The Purple Heart Medal

“We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a featherbed.”  Thomas Jefferson, April 2, 1790.

The Purple Heart Award has a history that reaches back to the waning days of the American Revolution. The Continental Congress had forbidden General George Washington from granting commissions and promotions in rank to recognize merit. Yet Washington wanted to honor merit, particularly among the enlisted soldiers. On August 7, 1782, his general orders established the Badge of Military Merit:

“…The General, ever desirous to cherish virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and encourage every species of Military merit, directs 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.”

This award was open only to enlisted men and granted them the distinction of being permitted to pass all guards and sentinels as could commissioned officers. The names of the recipients were to have been kept in a “Book of Merit” (which has never been recovered). At the present time there are three known recipients of the Badge of Military Merit: Sergeant Elijah Churchill, 2nd Continental Dragoons; Sergeant William Brown, 5th and Sergeant Daniel Bissel, 2nd Connecticut Continental Line Infantry.

Washington stated that the award was to be a permanent one, but once the Revolution ended, the Badge of Merit was all but forgotten until the 20th century.  The specification for the Purple Heart is:  “Being wounded or killed in any action against an enemy of the United States or as a result of an act of any such enemy or opposing armed forces.”   The Medal of Honor, by contrast, is the highest military honor, awarded for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty.

General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing suggested a need for an award for merit in 1918, but it was not until 1932 that the Purple Heart was created in recognition of Washington’s ideals and for the bicentennial of his birth. General Order No.3 announced the establishment of the award:

“…By order of the President of the United States, the Purple Heart, established by General George Washington at Newburgh, August 7, 1782, during the War of the Revolution is hereby revived out of respect to his memory and military achievements.”

By order of the Secretary of War:
Douglas MacArthur
General, Chief of Staff

On May 28, 1932, 138 World War I veterans were conferred their Purple Hearts at Temple Hill, in New Windsor, NY.  Temple Hill was the site of the New Windsor Cantonment, which was the final encampment of the Continental Army in the winter of 1782-1783.  Today, the National Purple Heart continues the tradition begun here in 1932, of honoring veterans who have earned the Purple Heart.

The Purple Heart has undergone many changes with respect to the criteria for being awarded.  At first, the Purple Heart was exclusively awarded to Army and Army Air Corps personnel and could not be awarded posthumously to the next of kin.  In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order allowing the Navy to award the Purple Heart to Sailors, Marines, and Coast Guard personnel.  Also in that year, the Purple Heart was made available for posthumous award to any member of the military killed on or after December 7, 1941.

Originally the Purple Heart was awarded for meritorious service.  Being wounded was one portion of consideration for merit. With the creation of the Legion of Merit in 1942, the award of the Purple Heart for meritorious service became unnecessary and was therefore discontinued. The Purple Heart, per regulation, is awarded in the name of the President of the United States to any member of the Armed Forces of the United States who, while serving under competent authority in any capacity with one of the U.S. Armed Services after April 5, 1917 has been wounded, killed, or has died after being wounded.

The National Purple Heart Museum is located in New Windsor, N.Y. (on the western side of I-87).  Washington’s Headquarters is located in nearby Newburgh, N.Y.

A family friend had won the Purple Heart, but he never told anyone about it.  After he died, the family was sorting through his belongings and there it was, in a box at the back of his closet.  Obviously, being a medal that is awarded to thousands of soldiers, the PH doesn’t have the prestige of the Medal of Honor (for heroism).  Most veterans don’t give it a thought.

But patriotic Americans do.  It is a small token, indeed, for the sacrifices they made for freedom.  The fact that it is a “common” medal doesn’t make its recipients’ valor any less “uncommon.”

 

 

 

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Published in: on August 7, 2013 at 10:32 am  Leave a Comment  

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