Union Army Uniforms and Insignia of the Civil War

Medals and Decorations

Army Medal of Honor

Medal of Honor

Army Medal of Honor (Ribbon Missing)
Courtesy: John Rupp

The Medal of Honor was a product of the American Civil War. Medals are so much a part of our military today that we take their existence for granted and assume that they have always been a part of our military tradition, but that is not true. The Purple Heart, as awarded by George Washington, is often cited as a precedent for the existence of an American decoration. In fact, it did not establish itself as a repetitively awarded decoration and were it not for its rediscovery in 1932, its existence might have been totally forgotten. The idea of a medal for valor originated with Lieutenant Colonel Edward Davis Townsend, the Assistant Adjutant General of the U.S. Army. The idea was not well received by General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, who believed that medals were not appropriate for republics. This opinion was held by others as well.

Townsend's idea failed to take root in the U.S. Army, but Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles heard of it and liked it. He included the establishment of a medal in a series of requested initiatives to improve the efficiency of the Navy. Senator James Wilson Grimes, introduced a bill on December 9, 1861 that included among its many provisions was one that established a medal to be awarded to petty officers, seamen, landsmen, and marines, who distinguished themselves by their gallantry and other seamanlike qualities during the war. President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill into law on December 21, 1861. The original Navy Medal of Honor was limited to enlisted personnel and was a temporary medal authorized only for the duration of the Civil War.

Now that the Navy had a Medal of Honor it was natural that the opinion developed in the Army that it should have one as well. A major obstacle was overcome with the retirement of Winfield Scott on October 31, 1861. On February 17, 1862 Senator Henry Wilson introduced a bill authorizing a Medal of Honor for Army enlisted personnel. This act moved through Congress more slowly but was finally signed into law by President Lincoln on July 12, 1862.

"Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the President of the United States be, and he is hereby, authorized to cause two thousand medals of honor to be prepared with suitable emblematic devices, and to direct that the same be presented, in the name of the Congress, to such non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier-like qualities, during the present insurrection."

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles requested the assistance of James Pollock, Director of the United States Mint to effect the design of the medal. Its design, by the artist Christian Schuller, was inspired by the Civil War. The basic medal was a five-pointed star displayed point down. The central theme was an allegory, displayed within a circle of 34 stars for the number of states. This showed Minerva, as the goddess of civic strength and wisdom, fighting off Discord. The Roman goddess Minerva equates with the Greek goddess Athena and held a very varied portfolio that included such things as wisdom, war, healing, weaving and many more. The Navy version of the medal was suspended from an anchor and a ribbon with a blue upper section and thirteen alternated red and white stripes on the lower section. The ribbon was passed through an upper and lower rectangular clasp. The upper was backed by an attaching pin and the lower, attached to the anchor.

While the Navy Medal of Honor was being crafted, the bill providing for the Army medal was passed. Despite presiding over a cabinet department that would expend about six billion dollars in the course of the Civil War, the ever parsimonious, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton decided that the Army would use the Navy's design with modification only of the clasp to a more military rather than naval design. Both the Navy and Army version allowed for the recipient's name to be engraved on the back. The firm of William Wilson and Son of Philadelphia produced the original medals.

In 1863 additional legislation as enacted, which provided for the medals of both services to be permanent decorations and for the Army but not the Navy decoration to be awarded to officers. On March 25, 1863 Private Jacob Wilson Parrot (1843-1908) of Company K, 33d Ohio Infantry Regiment was the first recipient of the Army Medal of Honor. Private Parrot was a survivor of the raid by James J. Andrews on the Confederate Western and Atlantic Railroad, known as the "Great Locomotive Chase."

The vast majority of awards in the Civil War were made for combat heroism. However, criterion to award the medal was not firmly fixed. Many persons received the award that under similar circumstances today would be given some other form of recognition. In a purge of 1917 many of the more questionable awards were revoked. Among those losing their medals were members of the 27th Maine Infantry, who were given them as an inducement to reenlist, the members of Lincoln's honor guard, and perhaps the most controversial, Doctor Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919). Doctor Walker was an acting assistant surgeon serving as a volunteer with the Army of the Tennessee. Although her status may have been that of civilian contract physician, the Confederate Army apparently captured her in full military uniform in 1864. Doctor Walker was awarded her medal in 1866 and would have it reinstated in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter.

A good many Medals of Honor were awarded long after the end of war for wartime heroism. Among the best-known of the postwar recipients was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (1828-1914), who received his in 1893. In fact the majority of medals awarded to Civil War soldiers were made after and not during the war. Approximately 1520 Medals of Honor were conferred upon Civil War soldiers. Of these 1195 were to member of the U.S. Army and 325 to sailors and marines. This is the largest number of Medals of Honor awarded during any of this nation's wars. By the end of the Second World War about 50% of all the awards of the Medal of Honor were for actions during the Civil War.

It is easy to believe that the Medal of Honor was like Minerva herself, springing to life from the head of Jupiter, fully-grown and wearing armor. In truth the medal has evolved throughout its existence in many ways. This evolution was both in its physical appearance and as a more abstract military and civil institution. Once created it remained for the many deeds of its recipients to raise it to the prestige with which its award is held today.

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