Sep 26

Origins of Valor: The History of the Navy Medal of Honor

Thursday, September 26, 2019 11:47 AM


By the end of the Civil War, the Union’s Armed Forces lot some 365,000 men, with more than double that in total casualties suffered during the four year-long “War Between the States.” With such widespread violence plaguing the divided country, acts of heroism and bravery on the part of fighting men were becoming more and more commonplace. However, this same violence caused concern in the ranks of the Navy very early on in the war. Would enough men be willing to enlist for service, put their lives on the line for their country?

Badge of Military Merit awarded to Sergeant Elijah Churchill for two actions of gallantry in 1781. (Department of Defense)

Various awards for distinguished service in the line of duty have been around since before the existence of the United States. On 7 August 1782, then-General George Washington announced the creation of the Badge of Military Merit, a cloth patch in the shape of a purple heart (yes, it would eventually become that Purple Heart) meant for non-commissioned officers and privates who displayed “not only instances of unusual gallantry in battle, but also extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way.” By the time the Mexican-American war broke out in 1846, Congress established the Certificate of Merit, once again initially designated only for non-commissioned officers and privates for distinguished service. Though the Certificate of Merit Medal was eventually established in 1905, the original award was nothing more than a paper certificate which entitled its recipient to increased pay and the honor of recognition. Meanwhile, foreign countries such as Prussia, England, and France instituted actual medals to honor their distinguished servicemen as early as 1740, with the introduction of the Prussian Pour le Mérite. By the time war broke out in the United States, there was not one medal in existence to award servicemen who performed extreme acts of valor during their time of service.

Medal of Honor, 1886. As shown in U.S. Navy Regulations, 1886. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

With this in mind, paired with the concern for filling the ranks of the U.S. Navy, Iowa Senator James W. Grimes, then Chairman on the Committee of Naval Affairs, submitted a bill on 9 December 1861 during the Second Session of the 37th Congress. This bill, “An Act to Further Promote the Efficiency of the Navy,” authorized the Secretary of the Navy to award 200 medals of honor to “petty officers, seamen, landsmen, and marines [who] distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and other seaman-like qualities during the present war.” Similar to George Washington’s Badge of Military Merit, this new award was intended only for enlisted personnel. However, the language in this particular bill specified that medals were only to be issued for action during combat, and only during the Civil War. While President Abraham Lincoln quickly signed Grimes’ bill into law, it was superseded less than a year later when on 12 July 1862 the official policy was reworked to include enlisted personnel who displayed “extraordinary heroism in the line of their profession,” opening up the opportunity for enlisted men to receive the medal for acts of valor conducted outside of combat. Men awarded this rank were also awarded a promotion, breaking the norm of promotion via aging through the ranks, and $100 (around $2,500 in 2019).

Front view of a Medal of Honor awarded to Seaman Joachim Pease for his gallantry aboard the USS Kearsarge in June 1864. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

In the interim period between these two acts, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles turned to R.T.G. Winkler of Williams Wilson & Son in Philadelphia and the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia to design and print the new medal. The medal took the form of an inverted five-pointed star, whose center featured Minerva, Roman goddess of war and wisdom, towering over Discord, represented by a recoiling male figure whose fists are wrapped in snakes. In Minerva’s right hand is a shield lightly printed with the Great Seal of the United States, and in her left is the fasces, a bundle of wooden rods topped with an axe which served as the Ancient Roman symbol for the power of the republic. According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, “Minerva served as an allegory for the U.S. effort to defeat the confederacy.” Engraved on the back of each medal were the words “Personal Valor,” followed by the name of the recipient, their rank, the act of valor for which they were awarded the medal, and the date of that action. It is unclear who received the first Navy Medal of Honor; however, it is generally believed that the 41 sailors who received the award from Secretary of War Stanton on 3 April 1863 were among the very first. A few months later on 10 July 1863, Jack F. Mackie and Pinkerton R. Vaughn became the first Marines to receive the honor. Douglas Albert Munro was awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions during the Guadalcanal Campaign in 1942, making him the only individual to date to have received the award from service in the U.S. Coast Guard.

Reverse of a Medal of Honor awarded to Ordinary Seaman John Andrews, USN, for personal valor under fire during the Korean Expedition of 9-10 June 1871. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

The Navy Medal of Honor endured great bouts of change as a result of the First World War and its immediate aftermath. In March 1915, officers of the U.S. Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard were declared eligible by Congress, the Navy opted to divide their Medal of Honor into two: the traditional version described above, and a new medal known as the “Tiffany Cross.” Under this new methodology, the original medal was reserved for personnel whose acts of valor occurred outside of combat, whereas the Tiffany Cross was issued to those whose gallantry took place during conflict. Named for its designer, the Tiffany Company, the new medal was a gold cross pattée, laid atop a wreath of oak and laurel, featuring an antique anchor on each arm of the cross. Over the center of the cross was an octagon bearing the phrase “UNITED STATES NAVY” along the top, the Great Seal of the United States in the center, and the years “1917-1918” along the bottom. The medal was fixed to the light blue Medal of Honor ribbon, emblazoned with 13 white stars and topped with a golden bar bearing the words “VALOUR.” The Tiffany Cross was authorized in the same act which established the Navy Cross and the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, and was retroactively available to actions which took place after April 1917 when the United States officially entered World War I. Throughout its life, the Tiffany Cross was only awarded to 28 sailors and Marines. In August 1942, the Tiffany Cross was retired by Congress, and the original 1862 design of the Navy Medal of Honor became the sole honorific for extreme acts of gallantry in battle. With the retirement of the Tiffany Cross came the Navy’s decision to no longer award Medals of Honor for acts performed outside of combat.

World War I U.S. Navy Medal of Honor (Tiffany Cross pattern). An unissued medal from the collections of the Navy Department. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, 3,507 Medals of Honor have been awarded to service people across the U.S. Armed Forces. Nineteen individuals were awarded the Medal of Honor twice, and there are presently 71 recipients of the Medal of Honor still alive.



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