On This Day

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On This Day: Congress Creates Medal of Honor During Civil War

July 12, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On July 12, 1862, Congress passed a bill creating the Medal of Honor, which has since been presented to more 3,400 soldiers for going “above and beyond their call of duty.”

Medal of Honor Created for Navy, Army

Congress created the Medal of Honor during the Civil War to recognize ordinary soldiers for exemplary acts of heroism.

The idea of honoring common soldiers dates back to Aug. 7, 1782, when Gen. George Washington created the Badge of Military Merit to reward “any singularly meritorious Action.” In creating the badge, Washington broke with the European tradition of restricting such honors to officers, according to the U.S. Army Center of Military History; the “road to glory in a patriot army is thus open to all,” he said.

The Badge of Military Merit, a “Figure of a Heart in Purple Cloth or Silk edged with narrow Lace or Binding,” fell into disuse after the Revolutionary War. It was resurrected in 1932 as the Purple Heart Medal.

In the early 19th century, the only honor given to soldiers was a “certificate of merit” during the Mexican-American War, though no medal was awarded. A medal was proposed at the outset of the Civil War, but Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the Army, “felt all medals smacked of European affectation and killed the idea,” writes the American Forces Information Service.

The Navy accepted the idea, however, and on Dec. 21, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln signed Public Resolution 82, creating the Navy Medal of Valor. A similar resolution was introduced for the Army and signed on July 12, 1862, creating the Army Medal of Honor.

The medal was to be awarded “to such noncommissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldierlike qualities, during the present insurrection.”

On March 3, 1863, the Army Medal of Honor was opened to include officers as well, but the Medal of Valor—later renamed the Navy Medal of Honor—still only honors enlisted men.

Medal of Honor Recipients

The first men to receive the Army Medal of Honor were part of Andrews’ Raiders, a team of 21 men led by civilian scout James J. Andrews that stole a locomotive in Georgia and destroyed tracks and telegraph wires while riding it north. They were captured; Andrews and seven others were hanged, eight escaped and six were later exchanged as prisoners-of-war. Those six were awarded the Medal of Honor on March 25, 1863.

The first act to be honored occurred on Feb. 13, 1861, before the medal was even created. Army assistant surgeon Bernard J.D. Irwin led troops in a rescue of 60 soldiers held by Chiricahua Apaches at Apache Pass, Ariz.

More than 1,500 military members would receive the Medal of Honor for actions during the Civil War. In the late 1800s, many veterans called for a review process to preserve the award’s value. In 1916, Congress appointed a board of five retired U.S. Army generals to review each of the Medals of Honor issued up to that time to ensure the validity of the awards and revoke those believed to have been given in error.

In an action widely known as “Purge of 1917,” the board revoked 911 medals. The creation of the Board of Generals was an important step toward protecting the medal’s integrity and prestige.

More than 3,400 Medals of Honor have been awarded, and 19 men have received the award twice. The U.S. Army Center of Military History provides a list and short biography of every recipient.

PBS, for its documentary “American Valor,” profiled 21 honorees.

How Honorees Are Selected

The recommendation and ratification process can take more than a year and a half, “with intense scrutiny every step of the way,” the U.S. Army explains. An honoree must be approved by Congress, several Army offices and officers, the secretary of Defense, and the president.

Once awarded the Medal of Honor, recipients receive numerous benefits, including a monthly $1,000 pension and invitations to attend presidential inaugurations. Deceased recipients are given a special Medal of Honor headstone.

The process is similar for the Navy and Air Force Medals of Honor.

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