Predecessors of the Medal of Honor
The presentation of medals and awards for uncommonly gallant, meritorious actions in military service has a long history in the world as well as in the United States. During the American Revolution George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army created the Badge of Military Merit, the United States' first combat decoration.
After the Revolution the Badge of Military Merit fell into disuse, and an award for valiant action in combat would not return until 1847 and the breakout of the Mexican-American War. The Certificate of Merit was created, which would eventually become the Certificate of Merit Medal. Again, however, once the conflict was over this award would be discontinued.
The Civil War and the Congressional Medal of Honor
It was not until the breakout of the Civil War in 1861 that the Medal of Honor would come into existence and be made permanent. Early on in the war the idea of a medal of valor had been proposed to then General-in-Chief (first of several for the Union) Winfield Scott. Scott however hated the idea, thinking it too European for his tastes and rejected it.
On the 9th of December, 1861, James W. Grimes, Iowa Senator and chairman of the Senate Naval Committee, proposed a create a medal of honor for valorous service in the Navy. It was quickly passed and signed into law on December 21st, 1861. The Medal of Honor was born.
The Army, though, still had no official medal of merit. On the 17th of February, 1862, Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson proposes the creation of an Army Medal of Honor. This proposition would ultimately succeed, but it would not be signed into law until July 12th of that year. In 1863 the award would become permanent, and has remained as the highest and most prestigious medal that can be earned in the Armed Forces.
Early Recipients of the Medal of Honor
The first act of valor which would ultimately be awarded with the Congressional Medal of Honor occurred on the 13th of February, 1861, a year before the Army Medal of Honor would be proposed. An Army Surgeon by the name of Bernard J.D. Irwin led a group of 14 men into Apache Pass, Arizona, rescuing 60 men from a band of Indians who had trapped them there. Irwin would not actually receive the award until 1894, over 30 years later.
Army Private Francis Edwin Brownell was the first to achieve the Medal of Honor during the Civil War. On the 24th of May, 1861 he found and killed the murderer of Colonel Ellsworth in Alexandria, Virginia.
John Williams, Captain of the U.S.S. Pawnee, was the first to earn the Navy Medal of Honor, for his actions of bravery in leaving no man behind in a desperate battle in June of 1861, as well as courage involving the flag.
Interestingly, one of the first to achieve the Medal was also the only woman ever to receive it: Dr. Mary Walker, who was one of 11 participants in the Battle of Bull Run to receive the award. In the over 140 years since the battle no other woman has received the Congressional Medal of Honor. In 1917 her medal was rescinded, but it was restored in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter.
Although these individuals had earned their Medals of Honor, it would be some time before they actually received them. By the time that the first batch of Medals of Honor were issued to be made in July of 1862, already 88 people had performed actions worthy of the honor.
In March of 1863 Secretary of War Edwin Stanton made the first ever presentation of the Congressional Medal of Honor, two six of the surviving members of the famous Andrew's Raiders. These 20 spies had, in April of 1862, sneaked deep into Confederate territory to Marietta, Georgia, in order to capture a train and use it to disrupt the lines of transportation in the South. The plan was foiled and seven of the raiders hung, but still the Raiders were rewarded for their bravery. Four of those hanged also received Medals of Honor, the first to receive the medal posthumously.
Second Lieutenant Thomas Custer, brother of the infamous General George Armstrong Custer, also earned distinction during the Civil War. He was the first to receive not one but two Congressional Medals of Honor for two separate actions, and was the only to do so in the course of the Civil War. Only 13 other people have received two distinct Medals of Honor for two separate actions.
The Air Force Medal of Honor
In 1947 President Harry S Truman created the United States Air Force as a separate branch of the Armed Forces, doing away with the Army Air Corps. During the Korean War members of the Air Force who received the Medal of Honor received the Army Medal of Honor.
In 1956, 3 years after the end of the Korean conflict, legislation was passed authorizing the Air Force their own unique Medal of Honor, distinct from both the Army and the Navy Medals of Honor.
The Congressional Medal of Honor Today
During the Civil War, a total of 1,522 Medals of Honor were issued between the Army and the Navy. As time went on, requirements for the issuing of the Medal became more strict and less and less people began to receive the award. During World War I there were only 124 Medals of Honor issued, during World War II there were 464.
One of these was given to the notable Audie Leon Murphy, the most decorated soldier of the war. He originally attempted to enlist in the Army in 1941 when war was declared, but was rejected because he was too young. He attempted to join the Navy, Marines and the Army Paratroopers but was again repeatedly rejected because he was too short. He was ultimately enlisted in the Army where he fought valiantly in France and Belgium. Upon his return home he became an actor, starring in such films as Bad Boy, The Red Badge of Courage and the autobiographical To Hell and Back which was the highest grossing film of all time until 1975's Jaws.
Since World War II 851 Medals of Honor have been awarded. It is perhaps the most highly regarded medal in the United States of America, and is instantly recognized and respected the world over.
- Secretary of War Edwin Stanton
- Badge of Military Merit
- Winfield Scott
- the Mexican-American War