Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Theresa Kaminski's "Dr. Mary Walker's Civil War"

Theresa Kaminski earned her Ph.D. in history, with a specialization in American women’s history, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has spent more than twenty-five years researching and writing about American women. Kaminski regularly reviews nonfiction titles for Publishers Weekly and has been published with the Wall Street Journal.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Dr. Mary Walker's Civil War: One Woman's Journey to the Medal of Honor and the Fight for Women's Rights, and reported the following:
If a book browser opened Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War to page 99, they would find the doctor in the middle of the Civil War, working in a volunteer hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee, treating soldiers wounded in the battle at Chickamauga. This is likely where she met Union general George Thomas, who was so impressed by her medical skills that he would later secure for her a paid position as a civilian contract surgeon with the army.

What Dr. Walker longed for was an actual military commission. From page 99:
On November 2, 1863, the doctor wrote to Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war, with a bold proposal. “Will you give me authority to get up a regiment of men, to be called Walker’s U.S. Patriots, subject to all general orders, in Vol. Regts?” she inquired. She planned to enlist volunteers from any of the loyal states, with the understanding she would serve as the regiment’s first assistant surgeon.
Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War perfectly confirms Ford Madox Ford’s assertion, "Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you." The page itself contains an important example of how, throughout the book, I weave historical context (here, the battle of Chickamauga) with Mary Walker’s activities. The whole story emphasizes how Walker lived life on her own terms, rejecting society’s restrictions on women’s activities in pursuit of gender equality. Determined to become a doctor at a time when the profession was dominated by men, she found a medical school that admitted women. After receiving her M.D., she went into private practice, giving that up shortly after the beginning of the Civil War. Walker believed, because of her skills and experience, the U.S. army would give her a commission as a surgeon. Instead, she worked as a volunteer in Union hospitals in Washington, D.C. and out in the field, always holding the belief she would convince the military brass to issue a commission.

Since this fact is part of the book’s subtitle, I am not spoiling anything by saying that Dr. Walker’s medical services earned her the Medal of Honor. To date, she is the only woman to receive this award. After the Civil War, Walker concentrated her attention on the women’s suffrage movement. In Washington, D.C. and in her home state of New York, she became a familiar proponent of women’s voting rights. By the 1870s, she was a controversial one as she clashed with leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony over tactics. This part of Mary Walker’s life provides a unique perspective on the fight for suffrage, which is particularly important in 2020 as we observe the centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.
Visit Theresa Kaminski's website.

--Marshal Zeringue