OSWEGO — This month marks the centennial of the death of Oswego Town’s own Dr. Mary Walker (1832 - 1919), who earned distinction as the first and only woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.
“Dr. Mary,” as newspapers penned her, has become a folk hero in her hometown with numerous monuments to her acts and legacy. A distinguished physician, Walker served with the Union army during the Civil War.
An iconoclastic abolitionist and women’s rights advocate who often-broke ranks with other contemporary suffragists, Walker attended Syracuse Medical College and traveled to Washington D.C. in 1861 to volunteer in battlefield hospitals at the onset of the Civil War.
While serving in Richland, Virginia in 1863, confederate soldiers captured Walker as a prisoner of war. Four months later, the Union army negotiated her return in exchanged for a high-ranking rebel officer. That deal would become a point of great pride for Walker and it caught the eyes of two towering figures in American military history: Major General William Tecumseh Sherman and Major General George Thomas.
Because Walker “rendered valuable service to the government, and her efforts have been earnest and untiring in a variety of ways,” the Majors General recommended to President Andrew Johnson that she receive the Medal of Honor “for meritorious services.”
George DeMass, president of the town of Oswego historical society, has dedicated an extensive portion of the repurposed United Methodist Church and Oswego Town Museum with artifacts from Walker’s life — her Bible, a posthumously awarded medal, original photographs and epistolary exchanges with remote friends.
Walker’s renown has proliferated beyond local folk heroism to circles in academia and art. Walker was a “visionary,” DeMass said, decades ahead of her time for one of her life’s missions: speaking out against violence against women.
DeMass will present newfound research on the life and times of Dr. Mary Walker on Thursday, Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. at the Hannibal Historical Society.
He is offering tours of the amassing Oswego Town Museum exhibit on a rolling basis and by appointments only.
“She was one of the first people to speak and write about sexual violence, rape and domestic abuse,” DeMass said. “Her books had vivid descriptions — things you would not discuss in public back in 1878.”
Planning is in the works for a conference on domestic violence issues for April, DeMass said, in conjunction with SUNY Oswego and that the most important thing to learn from Walker was to “always look ahead.”
“Attempt to be a visionary,” he said. “And don’t be afraid of that.”