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Mary E. Walker

Discussion in 'Medical Care of the Civil War' started by JohnW., Feb 2, 2017.

  1. JohnW.

    JohnW. First Sergeant

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    "Tables about breast high had been erected upon which the screaming victims were having legs and arms cut off. The surgeons and their assistants, stripped to the waist and bespattered with blood, stood around, some holding the poor fellows while others, armed with long, bloody knives and saws, cut and sawed away with frightful rapidity, throwing the mangled limbs on a pile nearby as soon as removed." -- Lt. Col. W.W. Blackford, 1st Virginia Cavalry

    Detonating artillery shells and the non-stop rattling of musketry menacingly rumbled in the distance, barely audible over the groans and agonizing cries of dying men as droves of new arrivals steadily flooded into the ordinary, single-family home that was now being utilized as a front-line field hospital. Horse-drawn ambulance carts packed full of trauma victims lined the driveway to a grisly facility that mashed together a barely-serviceable emergency room, operating room, and morgue into a painfully-typical three-bedroom house on the outskirts of Chattanooga, Tennessee, the hospital's overworked, exhausted nurses desperately trying to triage the wounded between those who are possibly treatable and those who aren't going to make it.

    Outside the city walls the Union Army, pushed back to Chattanooga following their crushing defeat at Chickamauga, was making a desperate stand to hold the city against a massive Confederate counter-attack. 46,000 men of Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee were entrenched on the heights overlooking the critical strategic rail and communications center, with the Union forces backed up against the Tennessee River, but now a massive assault led by General George Thomas was rushing straight up a steep ridge, straight into hardened enemy positions that included 112 cannons, and were taking murderous fire from the enemy in an all-out attempt to smash the Confederates' defensive positions and break out of the siege. Those wounded soldiers lucky enough to find their way back to friendly lines found themselves here, in a stinking, unsterilized, makeshift hospital surrounded by malaria-infected men and saw-wielding surgeons practicing a particular brand of medicine that had more in common with medieval torture than anything resembling a modern-day visit to the pediatrician, their only consolation being a cup of cold water and the soothing voice of nurses trying to comfort them and ease their pain in some small way.

    During the Civil War, over ten thousand women worked as nurses in field hospitals across the war zone.

    Mary Edwards Walker of the 52nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry is the only one who served as a surgeon. She's also the only woman in history to ever receive the Medal of Honor, the highest award for military bravery offered by the United States of America.
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    Walker was a woman who was roughly a hundred and fifty years ahead of her time. Routinely criticized by women and men alike for her desire to wear men's clothing (at a time when "men's clothing" basically meant "any article of clothing that allowed you to walk through doorways or work in any capacity whatsoever), Walker paid her own way through Syracuse Medical College in 1855, becoming just the second woman in American history to complete physician training and work as a doctor. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Walker had already been running her own private practice for six years, but even though there were just 86 licenses surgeons in the Union Army at the start of the hostilities she was still turned away by every recruiting officer she approached. Undeterred, the 29 year-old surgeon signed on as a volunteer nurse, working on the front lines at the First Battle of Bull Run, then working as an unpaid volunteer surgeon at Indiana Hospital later that year.

    Walker continued her practice of "I'll just show up wherever people are dying and see if they'll maybe let me help fix them for free", volunteering at the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, performing front-line operations, and taking control of a medical train that was ferrying wounded men back to Washington. Her skills at slicing and dicing men up in the name of science so impressed Union General Ambrose Burnside that the Federal commander nominated her for a commission. At first she met with the resistance she was so used to encountering, but thanks to Burnside's recommendation, she was finally commissioned as an Assistant Surgeon in the 52nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, issued a U.S. Army surgeon's uniform, and sent to Tennessee to help treat wounded and dying men during the siege of Chattanooga. She would be the only woman in the war to receive this honor.

