Thursday, 2 August 2007
The 225th Anniversary of the Purple Heart
Next Tuesday, 7 August 2007, marks the 225th Anniversary of the institution of the second oldest military award for members of the Army of what would become these United States. The oldest is the Fidelity Medallion, also known as the “Andre Capture Medal,” created by act of the Continental Congress in 1780 and awarded to Privates John Paulding, David Williams and Isaac Van Wart of the New York State Militia. On the obverse is what appears to be a heart, flanked by leafed stalks, with “Fidelity” above. The reverse contains the Latin phrase, “Amor Patriae Vincit,” Love of Country Conquers. It never was awarded again, so the award created two years later often is considered the oldest.
The seventh of August was a Wednesday back then, and we can imagine George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army, sitting down at the desk in his office at the back of the stone Hasbrouck house in Newburgh, NY, to sign the orders necessary to create The Badge of Military Merit. It long had been the custom in European armies to honor generals and other high ranking officers with decorations for achieving victory in battle, but Washington wanted commendations for valor and meritorious service open to all. His order read:
“The General, ever desirous to cherish virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to 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 the 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 a due reward….The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all. This order is also to have retrospect to the earliest stages of the war, and to be considered as a permanent one.” The award carried an interesting privilege: the recipient was permitted to cross any sentinel post without delay, just as a commissioned officer could.
The original badge was embroidered with the word “MERIT” flanked by a garland on either side. Three recipients, all non-commissioned officers, received the first awards from Washington himself. Sergeant William Brown of the 5th Connecticut Regiment, Connecticut Line and Sergeant Elijah Churchill of the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons on 3 March 1783 and Sergeant Daniel Bissell of the 2nd Connecticut Regiment of the Connecticut Line on 10 June 1783. Discharge papers for other Continental soldiers, however, indicate that several received the “Badge of Merit” for their sustained service during the Revolutionary War. Then this award also fell into disuse, although it never was formally abolished. Brown’s badge is in the possession of the New Hampshire branch of the Society of the Cincinnati; Churchill’s is at the recently opened National Purple Heart Hall of Honor at Vail’s Gate, NY; Bissell’s badge was destroyed in a fire in 1813.
Honorary Badges of distinction, consisting of a narrow strip of white cloth for each three years of service, also were created at the same time for soldiers and non-commissioned officers, and severe penalties were envisioned for anyone wearing badges they had not earned.
In 1927, Army Chief of Staff Charles P. Summerall, Class of 1892, attempted to restore the award but was unsuccessful. He ordered all supporting documents to be retained, however, and his successor, Douglas MacArthur ‘03, resumed the process. Elizabeth Will of the Office of the Quartermaster designed the new medal, and the President revived the medal by executive order on the bicentennial of Washington’s birth, 22 February 1932, making it retroactive to the day before America’s entry into World War I on 6 April 1917. Ironically, MacArthur was the first official recipient of the newly styled Purple Heart. At the time, it was awarded to any member of the Army who had been awarded a Meritorious Service Citation Certificate or Army Wound Ribbon or was authorized to wear a Wound Chevron. Like the original Badge of Military Merit, it had both a valor and a meritorious service component. The otherwise plain reverse of the modern medal still carries the Washingtonian wording “For Military Merit.”
After 22 September 1943, when the Legion of Merit was created, the Purple Heart was awarded exclusively for wounds received in combat with an armed enemy. Earlier, on 3 December 1942, award of the Purple Heart had been extended to all services. It was not until 25 April 1962, however, that an executive order provided for a posthumous award. An amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill of 1985 changed the precedence of the Purple Heart from above the Good Conduct Medal to above the Meritorious Service Medal. Effective 18 May 1998, the Purple Heart also may be awarded to any civilian national of the United States serving with any of our Armed Forces. Only five members of the Armed Forces to date have been awarded eight (8) Purple Hearts each. This year also is the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Military Order of the Purple Heart in 1932.
From Paragraph 2-8, Army Regulation 600-8-22 (Military Awards), 25 Feb 1995
a. The Purple Heart is awarded in the name of the President of the United States to any member of an Armed Force or any civilian national of the United States who, while serving under competent authority in any capacity with one of 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-
b. While clearly an individual decoration, the Purple Heart differs from all other decorations in that an individual is not "recommended" for the decoration; rather he or she is entitled to it upon meeting specific criteria. [Emphasis added.]
Your humble servant, J. Phoenix, Esquire
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