GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. –
Not many people may know it, but the Army Reserve Center in Walker, Michigan, is not named after the city, but rather a female American Civil War surgeon who received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was the first and only woman to receive this country’s highest military award for valor on Jan. 11, 1865. Her period of service was 1861 to 1864 in North Carolina, Washington, D.C., Tennessee and Georgia.
Walker was unable to obtain an appointment as a surgeon in the U.S. Army during the Civil War because of her gender. After she declined employment as a nurse, Walker accepted an unpaid volunteer position in the temporary military hospital housed in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., and worked without official standing in field hospitals in Virginia. She also organized the Women's Relief Organization to aid the wives and mothers of wounded soldiers who came to visit Washington area hospitals.
In 1863, with letters of recommendation attesting to her medical competence in hand, Mary travelled to Tennessee. In September, she obtained employment with the War Department, like many male physicians, as a civilian "Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon" - equivalent in pay and authority to a lieutenant or captain depending on length of service and experience.
According to the U.S. Army Center of Military History, while assigned to the U.S. Army of the Cumberland medical department, she briefly replaced the regimental surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry. Walker conspicuously dressed in a modified uniform of her own design: a blue dress resembling an officer's frock coat and trousers with gold piping, felt hat and the green sash of a surgeon.
The Congressional Medal of Honor Society website says that Walker risked her life on the battlefield to care for wounded Soldiers. She also championed for the treatment of limbs rather than automatic amputation.
She bravely crossed enemy lines to treat Soldiers and civilians. Walker was captured by Confederate Soldiers and imprisoned for four months. She was released as part of a prisoner exchange.
In 1916, Congress revised the Medal of Honor Standards to include only actual combat with an enemy. The next year the Board of Medal Awards, after reviewing the merits of the awardees of the Civil War awards, ruled that Walker’s medal, along with those of 910 other recipients, as unwarranted and revoked them.
Despite the boards’ edict, Walker wore the Medal of Honor every day until she died on Feb. 21, 1919, at the age of 86. Nearly 60 years later, at the urging of a descendent, the Army Board for Correction of Military Records reviewed her case. In June 1977, the Army Secretary approved the recommendation by the board to restore the Medal of Honor to Walker.
So how did the facility come to be named the Dr. Mary E. Walker Memorial Army Reserve Center? She’s not from the city and has no connection to it. She’s not from Michigan. That’s a question for Melvin Bauman, who is a retired Army Reserve lieutenant colonel and is currently an Army Reserve Ambassador Emeritus. He was the supervisory staff administrator for the 334th Medical Group which was the senior unit in the ARC at the time it was built about 20 years ago.
Bauman conducted extensive research to find someone whose military service was worthy of having a building memorialized after that person. He decided to focus on Medal of Honor recipients. “There had to be a Medal of Honor recipient named Walker,” he said. “I found two people named Walker who were recipients from the Civil War both from the Union Army. One was a private from Ohio. The other was Mary Edwards Walker.
“I thought, ‘holy smoke. There’s all kinds of stuff here about her. She was the first female doctor in the Union Army, and she was the first female to receive the Medal of Honor,’” Bauman said.
Bauman calls Walker “quite a character. The more I read about her the more I liked her. I thought, ‘we’ve got to name this center after her.’”
He added that what tied it all together was the connection between Dr. Walker and the 334th Medical Group. “So, here we have a medical group headquarters and we’re naming the center after an Army doctor. How cool is that?”
Bauman doesn’t take credit for locating Dr. Walker, completing the memorialization nomination package and obtaining approval for it. “I think it was part of my job. I had fun doing it. I had a lot of fun making it happen. I didn’t take any credit for it.”