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Civil War surgeon Mary Walker in spotlight at weekend forum

Tuesday, October 29, 2013
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Mary Walker was one of the first female doctors in the U.S. and earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for her role in the Civil War.
Mary Walker was one of the first female doctors in the U.S. and earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for her role in the Civil War.

For women trying to break new ground in the 19th century, change didn’t come easily. The life of Dr. Mary Walker is a perfect example.

“She was one of the first woman doctors in the country, she was a suffragette, and she even went to Great Britain to advocate for dress reform,” said Matt Farina, who will discuss her at 9:30 a.m. Saturday to kick off the second day of the 2013 New York Civil War Conference at the New York State Museum. “She was the classic squeaky wheel. She got things done because of her persistence.”

This year’s conference is the third sponsored by the Capital District Civil War Round Table to help commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Farina, a Delmar resident, is a retired pediatric cardiologist and a longtime member and past president of the CDCWRT.

Among the other speakers will be Troy Harman, a historian and ranger at Gettysburg Military National Park, and Clark “Bud” Hall, co-founder of the Brandy Station Battlefield Association and the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites.

New York State Civil War Conference

WHERE: New York State Museum, Empire State Plaza, Albany

WHEN: Friday through Sunday

HOW MUCH: Check website for various ticket packages

MORE INFO: Contact Fran McCashion at 459-4209 or visit www.cdcwrt.net

Walker was born in November of 1826 near Oswego in central New York. She managed to work her way through Syracuse Medical School, graduating in 1855. When the Civil War broke out, she immediately offered her services and was told she could function only as a nurse. That status eventually changed to assistant surgeon, and Walker, after spending some time as a prisoner of war in Richmond, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1865 at the urging of Gens. William T. Sherman and George Thomas.

“I first heard about Mary Walker back in the 1990s, and I remember reading that she was the only woman to ever receive the Medal of Honor,” said Farina, who will give a 45-minute talk on her. “So I started looking more into her, doing a lot of research, and I’ve been making presentations about her for a while now. She’s been called eccentric and was considered an outlier in her day, but I see her as a real seer of women’s rights and women’s destiny.”

In 1917, the U.S. Army created a review board of Medal of Honor recipients and determined that Walker did not qualify, rescinding her medal.

The government, however, never required that she turn in the medal and Walker wore it proudly until her death in 1919. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter restored her medal posthumously.

“During the Civil War, the medal could be awarded for a host of reasons, not just heroic events on the battlefield,” said Farina. “In Mary’s case, it was her uniqueness, her patriotism, her diligence and her commitment to the soldiers, and because she had been captured and spent some time in Richmond at Castle Thunder. She was very proud of that medal, and she wore it whenever she was in public.”

A suffragette

Walker, who was married for a short time before the war, campaigned with Susan B. Anthony in support of the women’s vote, but eventually a disagreement over strategy created a rift between the two.

“She always felt the Constitution already gave women the right to vote,” Farina said. “She felt the movement should be directed at members of Congress and felt an amendment was unnecessary. She thought the words ‘all men are created equal’ [from the Declaration of Independence] included women.”

Walker continued to struggle for the right to vote but became alienated from Anthony and others at the top of the suffragette movement. She died in Oswego in 1919, a year before the nation ratified the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote.

Farina grew up in the Utica area. While he was always interested in history, he didn’t get involved in the CDCWRT until 1988.

“I put my interest in history aside until 1988, when my wife got a job in Alexandria, Virginia,” Farina said. “Well, I did quite a bit of commuting from Albany and during one of my first trips down there she suggested I visit some Civil War battlefields. Then, when I got back here, I saw a notice in the newspaper for a round-table meeting at the Delmar library.”

As the saying goes, the rest is history. Farina continues to serve as editor of the CDCWRT newsletter and has twice been president of the organization.

Conference schedule

This year’s conference begins at 7:30 p.m. Friday with Hall’s talk, “New York at Brandy Station on June 9, 1863.”

Following Farina’s presentation Saturday, Juanita Leisch Jensen speaks at 10:45 a.m. on “The Role of Women in the Civil War.” Jensen has served as a consultant for the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pa., and lives in the New York City area.

After a break for lunch, freelance writer R.L. Murray will deliver a talk titled “New York Soldiers in 1863: Their Attitudes and Action,” at 1 p.m. Author J.D. Petruzzi will discuss “New York Cavalryman Tom C. Devlin,” at 2:15 p.m., and Harman will talk about how “Gettysburg Address Reads Like American History,” at 3:30 p.m.

On Sunday, Dave Hubbard of the Grant Cottage will talk about “Baseball and the Civil War” at 9:30 a.m., and Chris Kolakowski, director of the Douglas MacArthur Memorial Museum, will discuss “1863 in the West.”

 
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comments

October 30, 2013
1:16 p.m.
rsmall803 says...

According to her original MOH citation she was born in 1832.

November 6, 2013
9:59 a.m.
wbuell says...

Oops, you are correct. It was 1832.

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