Original New Woman of the Civil War Era at Coshocton Chautauqua
Sitting by the roadside on a summer’s day Chatting with my mess-mates, passing time away Lying in the shadows underneath the trees Goodness, how delicious, eating goober peas.
Under the Chautauqua tent in Coshocton, Ohio, music of the Civil War entertained the crowd. Performed by Steve Ball and Larry Stahl, “Goober Peas” was one of the most popular and silliest songs of that era. Not only did they sing such old popular songs as “Rally Round the Flag,” and the most popular love song of the day, “Lorena,” but they gave a short history of each song. This made for an interesting introduction to the 2011 Chautauqua Civil War evening.
Guts, determination, and lots of humor described Dr Mary Edwards Walker as she was indeed a Civil War female activist. Debra Edwards Conner, a native of nearby Cambridge, gave an outstanding performance in the role of Dr Walker. The crowd under the tent, gave her their undivided attention at the Coshocton Bi-Centennial celebration.
As a graduate of Syracuse Medical College in 1853, Mary headed to Washington to assist with the wounded of the Civil War. Cots were set up in the halls of the US Capitol and even amid the exhibits of the US Patent Office, where Mary eventually worked as an unpaid volunteer. Her request for a commission was denied as they felt a woman’s brain was too small to remember medical knowledge.
Medical care was not high on the list of priorities for the military at that time as noted when one general said, “If all doctors sank in the ocean, it would be better for mankind and worse for the fish.” Death surrounded her as filth accumulated everywhere from improper disposal of waste. Two thirds of the deaths were from Tennessee Quick Step…dysentery. While little equipment was provided, there was a blade for amputations. During the course of the war, Dr Walker said three fourths of nearly 39,000 amputees survived. Using a chloroform soaked rag for anesthetic, it took three minutes to amputate, stitch the wound closed with cotton thread, and then wait for infection.
Mary persisted in her quest for a commission with the Army even after the medical board said she did not have adequate knowledge or training. Finally, General George Thomas, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, made a landmark decision and hired Mary Walker as the first woman doctor in the US Army. General Thomas said, “It would be easier to take the capitol at Richmond, than to argue with Dr Mary Walker.”
Accused of spying by the Confederates while on a medical mission, Mary spent four months in Castle Thunder Prison. There she slept on the floor on a bed of straw in a room overrun with rats. Maggots usually crawled in their infested food supply. They were served” Lincoln coffee,” wood splinters boiled in water. When released from prison in exchange for a Confederate surgeon, she weighed 69 pounds. Her health and eyesight deteriorated greatly during this prison time.
After the war, Mary always needed money desperately with only $8.50 a month in pension. So she donned a top hat and trousers and lectured regarding women’s rights. A lifelong advocate of freedom for women, when she married right out of college, Mary refused to use the word”‘obey” in the ceremony. She would not take her husband’s name, and even wore trousers to the wedding. Needless to say, this marriage did not last long, and afterwards Mary always referred to him as “that vile man.” When lecture opportunities disappeared, she was reduced to giving lectures at carnivals and dime museums. This was in her words, “A show for the poor where I could speak to keen minds with empty pockets.”
After the war, she was honored as the first and only woman to have ever received the Congressional Medal of Honor…and that honor stands to this day. At one point in 1917, the medal was rescinded by the government saying that it should only be given to those engaged in actual combat. The determined Dr Walker refused to give them back the medal. Instead she made herself a uniform, promoted herself to major, and wore the medal proudly wherever she went. However, Jimmy Carter in 1977 restored Walker’s Medal of Honor.
Dr Mary Walker was indeed a trailblazer for women’s rights and certainly deserved the title of “Original New Woman” for her profession and dedication during the time of the Civil War. The word “obey” never appeared in her vocabulary.