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purple_heart_graphic2.gif (9827 bytes)The Purple Heart

Our Nation's First Military Award

 

 

 

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On June 26, 1775 General George Washington rode into Boston to assume command the the Continental Army of the colonies soon to declare themselves independent as the United States of America.  His first impression was not a good one.  Washington had served as a Colonel in the British Army during the French-Indian Wars, had led men and seen combat.  During the march on Duquesne in 1755 his commander, Major General Edward Braddock had been killed, and Colonel Washington was fortunate to survive.  Two horses had been shot from beneath him in the action and his uniform had been torn in four places by bullets.

Now, as the 17,000 men of his new command assembled before him, General Washington had a deep sense of foreboding.  This was no army!   He would be hard pressed to even describe it as a militia.  It was a rag-tag band of farmers, merchants, and adventurers...not a professional soldier among them.   To his good friend Patrick Henry back in Virginia he is reported to have written, "From the day I entered upon the command of the American armies, I date my fall and the ruin of my reputation."

In the years that followed, Washington did his best to build them into an army.  He led them by example, providing courageous inspiration in their darkest moments.  He prayed for them at night, his wife sewed clothing and cooked meals for many of them during the harsh winter at Valley Forge.  Though seldom considered a brilliant tactician, in fact General Washington lost more battles than he won, he was a powerful leader.  Seven years later that rag-tag force was on the brink of defeating the army of Great Britain.  It was an incredible transformation.   In October of 1781 the British surrendered at Yorktown and General Washington set up his headquarters at Newburgh, New York.

Along the way, General Washington had always tried to maintain a degree of personal involvement with his men.  He witnessed their courage, their valor in battle, and did his best to reward them accordingly.  This was usually accomplished through "field promotions".  Any soldier who distinguished himself in battle might suddenly find himself being promoted in rank, perhaps even receiving a commission.  It was an effective recognition, for with increased rank came increased pay. 

By the summer of 1782 the American Revolution was over, only the formalities of adopting the peace accords remained.  General Washington was in his headquarters at Newburgh, New York as the Continental Congress reviewed the cost of the war for independence, as well as the continued cost of maintaining an army.  Funds were depleted, in fact many soldiers of the Continental Army had not received their pay for war time service (and would not...a point which later led to Shay's Rebellion).  In a cost-cutting measure the Congress sent General Washington a message to cease his practice of recognizing individual achievement or valor by promotion.

Though the battle for freedom was over, General Washington believed it was important to maintain the effectiveness and high morale of his troops, even in peace time.  As General Washington pondered this in contrast with his recent message from Congress, he began devising new ways to recognize his men for service and for singularly meritorious service.  They were formalized in his General Orders of August 7, 1782.

To recognized EVERY soldier for his service, General Washington authorized a chevron to be worn on the left sleeve of any enlisted or non-commissioned veteran who had served for three years with "bravery, fidelity and good conduct".  Veterans of six years service would be authorized to wear two chevrons.

This was a brave new step in military history.   European models had usually recognized officers and royalty with military awards, never the common soldier.  George Washington's "badge of service" would take emphasis away from rank, indicating that it was SERVICE and not rank that was important.  He instituted this step to recognize our first veterans of military service by saying, "The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all."

This new recognition was established with Washington's General Orders of August 7, 1782.  General Washington took it one step further, authorizing an individual award for men who singularly performed deeds of valor or unusual merit.  It would become The Badge of Military Merit.  The General's orders described it thus:

"The General, ever desirous to cherish virtuous ambition in his soldiers as well as foster and encourage every species of military merit, directs that whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear on his facings, over his left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth or silk, edged with narrow lace or binding.  Not only instances of unusual gallantry but also of extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way shall meet with due reward.
     "The name and regiment of the persons so certified are to be enrolled in a Book of Merit which shall be kept in the orderly room."

The Badge of Military Merit

purpleheart_original.gif (10700 bytes)With those August 7, 1782 orders General Washington established our first military medal, the Badge of Military Merit.  It was made of cloth or silk, purple in color and bordered with a white lace.  It could be worn either suspended from a ribbon placed around around the neck or sewn to the left breast pocket of the uniform.  The man who received it, regardless of his rank, would be granted privileges normally reserved to officers.  Specifically, any recipient of the award would be allowed to pass by guards and sentinels with the same courtesy such other enlisted men paid to officers.

