Badge of Military Merit
The Badge of Military Merit is considered the first military award of the United States Armed Forces. Although the Fidelity Medallion is older, after being issued to three soldiers for a specific event in 1780 it was never awarded again, so the Badge of Military Merit is often considered the oldest. The Purple Heart is the official successor decoration of the Badge of Military Merit.
The Badge of Military Merit was first announced in General George Washington's general orders to the Continental Army issued on August 7, 1782 at the Headquarters in Newburgh. Designed by Washington in the form of a purple heart, it was intended as a military order for soldiers who exhibited, "not only instances of unusual gallantry in battle, but also extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way."
The writings of General Washington indicate that three badges, two Honorary Badges of Distinction and a Badge of Military Merit, were created on August 7, 1782. This is thought to be the first time in modern history that military awards had been presented to common soldiers. The practice in Europe was to honor high-ranking officers who had achieved victory, rather than honoring common soldiers. But in America, as General Washington said, the "road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is…open to all."
Of the Badge of Military Merit, Washington said:
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.
Most historians indicate that only three people received the Badge of Military Merit during the American Revolutionary War, all of them noncommissioned officers, and the only ones who received the award from General Washington himself. Those soldiers are as follows:
On May 3, 1783
- Sergeant William Brown of the 5th Connecticut Regiment of the Connecticut Line
- Sergeant Elijah Churchill of the 2nd Regiment Light Dragoons
On June 10, 1783
Period records, however, indicate that several others may have been awarded the Badge of Military Merit for service in the American Revolutionary War.
Status of original badges
Brown's badge was found in a Deerfield, New Hampshire barn in the 1920s. There is disagreement in published sources about what became of Brown's badge after that. A badge on display at the American Independence Museum in Exeter, New Hampshire on behalf of the Society of the Cincinnati, New Hampshire Branch is stated to be Brown's. Other sources say that Brown's badge was reported lost in 1924 while in the possession of Bishop Paul Matthews, and that the badge on display in Exeter belongs to a fourth, unknown recipient.
As of 2015, Churchill's badge was owned by the National Temple Hill Association and on display at the New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site. Churchill's badge was rediscovered when H. E. Johnson, a Michigan farmer and one of Churchill's descendants, wrote to the National Temple Hill Association about the badge.
Bissell's badge was reportedly lost when his house burned in July 1813.
After the Revolutionary War, the Badge of Military Merit fell into disuse although it was never officially abolished. In 1932, the United States War Department authorized the new Purple Heart Medal for soldiers who had previously received either a Wound Chevron or the Army Wound Ribbon. At that time, it was also determined that the Purple Heart Medal would be considered the official "successor decoration" to the Badge of Military Merit.
- Phoenix, J. (August 7, 2007). "The 225th Anniversary of the Purple Heart". West Point Association of Graduates. Retrieved October 15, 2009.
- "The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799". George Washington, August 7, 1782, General Orders. August 7, 1782. Retrieved October 1, 2006.
- Honorary Badges of distinction are to be conferred on the veteran Non-commissioned officers and soldiers of the army who have served more than three years with bravery, fidelity and good conduct; for this purpose a narrow piece of white cloath [sic] of an angular form is to be fixed to the left arm on the uniform Coat. Non commissioned officers and soldiers who have served with equal reputation more than six years are to be distinguished by two pieces of cloth set in parellel [sic] to each other in a simular [sic] form; should any who are not entitled to these honors have the insolence to assume the badges of them they shall be severely punished. On the other hand it is expected those gallant men who are thus designated will on all occasions be treated with particular confidence and consideration. George Washington's General Orders of August 7, 1782
- Moran, Donald N. "Medals and Awards of The Revolution". Sons of Liberty Chapter: Sons of the American Revolution. Retrieved May 26, 2010.
- Fitzpatrick, John C. The Writings of Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1931-1944; reprint, New York: Greenwood Press, 1970.
- "The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799". George Washington, April 27, 1783, General Orders. April 27, 1783. Retrieved October 1, 2006.
- "The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799". George Washington, June 8, 1783, General Orders. June 8, 1783. Retrieved October 1, 2006.
- Grosvenor, Gilbert Hovey (1944). Insignia and Decorations of the U.S. Armed Forces (Rev. ed.). Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society. OCLC 569590.
- Wescott, Allen Pennell (1941). "'For Military Merit'". Military Affairs 5 (3): 211. doi:10.2307/2937597.
- The Legacy of the Purple Heart. 2 (4th rev. ed.). Paducah, Kentucky: Turner Publishing Co. 2001. p. 19. ISBN 1-56311-723-1.
- "Personal Decorations: Purple Heart". The Institute of Heraldry. Office of the Administrative Assistant to the Secretary of the Army. Retrieved July 14, 2016.