Mary Edwards Walker
Dr. Mary Walker (1831-1919) was born in Oswego, NY, to forward-thinking parents. They were abolitionists who encouraged her to pursue education far beyond that of other young women of the day.
She graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855 and ran her private medical practice until the Civil War began in 1861. Prevented from joining the Army as a doctor because she was a woman, Walker chose to volunteer her services in a temporary hospital in Washington, D.C., then at field hospitals in Virginia.
In 1863 she was sent to Tennessee as a War Department surgeon, where she was paid the same rate as a lieutenant or captain. The following year she was taken prisoner by the Confederate Army, then released four months later in a prisoner-of-war exchange between the two sides. Upon her release she was sent to Kentucky to run a hospital for women prisoners.
President Andrew Johnson presented Dr. Walker with the Medal of Honor in 1865, the only woman of nearly 3,500 honorees to receive it. She was a staunch advocate for women’s rights including health care availability, dress reform, and suffrage. She died in 1919, just one year before American women won the vote.
To learn more about the rescinding and later restoration of Dr. Walker’s Medal of Honor go to Army Women.
Robert Smalls (1839-1915) was the son of Lydia, an enslaved servant of John McKee. In 1851, when he was 12, Smalls was sent from his home in Beaufort, South Carolina, to be hired out in Charleston. He worked at the harbor on the docks, as a sailmaker, and as a rigger. Though most of his earnings went to the McKees, he was allowed to keep a small percentage. Smalls became skilled at navigating vessels into and out of the harbor. He was truly a full-fledged pilot, but because he was African American, Smalls officially held the lesser position of wheelman.
In 1856, the masters of Smalls and Hannah Jones gave them permission to marry and live together in an apartment. Smalls feared losing his wife and children, who could be sold away at any time because they were all chattel of the Kingman family. To protect them, even though he was himself a slave, he asked the Kingmans to sell him his own wife and children. They agreed, but the price was very high–$800. By the start of the Civil War, he had only saved $100 out of the required $800.
When he was assigned to work aboard a Confederate steamship, the Planter, Smalls saw an opportunity to gain freedom for his family and himself. At 2 a.m. on May 13, 1862, after the white officers went ashore, Smalls took his chance. He was light-skinned and physically similar to the Planter’s captain, so mimicking the captain’s stance and wearing the captain’s usual straw hat, he took his place at the wheel and stole the boat. He steamed past two Confederate forts as he headed straight for the Union blockade. There the USS Onward prepared to fire on the Confederate vessel. However, Smalls had taken down the Planter’s Confederate banners and raised a white flag. As the sun rose illuminating the boat’s deck, the Onward saw the flag and soon realized there were no Confederate sailors aboard at all. On deck they saw some 20 people who could only be escaped slaves.
Smalls relinquished the Planter to the Union, thus freeing himself and his family, the entire crew, and eight passengers.
He served aboard the Planter as pilot during the war, engaging in many actions. During a battle in April 1863, Smalls took command when the white captain proved unfit for the task. After, Smalls was himself promoted to the rank of USN Captain.
For a more complete account of Robert Smalls’ achievement go to Freedom.
Jennie Hodgers AKA Albert D. J. Cashier
Jennie Hodgers AKA Albert D. J. Cashier (1843-1915) emigrated to the United States from County Louth, Ireland. Tradition states her family first dressed her as a boy so she could work in an all-male shoe shop in Illinois.
Women were not allowed to enlist in the Army at that time so, in 1862, Hodgers enlisted in the 19th Illinois Infantry under the name Albert D. J. Cashier. This regiment was assigned to the Army of Tennessee under Ulysses S. Grant and would fight some 40 battles, including the Siege at Vicksburg that gave the Union control of the Mississippi River. Cashier was captured by a Confederate soldier, wrestled away the soldier’s gun, and escaped back to Union lines. At the end of the war in 1865, Cashier was honorably discharged.
For 50 more years, the former soldier continued to live as Albert Cashier, working as a farmhand, at odd jobs, and as a janitor. Several friends and at least one doctor chose to ignore Cashier’s secret.
In 1911 Cashier went to live at the all-male Soldiers and Sailors Home in Quincy, Illinois, where many fellow soldiers and other friends visited, and staff treated Cashier the same as the other veterans.
When Cashier was later placed in Watertown State Hospital due to age-related dementia, the staff dressed the former soldier in women’s clothing. Cashier’s story became public and the veteran’s pension board launched a fraud investigation. However, Cashier’s former comrades at arms confirmed they fought alongside this very person, who had been a brave soldier under harrowing conditions. The pension board was convinced of Cashier’s service and voted to continue the pension for life.
In 1915, Albert D. J. Cashier was buried in uniform with full military honors.
For more about women soldiers in the Civil War see Front Line.