General Washington called upon a close friend to design the award, M. Pierre Charles L'Enfant.  Later as President, George Washington called upon that same friend to design our Nation's Capitol City in Washington, D.C.

purpleheart_presentation.jpg (39599 bytes)Nearly a year later, on May 3, 1783 General Washington presented The Badge of Military Merit to two soldiers from Connecticut.  Sergeant Elijah Churchill had been a carpenter before entering the Continental Army as a private years earlier.  He was cited for gallantry in action at Fort St. George near Brookhaven on Long Island, at Coram, New York in November 1780, as well as a subsequent action at Tarrytown, New York in July 1781.    Sergeant William Brown was also cited.  Though records of his citation have not been recovered, it is generally believed he was cited for his gallantry during the siege of Yorktown.

On June 10, 1783 General Washington presented a third Badge of Military Merit to Sergeant Daniel Bissell, Jr.   A year earlier General Washington had ordered the Connecticut sergeant to pose as a deserter, acting as a spy among the British troops in New York.  From August 14 to September 29 the brave patriot had repeatedly risked his life to provide valuable information on enemy strength and movement.

These three awards were all made directly by General Washington himself, the awards presented together with a certificate detailing the service for which the Badge was awarded.  Two of these original awards are still on display, more than 200 years after their presentation.  There is no other known record of this award.

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The Medal Of Honor

General Washington's dream of recognizing singularly meritorious action by ordinary soldiers never quite caught on.  At the time he issued his Executive Orders on August 7, 1782 he stated:  "The order (authorizing the Badge of Military Merit) to be retroactive to the earliest stages of the war, and to be a permanent one."  But Washington himself, presented only three, and the award faded into obscurity.

Even as the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps of the young United States became more professional, the reluctance to recognize military men with medals ran deep.  The practice of wearing medals was far too reminiscent of European aristocracy, and the people of the United States had taken great steps to build their nation far from the European model.  In 1847 the American military found itself committed to combat in the Mexican-American War.  During that brief action a "certificate of merit" was created to recognize those soldiers who distinguished themselves in action.  But the certificate of merit was just that, a certificate that existed more in terms of a voucher that often brought a small payment to the soldier but no lasting recognition or visible medal.  Not until the Civil War was any consideration given to awarding a medal itself.

Early in the Civil War a medal of honor was proposed in Congress to "promote efficiency in the Navy."  Approved in 1861, the new Medal of Honor would only be awarded to enlisted sailors and petty officers, and was not approved for award to commissioned officers until more than 50 years later.  The following summer the Army established its own Medal of Honor in legislation signed by President Lincoln on July 12, 1862.  Before the war ended, the Army allowed the award of its medal to enlisted men, non-commissioned and commissioned officers who distinguished themselves.   During the Civil War more than 2,000 Medals of Honor were awarded to United States soldiers ranging in rank from private to general.  (Later, in 1917, some 900 of these awards were rescinded.)  The Navy awarded its Medal of Honor to 308 enlisted sailors, and 17 enlisted Marines.  (You can read more specific information and chronology of the Medal of Honor HERE!)  In similar fashion to General Washington's original plan for awarding the Badge of Military Merit, the Medal of Honor was presented by an accompanying certificate, now called a "citation", setting forth the actions for which it was presented.  An honor roll was also subsequently established to record each recipient's name and unit for future generations.

From the end of the Civil War through World War I, the Medal of Honor was the ONLY medal that could be earned by members of the United States Army, Navy, Marines or Coast Guard.  For this reason Medals of Honor were often awarded in situations that, though meritorious, did not warrant such an award.  As a result, a review of Medal of Honor awards in 1917 led to the rescinding of 910 previous awards.  More importantly, it led to the creation of "lesser awards" for actions that did not merit the Medal of Honor but were worthy of recognition.  These new medals including the Distinguished Service Cross (and shortly thereafter the Navy Cross) and the Silver Star, were arranged in an order of PRECEDENCE.   At the top of this order of precedence was, of course, the Medal of Honor. 

Awards of the Medal of Honor in the late 1800's, many of them to Civil War veterans for service almost half a century earlier, began to draw attention.  For the first time American military veterans began to not only accept military medals as an American tradition, but to covet them as well.  The establishment of the Pyramid of Honor seemed to open a floodgate that, in the 50 years following would create an array of medals for valor, medals for service, and campaign ribbons that would be difficult to keep up with.  In the process, our Nation's first military medal began to get a second look.

