May 3: A Revolutionary Medal for the Common Soldier


On this day in 1783, General George Washington awarded the Badge of Military Merit to two brave Connecticut soldiers at the Continental Army headquarters in Newburgh, New York.

The last few years of the Revolutionary War, which would formally end in September 1783, were particularly grueling for American soldiers; a frustrating lack of progress regarding peace talks since the 1781 American victory at Yorktown and continuous shortages of food, pay, and supplies incited several mutinies among Continental Army soldiers in the months leading up to the summer of 1783.  Washington felt that a formal award honoring bravery and exceptional service among enlisted men would serve as a much-needed boost in morale.  Since Congress had banned the practice of granting commissions or promotions as a reward for merit, Washington authorized the creation of a new formal award, writing that he was “ever desirous to cherish virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and encourage every species of Military merit.”  The new award was to focus exclusively on enlisted men, not officers — a revolutionary distinction which had no European military precedent.

An original Badge of Military Merit, the precursor to today’s Purple Heart.

The original Badge of Military Merit, as described in Washington’s General Orders, was a heart-shaped badge of purple cloth; only one surviving example still exists.  The “purple heart” was intended to be sewn onto the left breast of a recipient’s uniform, so others could easily see the merit badge at a glance.

On May 3rd, 1783, Washington awarded the badge to Elijah Churchill of Enfield, Connecticut and William Brown of Stamford.  Churchill was a sergeant in the Second Regiment of Dragoons, and was recognized for his bravery in two daring raids in New York: one on Long Island behind enemy lines, and the other in the contested “neutral ground” near Tarrytown.  Brown is believed to have earned the badge for valor exhibited during the Battle of Yorktown.  A third Connecticut man, Daniel Bissell of East Windsor, was the only other known recipient of the Badge of Military Merit; he received his award on June 10, 1783 for his role in successful intelligence-gathering.  It is unknown if there were any other recipients of the award during the course of the war; the “Book of Merit” that recorded the full list of recipients has since been lost to time.

The Badge of Military Merit was revived in 1932, the year of Washington’s 200th birthday, by General Douglas MacArthur, who wanted to honor Washington’s memory.  The new medal — a heart-shaped medal featuring a profile of George Washington amid a purple enameled backdrop — was designed as a tribute to both the original Revolutionary War badge and Washington himself. Over the course of the 20th century, the criteria for earning a Purple Heart has dramatically changed.  Considered to be one of the highest honors in the United States military, it is now awarded by the President of the United States to any active service member wounded or killed in action.

A modern-day Purple Heart medal.

Further Reading

Kenneth Gosselin, “State Soldiers Were First To Receive Honor Now Known As The Purple Heart,” Hartford Courant

History,” National Purple Heart Hall of Honor Museum

The Badge of Military Merit/The Purple Heart,” U.S. Army Center of Military History