    Now, in order to fully appreciate how intense the job of a Civil War surgeon actually was, try to think of it as something of a cross between the Spanish Inquisition and an Eastern European butcher shop. Since artillery shells, canister fire, and cannonballs typically resulted in the instant, untreatable, and horrific death of anyone unlucky enough to be standing in front of a cannon muzzle, the majority of Civil War surgical cases were from gunshot wounds caused by a .58-caliber minie ball – a soft metal, mostly hollow, incredibly heavy projectile over half an inch in diameter that was shaped very much like a modern bullet, and one that not only hit so hard that any bone it came in contact with shattered like a fluorescent lightbulb being smacked against a brick wall, but that also mushroomed on impact much like a modern-day hollow-point bullet, expanding to about an inch in width, ripping through muscle, blood vessels, organs, and all of those other important things that people keep inside their skin.

    Because there was no such thing as organ transplantation, internal surgery, or blood transfusions, if a soldier got hit in the head, chest, or abdomen, he had a 90% chance of death – all you could do for the poor bastard was give him morphine and water and find a shady tree for him to sit under until he died. Wounds to the arms and legs had better odds, however, which is why fully three-quarters of surgeries performed during the war were amputations performed on these appendages.

    Here's how it worked. After a guy got shot, he had 48 hours to get his arm cut off with an unsterilized hacksaw or he was probably going to die a painful death from gangrene. You, as the doctor, working in terrible conditions at someone's kitchen counter, would slosh the blood off the operating table with a bucket, get the guy up there, then you'd have a couple minutes to figure out what kind of shape he was in. If his arm wasn't broken, he might be ok – you can just wash it out, slap a tourniquet on there, and move on to the next guy. If it was broken, you'd need to operate. One of your nurses would anesthetize the dude with a chloroform-soaked rag (if it was available – in some field hospitals all you got was a shot of whiskey and a bullet to bite down on) until he was unconscious, then you'd have to stitch the broken artery closed with a needle and thread, dig the bullet out of there with your forceps, cut through the muscle with a sharp knife, saw through the bone with your hacksaw, tie off the arteries with another piece of thread, and then sew it all shut into a stump.

    A good surgeon could perform the operation in under ten minutes. And he'd do it dozens of times in a row, all of this while people were pounding the city with artillery shells and stray bullets were slamming into the walls around them. One nurse at the Battle of Antietam recalled working on a guy in the hospital tent and then having a stray bullet pass through the tent, through the sleeve of her dress, and then kill him right in front of her, which, honestly may have been more of a humane way to go – because this was back before we knew you had to sterilize your equipment before you operated on a patient, almost 25% of people who underwent amputation surgery ended up dying from infected wounds.

    Saving human lives by performing barbaric work with her bone saw under hellish conditions in the middle of a raging war zone as bullets and artillery shrapnel ripped through the skies around her, Mary Edwards Walker continued working as a front-line surgeon throughout the three-day Battle of Chattanooga. After a heroic, unlikely charge by George Thomas's men broke the Confederate position and sent Bragg retreating back to Georgia, Walker continued her work, not only assisting wounded Federal troops but also crossing enemy lines and providing medical care to Confederate troops and civilians in Tennessee and Georgia.

    On one of these trips to Georgia to aid sick and injured civilians, Walker was ambushed by Confederate pickets, who found her in her Union uniform carrying two pistols and arrested her as a spy, a detail that may or may not actually have been true (we can't prove it either way). Her captors, who noted in their report that she argued "enough for a regiment of men", recommended sending her to a lunatic asylum for being a woman doctor, but instead she was sent to Richmond and thrown in a jail for Federal prisoners of war. She spent four months in brutal conditions in the POW Camp, Walker was sent back to Yankee lines as part of a prisoner exchange (she later confessed that she was very proud to have been traded straight-up for a male Confederate surgeon).

    After the war, Walker was sent back to the Union Army, where she was attached to Sherman's army during the Atlanta Campaign. After the Battle of Atlanta, she was appointed Chief Surgeon at a women's military prison in Louisville, Kentucky, where she served until the end of the war. After her service, Walker collected an Army pension, wrote a couple books, became a women's suffrage activist, founded a weird commune, and got arrested a couple times for wearing pants instead of a dress.

