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The Purge of 1917

 

In the days of the Civil War as well as the years that followed, American servicemen tended to still be dubious of military medals and awards.  Indeed the Medal of Honor had been initially scoffed at by some, as being something in the tradition of European culture.  

As Civil War veterans banded together in organizations such as the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic), and as these veterans became more and more involved in local patriotic activities, medals and citations became more and more important.  Medals have a tendency to incite some degree of jealousy among veterans, and in the late 1800s the Medal of Honor fell to great abuse.  Because Civil War awards had not been awarded and documented with care, it was often difficult to determine WHO was an actual recipient, and who might be an old vet with big war stories of valor, and an ill-gotten award.

To further complicate matters, the Grand Army of the Republic made available an award of its own.  The medal was strikingly similar to the Medal of Honor, and when looking at old photographs it is often difficult to distinguish an aging veteran wearing the Medal of Honor from one wearing the GAR medal.  (Indeed, we receive many inquiries from people who mistake the GAR medal on gravestones for the MOH).  In some old photos you will see Medal of Honor recipients wearing BOTH medals, as these Civil War heroes tended to be quite active in the GAR and veterans' activities of their communities.

It was the confusion that the MOH knock-off created, that led to calls in the 1890s for a new, copyrighted design to distinguish the Medal of Honor from all other awards.  During the same period, the true recipients began taking other actions to insure the integrity of their award.

On April 23, 1890 a group of Medal of Honor recipients gathered in Washington, DC to establish the Medal of Honor Legion.  Over the following 25 years this group took steps to keep their award distinct in design from any other decoration, as well as to lobby Congress for protections for the award.  Among their concerns was an effort to get the US Congress to pass legislation that would "give the Medal of Honor the same position among military orders of the world which similar medals occupy."  In response to this, Ohio Congressman Isaac R. Sherwood introduced a bill to pay a monthly stipend of $10 for life, to "holders of the Medal of Honor who had reached the age of 65 and who had been awarded the medal for action involving actual conflict with the enemy, distinguishable by conspicuous gallantry or intrepidity at the risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty."  The bill passed the US Congress on April 27, 1916.  It was the birth of the MEDAL OF HONOR ROLL or 

 ROLL OF HONOR.

 

The wording of the bill authorizing the stipend and establishing the Roll of Honor opened a new debate, for the legislation authorized the stipend only for those who had received the Medal of Honor "for action involving actual conflict with the enemy".  The loose guidelines for award of the Medal of Honor during its years of infancy had resulted in awards for less than valorous instances.  When President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, his body was guarded by a military detachment of four officers and 25 senior NCOs.  All 29 servicemen were given ceremonial Medals of Honor.  Under the guidelines of the enacted legislation, these men would not be eligible for a pension.  Of even greater impact was an incident during the Civil War involving the 27th Regiment Maine Infantry.  Of 2,625 Medals of Honor awarded up to the date of Congressman Sherwood's bill, nearly one-third (864 total) had been awarded to the men of this regiment for the simple act of extending their enlistment.  

The 27th Maine

The 27th Regiment, Maine Infantry was organized in Portland, ME on September 30, 1862 for a period of nine months.  The unit spent most of its existence in garrison duty in and around Washington, DC and was scheduled for de-activation on June 30, 1863.

In June 1863 Confederate General Robert E. Lee marshaled his forces for the move North into Pennsylvania (where they clashed with Union troops at Gettysburg on July 1st).   Because of the massive Confederate movement, all available Union troops were dispatched to support General Meade, leaving the Nation's Capitol defenseless.  This caused Secretary of War Stanton to send an appeal on June 26th to the soldiers of the 25th and 27th Maine to extend their enlistment beyond the June 30th de-activation date.  Every member of the 25th Maine Infantry refused and departed for home.  Colonel Mark Wentworth of the 27th Maine did a better job of encouraging his men to stay, and some 300 volunteered to remain.

Angered at the men of the 25th Maine, and heartened by some 300 members of the 27th, a grateful Secretary of War ordered on June 29th that every man who had volunteered to stay beyond his enlistment to protect the Capitol, would receive the Medal of Honor.

The volunteers remained beyond their enlistment for only four days, by which time the battle at Gettysburg concluded.  Then they were released and returned home.  None of Colonel Wentworth's men had been involved in the combat at Gettysburg and, in fact, finished their enlistment having not seen combat at all.  None the less, they did not forget the Secretary's promise.  To further compound the problem, Secretary Stanton's order authorizing these Medals of Honor was poorly worded.  He requested a roster of the 300 or so men who had voluntarily remained to guard Washington, but received instead a roster for all men of the unit.  Eventually, the roster would contain the names of each of the 864 members of the 27th Maine, whether they had remained beyond their enlistment or not.  

By January 1865 when the Medals were prepared for issue, most of the former members of the 27th Maine were scattered throughout their state and elsewhere, following their civilian pursuits.  The 864 Medals of Honor were forwarded to the Governor of Maine for distribution.  He in turn, delegated responsibility to Mark Wentworth who had gone on to serve in another Maine regiment until the close of the war.  Colonel Wentworth himself, was dubious of these presentations.  Beyond his year with the 27th Maine he had seen war, fear and valor; and he felt that the men of the 27th didn't deserve such a precious award for their simple act.  He did his best to give the awards ONLY to those he KNEW had remained for the extra four-day defense of the Capitol, but despite his best intentions and with no record of who had stayed and who had departed, it was a difficult task.  Some he gave out, but more than 500 he chose to store in his barn.  In the years that followed word got out about those stored Medals, and thieves broke in to steal many.  When Mark Wentworth died, whatever remained of them, disappeared altogether.

