary served there until March 1865 when she was transferred to an orphanage in Clarksville, Tennessee, and she remained there until the end of the war. After the war she returned to her home in upstate New York.

On November 11, 1865, Mary Edwards Walker became the first woman to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Mary’s Medal of Honor citation notes that she “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.” Mary’s Medal of Honor citation also indicates that the Medal of Honor was conferred with the recommendations of William T. Sherman and George H. Thomas. (Ironically, in light of one of the primary reasons that Mary received the Medal of Honor, her medal was awarded to her on the day after the execution of Henry Wirz, the commandant of the notorious Confederate prison, Andersonville.) Mary’s Medal of Honor and over 900 other Medals of Honor were rescinded in 1917 when the criteria for the medal were changed to include only those who had engaged in combat. But Mary refused to relinquish her Medal of Honor, and she continued to wear it every day for the rest of her life. In 1977, 58 years after Mary’s death, Mary’s Medal of Honor was restored by President Jimmy Carter.

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Mary Walker late in life

Mary’s post-Civil War years were marked by her involvement in two causes. One, not surprisingly, was women’s suffrage. However, Mary only tepidly supported the Constitutional amendment that was the goal of the women’s suffrage movement. This is because Mary and some others in the women’s suffrage movement felt that the Constitution, as written, gave women the right to vote. When the suffrage movement became focused on an amendment, Mary fell out of favor. The other cause that Mary championed involved women’s clothing. This is a cause that she had both embraced and put into practice from a young age. In 1866 Mary was elected president of the National Dress Reform Association, a little-known organization that advocated changes to women’s clothing. Eventually Mary lost standing in this group because of her extreme views and practices with regard to women’s clothing. In her later years, Mary took to wearing men’s clothing and regularly dressed in trousers, a men’s shirt and jacket, bow tie, and top hat. Having fallen out of favor with the two movements that she had actively supported, Mary spent the last three decades of her life on her family’s farm near Oswego. During that time, those who knew Mary and interacted with her considered her eccentric, but harmless. Mary died poverty-stricken on February 21, 1919 at the age of 86.

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith once noted, “If all else fails, immortality can always be assured by spectacular error.” There are many people who followed this path to immortality, and it can be debated whether this type of immortality is better or worse than the immortality of Tithonus. Nevertheless, this is not the route that Mary Edwards Walker traveled to immortality. Mary Edwards Walker achieved immortality by being the first and thus far only woman to receive the Medal of Honor.

In the movie Gladiator, as the main character, Maximus, was entering the arena for the competition that many expected would end with Maximus’ death, Maximus’ owner shouted to him, “We mortals are but shadows and dust.” Sadly, that is the reality for most of us mortals. But Mary Edwards Walker is one mortal who was able to escape this fate, because she achieved the kind of everlasting immortality that was extolled by Horace. Some people felt, and some people might now feel, that Mary Edwards Walker does not deserve the Medal of Honor. In large part this is because she never saw service in combat, but Mary’s valor, patriotism, devoted service, and personal sacrifice are beyond question. In the end, this controversy does not matter, because it is a fact of the historical record that Mary Edwards Walker is the first woman to be placed on the roster of Medal of Honor recipients, and she will hold this honored distinction for all time. By virtue of this extraordinary accomplishment, Mary Edwards Walker achieved the most fulfilling kind of immortality.

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