|President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Honor to Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore A. Giunta, the first living recipient in 40 years, for his service in Afghanistan.|
July 12, 1862 is usually cited as the birthday of America’s highest military decoration for valor. That would make it 150 years old today.
It is true that on that date President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill authorizing the issuance of a medal “to such noncommissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier-like qualities, during the present insurrection.” This award was for members of the Army only.
Such an honor had first been suggested to the Commanding General of the Army Winfield Scott shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War because at the time he service had no award for bravery. Old Fuss and Feathers curtly rejected the idea either because it was a breach of Army tradition, or, some suspected, because after notable bravery under fire in War of 1812, service in the Seminole Wars, and extraordinary leadership in the Mexican War he had never been so honored.
Undeterred by the rejection the sponsor of the scheme, Iowa Senator James W. Grimes pressed ahead and got a bill passed that offered such a decoration to “such petty officers, seamen, landsmen, and Marines as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry and other seamanlike qualities during the present war” for the Navy. The decoration was named the Medal of Honor. Lincoln signed the law on December 21, 1861.
By then the old war horse Scott had retired and been replaced by that strutting martinet General George McClellan, always a fan of shiny and showy things. The war, which the public thought in April would “be over by Christmas”, was settling into a long and ugly struggle. With casualties mounting and McClellan’s support, Grimes had no trouble moving a second bill to authorize a Medal of Honor for the Army the next year.
Up until the Civil War, Americans were ambivalent, even hostile, to military honors and trappings, which were associated with European courts and armies. In the American Revolution General George Washington had authorized the Badge of Military Merit, designed to recognize “any singularly meritorious action.” But he had actually awarded only three of the medals and it was discontinued with the demobilization of the Continental Army.
After the war Washington’s officers created the Society of the Cincinnati, a hereditary order for Revolutionary officers which could be passed down by the law of primogenitor to the eldest male descendent. Members of the Society conspicuously wore eagle badges or sometime medals on ribbons around the neck on formal occasions.
Although the Society and its medals were private and not sponsored or supported by the government, the creation of a possible “hereditary nobility” came under fierce attack from the fledgling Republican Clubs during the second term of President Washington, who was also President General for life of the Order. With the ascendency of Thomas Jefferson to the Presidency in the so called Revolution of 1800, Society members, most staunch Federalists and then under the leadership of Alexander Hamilton, retreated from public prominence, although the organization continues to this day, one of the most exclusive clubs in the nation.
The new Regular Army, such as it was, went without decorations of any kind for nearly 50 years. Acts of bravery were noted by “being singled out for mention” in official reports of actions. Enlisted men and non-commissioned officers were often rewarded with promotions. Officers were often brevetted to higher rank for the duration of a conflict.
In the Mexican War, Washington’s old Badge of Merit was sort of revived—without the badge. The new Certificate of Merit was established for Army soldiers who distinguished themselves in some way. It was often awarded for bravery in action or “gallantry” but also for other acts of meritorious service. The Certificate was awarded medal status again in 1917 as the Certificate of Merit Medal which was modeled on Washington’s award with its purple ribbon and heart shape. During and after World War II the Purple Heart was reserved for those wounded or killed in action.
During the Civil War, in the absence of any lesser decorations, Medals of Honor were awarded liberally, if not consistently. The first recipients were six soldiers who hijacked the Confederate locomotive the General although civilian raid leader James J. Andrews, who was captured and hanged as a Union spy, did not receive the medal. During the war the most common way to win the award was to save the colors under intense fire.
It wasn’t long before officers were made eligible for the award and soon many were winning it most often for commanding a successful operation. The most controversial awards were made by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton on the eve of the Battle of Gettysburg when he offered any member of the 27th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment who stayed in service for the battle after their enlistments were expired. 311 men agreed to stay and were awarded the medal. The Army, in a typical snafu, authorized the award to over 800 members of the unit, although only the men who stayed in action received it.
A review board led by General Nelson A. Miles revoked those awards in 1916, although the remaining living recipients were not required to return their medals. The same board found that a total of 911 awards, including 864 for the Main Volunteers, were made for causes other than distinguished service and revoked. Others included the members of Lincoln’s funeral honor guard six civilians, including William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody who had served as scouts in the Indian Wars, and a handful of others were stripped of their awards. Cody and the other scouts had their awards posthumously restored in 1989 on account of service under fire with the Army.
In total there were 1522 Civil War recipients, not including those boys from Maine. The Indian Wars of the next decades produced 426 winners and the Spanish American War another 110.
So-called medal hunger in the “peace time” Regular Army often resulted in astonishing numbers of awards for brief or minor conflicts: 86 in the Philippine Rebellion, 59 in the Boxer Rebellion, and 56 for the Veracruz Expedition in Mexico in 1917.
By contrast, only 124 medals were awarded in World War I.
The addition of other levels of awards for combat service—the Silver and Bronze Stars, Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Purple Heart resulted in a significant tightening of the requirements for the Medal of Honor. In World War II, when 464 medals were awarded (including a handful for actions from 1939 to the Declaration of War in December 1941) the criteria was elevated to “extreme bravery beyond the call of duty while engaged in action against an enemy.” Under this stricture, 60% of the awards were made posthumously.
That trend accelerated through the Korean War (135 awards) and Vietnam War (247) when medals were most often given for acts of self sacrifice to save the life or lives of fellow soldiers such as throwing oneself on a live grenade or physically shielding another from fire. There grew to be criticism in the armed services that the only way to win the medal was to be killed.
At least one conservative commentator had a different critique. He said that awarding the Medal of Honor for saving lives was “sissifying” the award which should be awarded for the manly achievement of “killing he enemy.”
Whatever the reason, the Defense Department seems to have taken notice. After just four medals were awarded in Iraq—all for self sacrifice, three of the six recipients from the war in Afghanistan lived to have President Barack Obama drape it around their necks.
The medals have not always been above politics. William McKinley, for instance, received one for actions as a Civil War Captain nearly 30 years later, just in time to burnish his image for a run for the presidency. And during the Iraq War the Bush administration screened possible recipients to prevent political opponents or veterans who had turned against the war from receiving the Medal. This was said to have significantly reduced the awards in that conflict.
In all 3,476 medals have been awarded including many in officially “peace time” actions and minor conflicts. For a while the Navy awarded the Medal for non combat bravery. There have also been awards to the Unknown Soldiers of several nations, a few to civilians like Charles Lindberg, and a handful of “special cases.”
Finally, any member of the military or any recipient will get bent out of shape if you refer to the medal as the Congressional Medal of Honor. Although originally authorized by Congress and presented personally to living recipients or the families of dead ones by the President, the award is simply the Medal of Honor. And don’t you forget it!