 

The story of the 27th Maine was well known among other recipients of the Medal of Honor, and there was a tendency among the recipients who had earned their awards in combat to negate the awards to members of the 27th Maine.  Thus the wording of a legislative act designed primarily to provide a stipend to Medal of Honor recipients, became the focal point for heated argument.  Nearly one third of the Medals of Honor had NOT been earned  "for action involving actual conflict with the enemy", so it was now necessary to determine if these men should be denied their stipend.  The solution would deny them not only THAT, but the AWARD itself.

The Review

The public debate lasted little more than a month when Congress took action.  On June 3, 1916 Section 122 of the National Defense Act was passed, calling for a board of five retired Army generals to review every award of the Medal of Honor to date.  Retired Lieutenant General Nelson Miles, a Medal of Honor recipient himself and past commander of the Medal of Honor Legion, presided over the board which met from October 16, 1916 until January 17, 1917.  When reviewed, the citations did NOT identify any recipient by name.  Each of the 2,625 Medals of Honor awarded up to the time of the review was given a number, so that each case would be decided on the merit of the action without undue prejudice. 

The task of the board was to apply a standard set forth for the appropriate award of the Medal of Honor, that standard having been identified in the earlier bill providing for the $10 stipend.   It was a difficult task for, "in any case in which said board shall find and report that said medal was issued for a cause other than that hereinbefore specified the name of the recipient of the medal so issued shall be stricken permanently from the official Medal of Honor list".

On February  5, 1917, two weeks after the board concluded its review, it announced its findings.  In all the board determined 911 Medals of Honor did not fit the guidelines established for appropriate cause.  The 911 names stricken permanently from the Medal of Honor roll could basically be broken down into four groups:

864

27th Maine - The names of all 864 men of the 27th Maine (including the name of Colonel Mark Wentworth), were stricken from the Roll of Honor.

Click HERE
For an Alphabetical List of Names 

Click HERE
For a List of Names by Company 

29 Lincoln Funeral Guard - The names of 4 officers and 25 senior NCOs who had received ceremonial Medals of Honor as Abraham Lincoln's funeral guard were stricken.

Click HERE
For an Alphabetical List of Names 

6 Civilians - The names of 5 civilian scouts (1 from the Civil War and 4 from the Indian Wars), and one Civil War civilian contract surgeon were stricken from the Honor Roll.
Dr. Mary Walker Contract Surgeon Civil War
William H. Woodall Civilian Scout Civil War
Amos Chapman Civilian Scout Indian Campaigns
William F. Cody
"Buffalo Bill"
Civilian Scout Indian Campaigns
William Dixon Civilian Scout Indian Campaigns
James B. Dozier Civilian Scout Indian Campaigns

It is of note that two civilians (boat) pilots received NAVY medals of honor in the Civil War, but as this review dealt with Army awards, neither was stricken from the Roll Of Honor.

12 Other Unqualified Recipients - The names of 12 additional men were stricken from the Honor Roll for reasons varying from frivolity of the award to alien status. 
Cpt. Asa B. Gardiner Co I, 22d NY Militia

*See Note Below

Col. George W. Mindil 27th NJ Infantry  
1Lt. William H. Lambert 27th NJ Infantry  
2Lt. Stephen D. Pierson Co D, 27th NJ Infantry  
Sgt. William T. Leport Co K, 27th NJ Infantry  
Pvt. Thomas C. Reed

Co C, 27th NJ Infantry

 
James M. Hawkins Storekeeper, QM Dept

Cited for putting out a fire.

Pvt. Robert Storr Co A, 15th NY Engineers

British Subject (KIA)

Pvt. John B. Lynch Co D, 3d IN Cavalry

Cited for carrying dispatches

SGM Joseph K. Wilson 8th US Infantry

Both cited for saving the flag of the 8th US Infantry.

Cpl. John C. Hesse Co A, 8th US Infantry
Pvt. Thomas Gilbert 18th Ind Btry, NY Light Arty

Cited for extinguishing fuses.

*The case of Captain Gardiner illustrates the frivolity with which some prior awards had been made.  In 1872 Gardiner, now a Lieutenant Colonel, received his Medal of Honor upon submitting an application to Secretary of War Belknap stating, "I understand there are a number of bronze medals for distribution to soldiers of the late War, and I reqauest I be allowed one as a souvenir of memorable times past."

911 Total Number of Awards Rescinded
The six civilian recipients later had their awards restored. 

 

 

 

 

The Purge of 1917

Rescinded Navy Awards

Restorations

Additions to the Honor Roll

Corrections to the Honor Roll

Contradictions

[Alphabetical List of ALL Purged Names]
[27th Maine (Alpha)]   [27th Maine (By Company)]   [Lincoln Funeral Guard]

SOURCES:  This list was obtained from "Document #58, 1st Session, 66th Congress (Report of the 1916 Army Medal of Honor Board) and was provided to us by Chuck Sughrue.

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