    During her time in the Union Army, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker had been recommended for promotion both by General George Thomas and by General William Tecumseh Sherman. Since she technically wasn't a uniformed service member, these requests for promotion could not be granted, but in honor of her service Mary Edwards Walker was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1866. Of the 1.8 million women who have served the United States military, she is the only one to ever receive the award. The Federal government tried to correct this in 1917 when they changed the guidelines for the Medal of Honor, stipulating that it could only be awarded for actions that occurred in combat, and stripped 900 people – including Dr. Walker – of their awards. Walker, obviously, told them to get @&%$ed – she wore the medal until her death in 1919. It was officially reinstated by order of President Jimmy Carter in 1977.
     

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  3. Nathanb1

    Nathanb1 Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Retired Moderator

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    My heroine.
     
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  4. JohnW.

    JohnW. First Sergeant

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    I love anything written about women during the Civil War (or any war for that matter). It just goes to show you that that particular human endeavor is not a boys club.
    952d84a4f5032de6af40e35bc6ff5819.jpg
     
  5. trialsz63

    trialsz63 Cadet

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    That's a great story. Mary E. Walker must have been seen as quite the firecracker. Good for her, for persevering through a hostile work environment - literally.
     
  6. JohnW.

    JohnW. First Sergeant

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    Yes she was a pistol...so much so the mods had to edit the original title of my post. It definitely described her to a Tee. LOL :laugh:
     
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  7. James N.

    James N. Captain Forum Host Civil War Photo Contest
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    Every time one of these worshipful threads about this crank appears I have to remind that this bears no resemblance to what her Confederate wards thought of her or how her own badgering and shameless self-promotion had more to do with her Medal of Honor than any perceived heroism on her part. That's why it was later taken from her, not some misogynistic post-war bureaucratic villainy.
     
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2017
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  8. trialsz63

    trialsz63 Cadet

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    My take on this article is not that anyone worshiped her, rather that she had to overcome endless barriers in her professional life as a female physician at a difficult time, in difficult circumstances. If you see it differently, please elaborate and share how you think the Confederates viewed her as self-promoting and shameless badgering. Cite your sources too, please.
     
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  9. Pvt.Shattuck

    Pvt.Shattuck First Sergeant

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    Descriptions comparing Civil War surgeons to medieval torturers are unfair.They were, generally speaking, caring men who did the best they could according to the best, or at least commonly practiced, medical knowledge of the time.
    Prior to Pare in the 1600s, amputated limbs on the battlefield were burned with a hot cauter, setting up an ideal ground for infection. Pare showed that ligatures were a superior method to stop bleeding.
    It is amazing CW surgeons did as well as they did, given their ignorance about germs and antiseptics.
    The old idea of amputations performed without anesthesia been proven to be a myth. That rarely was necessary, even in the Confederate army where medical supplies were scarce.
     
  10. James N.

    James N. Captain Forum Host Civil War Photo Contest
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    I would try, but this subject has been talked to death in many previous threads. I suggest you do a search for Mary Walker to see just how much there is! I first encountered the controversy over her dubious claims and achievements in an old article in Civil War Times Illustrated that likened her to a side-show freak, especially later in her life. The author suggested she received the MOH mainly to shut her up!
     
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  11. TerryB

    TerryB Major

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    I'm curious about her trying to pass through CS lines near Dalton. Did she have a pass? I know she had on a uniform and demanded the pickets address her by rank. Did she even have a rank?
     
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  12. Legion Para

    Legion Para Brigadier General Moderator Forum Host

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    Mary E. Walker is the most controversial of Medal of Honor recipients.

    There are two factors to consider regarding the validity of Walker's medal: Was she eligible for it and and did she earn it?

    Was she eligible for the MOH under the then existing regulations? The answer is a clear NO since those regulations, the March 3, 1863 amendment to the original July 12 1862 law, required one to be a member of the military. Mary Walker was a contract surgeon, not a member of the military. That is a fact, indisputable.

    Did she perform any act of "gallantry in action" that would have merited the award? Again, a clear NO as she was never in action. This is another fact, indisputable.
     
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  13. JPK Huson 1863

    JPK Huson 1863 Lt. Colonel Forum Host

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    Oh dear. Was she a crank? Of course she was! Any time a female is a crank, difficult to deal with, insists on managing her life as she wishes against either social norms or strictures she is also crazy, well known fact.

