On this day in 1782, George Washington, likely the only indispensable man in American history, ordered the creation of a medal to recognize those who he sincerely believed to be the same —indispensable.
The Badge of Military Merit, which later became known as the Purple Heart, marked the first time in modern history that a military award was created and offered to the common soldier rather than to officers alone.
In most all of military history, medals were created and bestowed only to high-ranking officers who had achieved victory in the field. Washington who had witnessed firsthand the hardship of war knew it was the common soldier who bore his commander to victory. He explained it thus:
“The General ever desirous to cherish virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and encourage every species of Military merit, directs that whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear on his facings over the left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth, or silk, edged with narrow lace or binding. Not only instances of unusual gallantry, but also of extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way shall meet with a due reward. Before this favour can be conferred on any man, the particular fact, or facts, on which it is to be grounded must be set forth to the Commander in chief accompanied with certificates from the Commanding officers of the regiment and brigade to which the Candadate [sic] for reward belonged, or other incontestable proofs, and upon granting it, the name and regiment of the person with the action so certified are to be enrolled in the book of merit which will be kept at the orderly office. Men who have merited this last distinction to be suffered to pass all guards and sentinals [sic] which officers are permitted to do. The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all. This order is also to have retrospect to the earliest stages of the war, and to be considered as a permanent one.”
The Badge of Military Merit was awarded sparingly in the Revolutionary War. Historians note that only three recipients are listed as having received it during the conflict. There were also a handful of other soldiers whose discharge papers record their earning the high honor.
It is clear that General Washington took the presentations very seriously, as the level of suffering was so high at Valley Forge and throughout the war that it would seem that most every soldier should have merited the award.
The award itself is striking. Designed in secret by a woman named Elizabeth Will under the authorization of General Douglas MacArthur, it retains the original purple heart that George Washington himself designed.
The Will design added the dignified bust and profile of George Washington and was adorned with his family crest. The reverse, out of respect for his original award, has the words “For Military Merit” as the inscription.
Though not often bestowed, Washington’s award was never officially abolished and in 1932, to honor the great man on his birthday, the U.S. War Department authorized the Purple Heart Medal and determined that it would be the “successor decoration” to the Badge of Military Merit.
Thus the Purple Heart (being the successor to the Badge of Military Merit) has the distinction of being the oldest medal in America (The Fidelity Medal was authorized by the Continental Congress two years before in 1780 but it was confined to just three recipients — the three men who captured John Andre, the British spy who conspired with Benedict Arnold to seize the armory at West Point — it was never issued again).
What is significant (and just) about the award today is that it is the only medal presented by the U.S. military that does not require a formal recommendation, but is automatically entitled when a clear set of conditions are met. What is not widely known and equally unique is that civilians who are in the service of the military are eligible as well.
How fitting is it that the award should have come from a man who understood more than most that “the road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all.”
Over 1.9 million men and women have been awarded the distinguished medal in its long and storied history. We honor them and their families, who oft-times have suffered along with the wounded or fallen.
The sacrifices that the finest among us make in the service of our liberty should be recognized and honored with reverence. We are at once both fortunate and not, that so many of our military have a heart.