May 3: A Medal for the Common Soldier

 

“The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus opened to all.” So said George Washington when he created the Badge of Military Merit, which he first awarded today in 1783, to two brave enlisted Connecticut soldiers at the Continental Army headquarters in Newburgh, New York.

Prior to this, awards for military distinction had been granted almost exclusively by Congress to military officers: Washington, for forcing the British to evacuate Boston; Horacio Gates’s victory at Saratoga; Nathaniel Greene’s victories in the Southern campaign. The only non-officers awarded medals were the three enlisted men who had captured the spy John Andre, which exposed the British plan to take over West Point and execute Washington, with the help of the traitor Benedict Arnold.

But the final years of the Revolutionary War, which would formally end in September 1783, had been particularly grueling for American soldiers. A frustrating lack of progress regarding peace talks followed the 1781 American victory at Yorktown. Continuous shortages of food, pay, and supplies led to several mutinies and near mutinies among Continental Army soldiers in the months leading up to the summer of 1783. Congress had banned the practice of granting commissions or promotions as a reward for merit, so Washington decided that a formal award honoring enlisted men’s bravery and exceptional service would serve as a much-needed boost in morale. Such an award had no European precedent. Washington authorized its creation, however, 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.”

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 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