    Doctor Mary Walker did what she did. In doing so boy, did she collect enemies like most collect hobbies. She was OUT there, rolling up her sleeves, in harm's way, doing her best no matter to which degree this carried her. In an unwilling spotlight until death, her old age is documented, too, where moments no deserves to have scrutinized managed to blaze across headlines. Not one of us could stand up against the critical and magnified eye which followed this woman mercilessly.

    If she was not due that medal, they could have said ' no '. Not even the famously ' cranky ' Dr. Walker could force a medal out of the government. It does not work that way but it is another dandy rumor to her discredit. What bugs me is, like Mary Lincoln, the vast interest in ensuring she stays hunted and haunted by a smudged and negative image.
     
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  14. JohnW.

    JohnW. First Sergeant

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    I couldn't have said it better...thank you @JPK Huson 1863!!!!! :D :x3:
     
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  15. NurseErin

    NurseErin Private

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    As a nurse I found this article really interesting. It's amazing how far the medical field has come and I always look forward to the next new medical break through. Gore doesn't bother me much but the discriptions in this post is enough imagery to shake even the most seasoned nurse!
     
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  16. JohnW.

    JohnW. First Sergeant

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    She was the woman behind the man behind the trigger.
     
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  17. JPK Huson 1863

    JPK Huson 1863 Lt. Colonel Forum Host

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    Surgeons in the war can't be given enough credit. You don't know how they did it. Goodness. There were never enough of them, working in those battlefield conditions under conditions of stress and weariness, it had to be the worst job in both armies. The only reason you would do it would be commitment to your calling, to wounded men.

    My great grandfather was a battlefield surgeon, in WW1. He was also a kind of fanatical note keeper and journal writer. Among things he found fascinating was how bullets became misshapen when traveling through the human body- ouch. He sewed quite a few onto cardboard- a little crazy to see them. Maybe these healers just continually needed to try to make sense of it all.
     
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  18. Bee

    Bee 2nd Lieutenant

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    Since I am on a mobile device at the moment, searching and Google is difficult. I will start simple: What is a 'crank'? My slang is limited, so I am not sure how to apply this descriptive. I have never previous heard of this person, so I am starting from scratch.
     
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  19. Bee

    Bee 2nd Lieutenant

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    I was able to access a computer and do a forum search on Mary Walker, and here are the threads that I came up with:

    Other than noting that Mary lived in an era that was out of time and place of a person of her aspirations, I did not note any controversy regarding her actual position as a doctor. I may not be looking in the right places or have left out content in my search, so I would be appreciative of any suggested readings, links, articles, etc.

    I will note that I have worked decades in a field that was otherwise unwelcome to females until recent decades. My duties required me to go toe-to-toe with some of the toughest men working in even tougher environments: Mining, Construction, Petroleum Exploration. The reception had not always been welcoming, thus, fostered a really bad attitude of my part for the longest time. The work environment changed somewhat, so that it would make Mary's situation seem 'peculiar' looking this far back from much more progressive times.
     
  20. James N.

    James N. Captain Forum Host Civil War Photo Contest
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    In Mary Walker's case, she was a generally unpleasant troublemaker who was one of those shrill in-your-face agitators, much like the current crop of protestors seen nightly on the news. It should be no surprise that she is also a heroine to feminists for her post-war association with the Suffrage movement and with LBGT-types for her total adoption of male attire in her latter years.

    [​IMG] [​IMG]
     
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  21. James N.

    James N. Captain Forum Host Civil War Photo Contest
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    I believe these comments by @Frederick14Va from the second link you've posted sum up nicely the case against beloved Dr. Mary and the "cruelty" evident in revoking her MOH:

    In Dr.Walkers particular case the events related being providing medical assistance after a couple battles. The primary issue is that when she did so she was actually a civilian, not a member of the military, so was ineligible to have even been considered for the MOH, and to most never should have been. She later obtained appointment as an "Acting Assistant Surgeon"... this basically is a hired civilian contract surgeon, which did not have a brevet or commission. Most Physicians that acted as such continued to wear their usual civilian attire... Dr. Walker on the other hand donned a Federal officers uniform.... even though she was not officially a member of the military nor held a ranked commission... If the individual serving in the same capacity and record as her was male, it wouldn't have even generated a passing footnote.
     
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