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How 2 Courageous Women in Fredericksburg Contributed to the Medical Profession During the Civil War

The female contribution to the abolition of slavery during the Civil Ware often goes uncredited. One major way women in Fredericksburg helped the Union cause was as medical professionals.  Clara Barton and Mary Walker set a standard of care that deserves recognition.

Clara Barton

Everyone knows Clara Barton as the founder of the American Red Cross and a woman who risked her life to heal soldiers during the Civil War. One of the most impactful battles of the young nurse’s career was here in Fredericksburg. Clara Barton first visited Chatham Manor, which was known as the Lacy House then, in 1862. On Dec. 11, she watched troops cross the Rappahannock River and begin shelling the city from her vantage point at the union encampment at Chatham in Stafford County.

Not long after the fighting began, injured soldiers began returning to the house, which had been set up as a hospital and she went to work caring for them. Later in the day J. Clarence Cutter, a surgeon, sent a note requesting her help in the battlefield.

“Your place is here,” he wrote. She went and tended to the wounded on the battlefield amidst the fighting.

Returning to Chatham where she would spend the next two weeks, she saw “hundreds of the worst wounded men I have ever seen.” The wounded “covered every foot of the floors and porticos” and she even noticed five men stuffed onto four shelves of a cupboard. They spilled out of the house and were placed on blankets in cold, muddy December. Clara didn’t just offer medical assistance. She set up a soup kitchen in the yard, and since doctors were too busy to keep medical records during battle, she wrote  in her diary the names of the men who died at Chatham and where they were buried.

Barton remained there until all the patients were removed and sent on to larger medical facilities.

She recalled her experience in Fredericksburg in an 1863 letter to a friend: “The fires of Fredericksburg still blazed before my eyes, and her cannon still thundered in my ear, while away down in the depths of my heart I was smothering the groans and
treasuring the prayers of her dead and dying heroes – worn, weak, and heart sick, I was home from Fredericksburg; and when, there, for the first time I looked at myself, shoeless, gloveless, ragged and bloodstained, a new sense of desolation and pity, and sympathy and weariness all blended swept over me with irresistible force, and perfectly overpowered, I sank down… and wept as I had never done since the soft hazy winter night that saw our attacking guns silently stealing their approach to the river, ready at the dawn to ring out the shout of death to the waiting thousands at their wheels.”

A marker in front of Fredericksburg Presbyterian Church at 810 Princess Anne St. Fredericksburg, Va details her work as a nurse in local churches at the time.

Mary Walker

Reports about Mary Walker call her “an eccentric and controversial figure” who worked like a man and dressed like one at a time when gender roles were hard to break through.

Her work on the battlefields, including caring for the wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg, made her the only female recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor—and she is also remembered for her progressive beliefs. Mary Edwards Walker was only 23 when she graduated Syracuse Medical School with her M.D. She became the second woman in the United States to finish medical school. In 1861 she petitioned the government to allow her to be a surgeon in the Union Army surgeon but was denied. She ended up volunteering instead.

Dr. Walker tended the wounded in the aftermath of the battle of Fredericksburg. She wrote that some of the most gruesome cases she handled were in Fredericksburg.

She also wrote, “At one time, when I was down to the Lacy House at Fredericksburg, after the famous battle there. When the wounded were brought from Fredericksburg to near this house, I was directed by the managing surgeons to take any cases I chose and dress them preparatory to sending them to Washington.”

She made a second request to become and official army surgeon in 1864, this time directly to President Abraham Lincoln, and he granted her request. Soldiers remarked on her unusual appearance, as Dr. Walker often male clothing including pants: “Miss Mary Walker created a sensation…she calls herself Dr. Mary Walker and wears a Bloomer and rode her fiery steed with grace and dignity.” She, in turn stated, that she preferred less feminine clothing for health reasons, believing that corsets created medical issues for women. They did. She was captured by the Confederates and held in Richmond for four months, during which time she was ridiculed in local papers there.

Dr. Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor on Nov. 11, 1865 for her “valuable service” and for her “hardships as a prisoner of war.” In 1917, the Army revoked 910 medals including hers. She, unsurprisingly, did not comply and wore it until her death in. In 1977, her medal was reinstated by Jimmy Carter, and she is still the only woman to have been awarded the Medal of Honor.