What is the True Story Regarding the Capture of Medal of Honor Recipient Dr. Mary E. Walker?
Updated: Apr 11
by Gordon Thorsby
Dr. Mary Elizabeth Walker, Medal of Honor recipient
"I was involved in the capture of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the only female surgeon in either army who by congressional enactment was allowed to appear in male attire. It was near a small Georgia town when Dr. Walker got into Confederate lines and I, not knowing her to be a woman, captured her and carried her before my commanding officer. The "doctor" proved who she was and I was designated to see her safely back to the union headquarters.”
So goes the story as related by descendants of Joseph James Bell, possibly of the 53rd Alabama Cavalry Partisan Rangers and the story is likely not true.
The story or stories of Mary Walker, the only female doctor in the Civil War, are inspiring and not all are accurate. The issue is especially true regarding her capture. The stories of her capture have few details, and many differ widely. What versions do confirm was that Mary Walker served as the only female doctor and is the only woman ever to be awarded the Medal of Honor. She was captured in 1864 and that is basically all that corroborates regarding this part of her life.
Based on as many as twenty different sources, here is what might be a detailed understanding Explaining the variations would take too long but a few are mentioned.
In January 1864, Walker received an official assignment as a Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian role) in the Army of Cumberland from General George H. Thomas with the 52nd Ohio Regiment.
On April 10, 1864, Dr. Walker traveled along an unknown Georgia road in Confederate territory to either visit civilians in need or assist a Confederate doctor with a surgery (possibly an amputation.) At some point, she was approached by, or she encountered Confederate soldiers. Many reports stated she was spying while on her travels but, stories differ both ways. However, Confederate soldiers regarded her male dress as confirmation of spy craft.
Walker was detained and sent farther into Georgia and then transported north to Richmond. Her final destination was the Castle Thunder Prison (right.) The prison was a former tobacco warehouse that held civilian criminals, Union spies, and political prisoners charged with
treason, and many who were sentenced to death. Prison was unpleasant for anyone during the Civil War and for Walker it was the same. Her eyesight suffered from poor diet and she complained. Either she she obtained relief in the form ( bread and vegetables) or no relief at all. According to Kelly R. Hancock, public programs manager at the American Civil War Museum, Richmond's prisons were “crowded, poorly ventilated and disease ridden," and "in a city, in which their own citizens [city under siege] were having trouble putting food on the table, prisons received scant ration." (by Gardner 1865, LOC)
On the outside, people and the press loudly opined. One Confederate captain wrote that he was “disgusted… at the sight of a thing that nothing but the debased and depraved Yankee nation could produce.…[She] was dressed in the full uniform of a Federal surgeon…not good-looking and of course had tongue enough for a regiment of men.” Richmond newspapers reported described her odd dress (wearing pants) as: “We must not omit to add that she is ugly and skinny and apparently above thirty years of age.”
A prisoner exchange was arranged on August 12, 1864 where she gained her release in a swap of 24 Union surgeons for 17 Confederate surgeons. Walker penned a letter to ask for assistance since she had not yet received an officer’s commission.
Lewisville Ky. Sept. 23rd ’64
I am sure you will not refuse the favor I am about to ask—ie, that you take this in person to the President, without delay and get the confirmation of my rank of Major.
(The remainder of the letter is edited.)
Did she wear a Union uniform at the time of capture as many articles indicate? No, if based on the letter.
After her release and recovery, she served as Assistant Surgeon at the Louisville Women's Prison Hospital at her request and at the Tennessee Orphan Asylum in Clarksville, Tennessee. Her role may have helping refugee children or wounded soldiers or both.
After the war, Dr. Walker was awarded a disability pension for muscular atrophy that she suffered while in prison in Castle Thunder.
(another view of "Castle Thunder" by Russell)
Is this version of her story entirely true? Based on all of the versions, it is unfortunately doubtful. Dr. Mary Edwards Walker broke barriers and achieved great things. Her true story is deserves to be told.
Joseph James Bell enlisted at either 16 or 17. Although many who knew him called "Captain," it is unconfirmed if he was a Captain. Captain Bell was buried in his Confederate Gray uniform "with the casket draped in the Southern Cross when he passed on October 12,1922 at the age of 75.
Bell's anecdote would make a great story if true, but it does not square well with the other versions. It might be result of the years gone by, that only portions of it might be true, or that his story was completely fiction. Who is to say?
We do know that Bell had many who would listen because of his attendance at regimental and national reunions, or that of his many children from three wives he married through his life.
"Meet Dr. Mary Walker: The only female Medal of Honor recipient," By Katie Lange, DoD News, Defense Media Activity, March 7, 2017.
"Dr-Mary-E-Walker-The-Sole-Female-Medal-of-Honor-Recipient," The Wounded Warrior Project.org.
"Medal of Honor Spotlight: Dr. Mary Edwards Walker," Military.com. 2022.
"Independence: The True Story of Dr. Mary Walker." Contribution of George R. DeMass, Town Historian (Town of Oswego, NY).
"Mary Edwards Walker: Civil War Surgeon and the Only Female Medal of Honor Recipient," by: Michelle Konstantinovsky, February 3, 2021.
"The service of Medal of Honor recipient Dr. Mary Walker, 1864," A Spotlight on a Primary Source by Mary E. Walker, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
"Mary Edwards Walker," by Kerri Lee Alexander, National Women’s History Museum, NWHM Fellow, 2018-2019.
"Mary Edwards Walker: Trailblazing Feminist, Surgeon, and War Veteran," by Alexandra R. Pass1 Jennifer D. Bishop, MD, FACS, Barnard College, New York, Department of Surgery, Stamford Hospital, Stamford, CT American College of Surgeons.
Find-a-Grave Joseph James Bell, Captain, buried in Kershaw, SC.