Who Held the Saw: Discovering Mary Walker, Civil War Army Surgeon – From Julia Marie Myers
It was Day who first told me of the Invalid Corps. I had never heard of it before. I remember listening with rapt attention as she painted a picture of the night when members of the Invalid Corps defended the Capitol against a Confederate army of 15,000. It was a classic, incredible story epic.
Intrigued, I went and did more research. It began to boggle my mind the pure numbers of soldiers injured during the war — we all know that in theory, but in literal, stark numbers … approximately 17,300 Union casualties at the Battle of Chancellorsville alone (the one where Stonewall Jackson was injured, later dying from his wounds), with almost 10,000 of those being wounded, rather than killed or missing. Ten-thousand. Ten-thousand bodies, strewn about, amongst those who have already perished. How do you even know which ones are still alive?
“Near by, the ambulances are now arriving in clusters, and one after another is call’d to back up and take its load. Extreme cases are sent off on stretchers. The men generally make little or no ado, whatever their sufferings. A few groans that cannot be suppress’d, and occasionally a scream of pain as they lift a man into the ambulance. To-day, as I write, hundreds more are expected, and to-morrow and the next day more, and so on for many days. Quite often they arrive at the rate of 1000 a day.” – Walt Whitman, Specimen Days, Ch. 33
With so many soldiers and varieties of injuries, I began looking into the army surgeons who had to navigate this chaos — the ones who had to determine how to triage the patients, who ultimately had to “wield the saw.” One particular surgeon stood out.
Mary Walker’s story unfolded in front of me as I flipped through the virtual pages of the internet, piecing together information about her career. She was clearly a “disruptive” person — the only woman at the time enrolled in her medical degree program at Syracuse, the first woman surgeon ever to be employed by the US Army.
As I read more about Mary, I found her story incredibly modern. Mary wore men’s clothes. She surely faced discrimination and ridicule for this choice — and indeed on more than one occasion she was arrested for “impersonating a man.” It strikes me as incredible that she existed so long ago, but that she could just as easily be a next door neighbor of mine, who faces similar concerns and judgments about her identity today. We are divided by centuries of time, but when I look at her, I see a saturated, piercing image of the modern world staring back.
Mary’s story as well as the stories of the members of the Invalid Corps inspired me to write my own short fiction film inspired by both historical narratives, for which I am now beginning the pre-production process. I felt that Mary’s role in disrupting the status quo of women, but also in standing on her own as an influential person regardless of her gender, paralleled so beautifully with the story of these men of the Invalid Corps, who defied not only their labels as “cowards” and “cripples,” but who rose up to show that they mattered, fully and fundamentally, as people.
It has been a great pleasure intertwining these stories together in a creative way, and it has been a perfect complement to my working with Day on her documentary on the Invalid Corps. Every day, we are learning more and more, and it only makes me more excited to share what we have discovered, and what we are creating, with you.
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