This article discusses and pictures a rare predecessor to the Purple Heart medal - the Badge of Military Merit.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To read the complete article, see:
May 3: A Revolutionary Medal for the Common Soldier
Wayne Homren, Editor
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