When the Civil War began, the U.S. military had few medals or awards to recognize bravery or exemplary conduct. General George Washington created the Purple Heart in 1782 to recognize “singularly meritorious action;” a Certificate of Merit recognized bravery under fire during the Mexican-American War, but it did not provide for any medal. Recipients of the Certificate of Merit later received extra pay of two dollars per month—if they were still serving on active duty.
During the Civil War’s first winter, Senator James W. Grimes of Iowa introduced a bill to create a Navy Medal. The bill easily passed through Congress, and President Abraham Lincoln affixed his signature on December 21, 1861. This Medal of Valor, as it was called, was the first authorized decoration to recognize gallant actions by American fighting men, but it applied only to the Navy. Two months later, Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts introduced legislation calling for the creation of a similar medal for enlisted men of the Army. Lincoln signed that bill into law on July 12, 1862—155 years ago today. This date is considered the birth of what we now know as the Medal of Honor. An amendment was added in March 1863 to make the award available to officers as well as enlisted men and making its availability retroactive to the beginning of the Civil War.
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles contacted James Pollock, Director of the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, about designing the Navy medal shortly after Lincoln approved creation of that decoration. Pollock had already submitted five designs to the Navy when he learned of the creation of the Army medal. Pollock wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to inform Stanton that one of his Navy medal designs would actually be appropriate for the Army as well. The Navy approved one of Pollock’s designs in May 1862, and the Army followed suit six months later. The firm of William Wilson and Son of Philadelphia was contracted to make 2,000 copies of each medal.
Both medals were star-shaped and consisted of a figure representing the Union holding a shield against a crouching attacker holding striking serpents. In the left hand, the Union held a fasces, an ancient Roman symbol of unified authority consisting of an ax bound in staves of wood. The medal was surrounded by 34 stars, representing the nation’s then-34 states. The medal’s reverse was blank to allow for the engraving of the recipient’s name and the date and place of action. The only difference between the two medals was the manner by which it was connected to the ribbon: on the Navy medal, it was suspended by an anchor, on the Army medal by an American eagle standing atop crossed cannons.
Over 1,500 Medals of Honor were awarded to Union soldiers for actions during the Civil War. While many were issued for conspicuous gallantry under enemy fire and at great risk to (and sometimes at the cost of) the recipient’s life, others were issued as incentives for reenlistment or to politicians-turned-soldiers that brazenly campaigned for them. Not until decades later, after additional decorations for valor had been created and the Medal of Honor rose to become the military’s highest award, did the reverence we now hold for this particular award emerge. In conflicts after the Civil War, many more Medals were awarded to servicemen killed during the performance of their Medal of Honor action.
The standards of valor and personal risk that must be demonstrated for an action to be deemed worthy of the Medal of Honor have risen sharply since the Civil War. Perhaps this is best encapsulated in the comment President Harry Truman made in 1946 as he prepared to present two Medals of Honor for actions during World War II: “I’d rather have a Medal of Honor than be President of the United States.” Truman, a World War I combat veteran, understood better than most what the young men standing before him had done and endured to be there to receive the nation’s highest award.
To date, just over 3,500 Medals of Honor have been awarded. Nineteen men have received two Medals of Honor, the most famous being Thomas Custer during the Civil War. Thomas Custer died in 1876 with his brother and fellow Civil War veteran George Armstrong Custer at Little Bighorn. Only one Medal of Honor has been awarded to a woman: Dr. Mary E. Walker, a Civil War nurse and the U.S. Army’s first female surgeon. In 1917, the Army Medal of Honor review board revoked the Medals of 911 recipients whose actions it deemed unworthy of the Medal. Dr. Walker refused to return her Medal as instructed and continued to wear it for the rest of her life. President Jimmy Carter posthumously restored her Medal in 1977. In recent years, many Medals of Honor have been awarded to African Americans and Asian Americans whose combat actions decades before were worthy of the Medal but were never recognized due to racial discrimination.
Only one President of the United States has been a Medal of Honor recipient: Theodore Roosevelt. President Bill Clinton presented this Medal in 2001, over a century after Roosevelt’s actions at the Spanish-American War battle of San Juan Hill and 82 years after Roosevelt’s death. Two father-son duos have received the Medal of Honor: Arthur and Douglas MacArthur (Civil War and World War II, respectively); and Roosevelt and his son, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (Spanish-American War and World War II, respectively). The Medal of Honor is presented to recipients or their family members by the President of the United States in the name of Congress (which is why it is often called the “Congressional Medal of Honor”). Today, the Army, Navy, and Air Force all have their own versions of the Medal; members of the Marine Corps and Coast Guard receive the Navy version.
The last Civil War soldier to receive the Medal of Honor was First Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing for his actions during the repulse of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. Cushing was killed while performing the action that would result in President Barack Obama’s presentation of the Medal of Honor to his distant relative on November 6, 2014, over 150 years later.
For those of us that live and breathe Civil War history, it seems appropriate that the nation’s highest military award was created during this conflict. After all, when did the country have more at stake—not only the freedom of millions held in bondage, but the survival of the very nation itself?