What Everyone Must Know About BEST AWARD MEDALS

Few inventions could possibly be more happily calculated to diffuse the knowledge and preserve the memory of illustrious characters and splendid events, than medals.” These words written in 1787 expressed the feelings of the Continental Congress in March 1776 if they instituted the tradition of awarding medals as the highest distinction of national appreciation for our military heroes.

General Washington’s success in driving the British from Boston in 1776, General Horatio Gates’s victory at Saratoga in 1777, the storming of the British Forts at Stony Point and Paulus Hook in 1779, and General Greene’s Southern victories in 1781 all resulted in the final British surrender at Yorktown in 1781. We were holding great milestones in the United States’ War of Independence. The people and Congress were very pleased with their heroes and wanted to bestow an indicator of national recognition especially upon those officers who had distinguished themselves in battle. As a result, Congress voted to award gold medals to outstanding military leaders. The first approved medal honored George Washington and similar medals were bestowed upon other victors such as General Horatio Gates and Captain John Paul Jones for his naval victory over the Serapis in 1779. Since Benjamin Franklin, the U.S. Ambassador to France at that time, had access to the best of the French Royal engravers, it was only natural for this country to turn to France for assist in the actual production of our fi rst military medals. Under Franklin’s leadership the principle Engraver of the Paris Mint produced the initial medal in 1781. However, following Franklin’s departure from France, the development of another medals for American heroes was extremely slow until Col. David Humphreys and, later, Thomas Jefferson became involved. It was not until March, 1790, that President Washington received his silver and gold medals approved by Congress over 10 years earlier.

Unlike present practice, these large table top presentation medals were not made to be worn on the military uniform. Evidently many thought otherwise since General Horatio Gates’ portrait shows his medal hanging from a neck ribbon. It really is interesting to note that Thomas Jefferson wanted to see that these medals, of which he was very proud, were known and preserved throughout the world. He designed to present sets of the medals to heads of state, foreign dignitaries and every college in america. Jefferson clearly saw medals because the best way to preserve the memory, valor and distinction of America’s soldiers and sailors. As a matter of interest, many of these early commemorative medallions are still being struck and offered for sale by the U.S. Mint.

The “Andre” medal broke the custom of restricting the award of medals to successful senior officers and is doubly unique for the reason that it was designed for wear around the neck. The medal was presented by Congress in 1780 to the three enlisted men who captured British Major John Andre with the plans of the West Point fortifications in his boot. Patriots John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart and David Williams were the recipients of the Andre medal so when time passed were additionally authorized an eternity pension. Major Andre, the captured British officer, was hung as a spy.

In August 1782, George Washington established the Badge of Military Merit, the first U.S. decoration which had general application to all or any enlisted men and one which he hoped would inaugurate a permanent awards system. Concurrently, he expressed his fundamental awards philosophy when he issued an order from his headquarters at Newburgh, New York, which read: “THE OVERALL, ever desirous to cherish a virtuous ambition in his soldiers, in addition to to foster and encourage every species of military merit, directs that, whenever any singularly meritorious action is conducted, 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. Not only instances of unusual gallantry, but also of extraordinary fidelity, and essential service at all, shall talk with a due reward…the road to glory in a patriot army and a free of charge country is thus opened to all. This order is also to possess retrospect to the earliest days of the war, and to certainly be a permanent one.”

Although special and commemorative medals had been awarded previously, until this aspect no decoration had been established which honored the private soldier with an incentive for special merit. The wording of the order will probably be worth careful study. The thing was “to cherish a virtuous ambition” and “to foster and encourage every species of military merit.” Note also, that Washington appreciated that every sort of service was important by proposing to reward, “not only instances of unusual gallantry, but additionally of extraordinary fidelity and essential service at all.” And lastly, the wonderfully democratic sentence, “the street to glory in a patriotic army and free country is thus opened to all or any.”

Coming as it did, almost per year after Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, the message was never given widespread distribution and, subsequently, there were only three known recipients of the badge, Sergeants Elijah Churchill, William Brown and Daniel Bissell. Unfortunately, following the Revolution, the award fell into disuse and disappeared for 150 years. However, it did not die, primarily because of the efforts of the Army’s then Chief of Staff, General Douglas MacArthur, (and, by no accident, one of its first recipients). On the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth, February 22, 1932, the War Department announced that: “By order of the President of the United States, the Purple Heart, established by Gen. George Washington at Newburgh, New York….is hereby revived out of respect to his memory and military achievements.”

Washington’s “figure of a heart in purple” was retained because the medal’s central theme and embellished with Washington’s likeness and his coat of arms. What “For Military Merit” appear on the reverse as a respectful reference to its worthy predecessor. Towards the finish of the war or immediately after, General Washington also authorized a stripe to be sewn on the sleeve of outstanding noncommissioned officers to honor three years of exemplary service or those with six years wore two stripes. These exemplary service or good conduct stripes disappeared after the Revolutionary War along with the original Badge of Military Merit.

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