The Purple Heart Medal

The award we have come to recognize as the Purple Heart actually found its roots not so much in the desire to create a new medal for military men to wear, as it was in the desire to honor a great American hero of the past.   George Washington was born on February 22, 1732.  Nearly 200 years later the American public was preparing for the bi-centennial of his birth, complete with commemorative events and celebrations.   In the process of researching the life of the Father of our Country in order to plan the celebration, General Washington's Executive Order of August 7, 1782 was found.  Along with it was the record of his purple Badge of Military Merit and the accounts of the three men who had received it.   On October 10, 1927 Army Chief of Staff, General Charles P. Summerall drafted a bill to send to Congress in an effort to revive the Badge of Military Merit.  For whatever reasons, the bill received little support and was withdrawn early the following year.

As the bi-centennial celebration drew closer, General Summerall was replaced by General Douglas MacArthur, a hero of service in Mexico and World War I, and the son of a Civil War Medal of Honor recipient.  With little public fanfare, General MacArthur began work anew on General Summerall's proposal to re-establish the Badge of Military Merit.  Throughout 1931 the Army quietly designed and created the new award.  It was announced on February 22, 1932...the 200th anniversary of George Washington's birth.  In honor of the Father of our Country and the man who established our military's first medal, the Purple Heart would bear the profile on George Washington on its face.

The Army quickly embraced the new medal, authorizing its presentation to any soldier whose "wound...necessitates treatment by a medical officer and which is received in action with an enemy."  The award itself was made retro-active, allowing World War I Army veterans who had been wounded in action to exchange previously received Meritorious Service Citation Certificates for the new Purple Heart Medal.  In the early days of World War II, soldiers received the Purple Heart not only for wounds, but also in some circumstances, for meritorious service. 

The Navy was not so quick to accept the Medal, and not until a year after Pearl Harbor was it authorized for sailors and Marines.  On December 3, 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an Executive Order authorizing the Purple Heart to sailors and Marines wounded or killed on or after December 6, 1941.  This made all those injured or killed at Pearl Harbor eligible for the Purple Heart.  At the same time he established the Legion of Merit medal for meritorious service, restricting the Purple Heart for award only to those killed or wounded in combat.   Later, President Truman extended the time period for the award back to April 5, 1917, allowing Naval and Marine Corps veterans of World War I to receive the award.

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Today the Purple Heart is perhaps, the most unique of all United States military awards.  Though low in the order of precedence on the Pyramid of Honor (it ranks below the Bronze star), it is one of the most widely recognized and respected medals.  It can not be earned by courage or by exceptional service or achievement.   The Purple Heart signifies one thing...SACRIFICE.  Whenever you see the Purple Heart, know that it represents either a combat death or a combat wound.  It represents the blood that has been shed in defense of liberty.

 

The Purple Heart is awarded in the name of the President of the United States to any member of an Armed force who, while serving with the U.S. Armed Services after 5 April 1917, has been wounded or killed, or who has died or may hereafter die after being wounded.  A wound for which the award is made must have required treatment by a medical officer.

Criteria:

  1. For wounds or death sustained in action against an enemy of the United States;

  2. In any action with an opposing armed force of a foreign country in which the Armed Forces of the United States are or have been engaged;

  3. While serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party;

  4. As a result of an act of any such enemy of opposing armed forces;

  5. As the result of an act of any hostile foreign force;

  6. After 28 March 1973, as a result of an international terrorist attack against the United States by a foreign nation friendly to the United States, recognized as such an attack by the Secretary of the department concerned, or jointly by Secretaries of the departments concerned if persons from more than one department are wounded in the attack; or

  7. After 28 March 1973, as a result of military operations, while serving outside the territory of the United States as part of a peacekeeping force.

  8. After 7 December 1941, by weapon fire while directly engaged in armed conflict, regardless of the fire causing the wound (friendly fire).

While held as a prisoner of war or while being taken captive.

 


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It has not been uncommon in time of war, for soldiers to be wounded more than one time.  (Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient Robert Howard was wounded 14 times in 54 months of combat duty, for a total of 9 awards of the Purple Heart.)  As with other military awards, subsequent awards of the Purple Heart are designated by the addition of one oak leaf cluster for each additional award.

 

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The Military Order of the Purple Heart is the only organization chartered by Congress to represent the military veterans who have been awarded the Purple Heart.   You can click on their logo above or  to visit their website.  (EXTERNAL LINK)

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A Symbol of Sacrifice

 

For a complete list of all Military Medals for All Branches of Service, Click on the icon below.

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