Military Medals — British and American Traditions

The Cousins

It has only been since the seventeenth century that acts of bravery, merit, or service during war gained recognition of participation or individual acts of courage.  Before then, the ordinary British soldier was usually rewarded with a state pension.  In any case, during the English Civil War, the public’s opinion of soldiers was quite low and remained so for many years.  Usually, only the most desperate fellows volunteered for military service — and in some cases, joining the army was an alternative to going to jail.

After the Napoleonic Wars (1799 – 1815), public opinion improved due to the well-publicized heroic actions of soldiers and their officers.  During this period, medals were only awarded to high-ranking officers and members of the aristocracy for services rendered to the Crown.

The first British Army Medal (B.A.M.) awarded to ordinary soldiers was the Waterloo Medal, issued between 1816 – 1817.  The B.A.M. was awarded to every soldier who could prove that they were present during the campaign against Napoleon in which the British Army, alongside their Dutch and German allies, suffered while performing feats of heroism.  The medal was unique for two reasons: (a) it was the first of its kind, and (b) each soldier or officer who received it had their name stamped into the medal.

Even though 39,000 medals were issued, the B.A.M. received mixed reactions among the senior officers and N.C.O.s who had not been present at Waterloo; they, instead, fought the War of 1812 in the United States/Canada and the Spanish Peninsula campaign.  In subsequent years, this particular controversy resulted in B.A.M. awards as a matter of routine whenever troops were sent to battle, no matter where in the world it was.

After gaining the approval of Queen Victoria and Parliament, the Ministry of Defense agreed to create a Military General Service Medal in 1847.  The process required the men to apply for the medal if they thought they thought themselves entitled to wear it. Not many men applied for the medal because not many men were literate enough to know what to do. The government only issued 26,000 medals. 

In the following decade, the government struck a dozen different medals: The Indian General Service Medal (1854), the Victoria Cross (after the Crimean War) — a gallantry medal awarded to men of any class or service for acts of heroism in the face of the enemy at risk of death.  There is no higher recognition for courage under fire in the United Kingdom than the V.C.

The Victoria Cross is a simple design, the prototype of which was a product of the London jeweler Hancocks & Company.  Hancocks still make the V.C.  Legend tells us that the medal prototype and the first 111 crosses came from the bronze guns captured by the Russians in Crimea.  Since its creation, the Crown has issued 1,356 Victorian Cross Medals.

During the twentieth century, the British Army witnessed bloody action in both the First and Second World Wars.  Each conflict produced a unique series of campaign and service medals.  There was the 1914 – 1915 Star, the British War Medal, and Victory Medal for those fighting in the First World War.  The government awarded 2.3 million medals to frontline soldiers and support personnel, including Royal Navy and Canadian service members.

After World War II, the men serving in that conflict received a unique version of the general service medal, the 1939 – 1945 Star, worn alongside appropriate medals and campaign ribbons.  For example, those in the North African campaign received the African Star.  If they also served during the Italian Campaign or on D-Day, the appropriate specific awards to wear alongside it.  Commonwealth soldiers (Indian, Australian, Canadian, and South African) received proper recognition alongside their other entitlements.

The Americans

In the U.S. military, the history of personal decorations and awards is not part of the curriculum in basic training.  Military medals have had an important role in its history, but it is also rarely discussed.  Military personnel wear their decorations and awards with pride and reflect on them: they are symbols of a demanding job well done and trigger memories of good men, pulling together, and perhaps also lost forever —but they don’t brag about those medals.

Military personnel understand the difference between Decorations and Awards — most civilians do not.  Among civilians with no military service connection, there is no difference between decorations and awards, but they are two vastly different things.  A presented decoration recognizes specific acts of bravery or achievement.  An award or service medal confirms service in a particular role or geographical area (campaign) and citations issued by foreign governments and approved by the U.S. government.

Typically, a U.S. medal is struck with a design to commemorate an event.  It is a creative process involving various methods — including pressure stamping.  In the past, bronze, silver, and gold were used, but most U.S. military medals today are made of various alloys.  Modern medals are nothing like the medal invented by Antonio di Puccio Pisano in 1438.  This process remained exclusively in Italy until the 16th Century when it spread to other European nations.

In the American colonies, the oldest military decoration was the Fidelity Medallion, created by the Continental Congress in 1780 and presented to those who captured British Major John André — the officer who worked with Benedict Arnold to betray the colonies.

The Congress conferred the Fidelity Medallion on three soldiers who were members of the New York militia: Privates Isaac Van Wart, David Williams, and John Paulding.  The medal was never again awarded — and it is for this reason that the first United States (as opposed to Continental) medal awarded was the Badge of Military Merit, created in 1782.  In the new egalitarian America, it is also significant that the first medals awarded to American troops were awarded to enlisted men, not officers.[1]

On 7 August 1782, General George Washington designed the Badge of Military Merit.  It was a cloth or silk figure of a heart, recognizing meritorious or gallant conduct.  But it was General Washington who instigated the practice of awards of recognition, and only three men received this decoration: (a) Sergeant Elijah Churchill: 2nd Regiment, Light Dragoons.  He was awarded the badge for his part in two successful raids behind British lines in Nov. 1780 and in October of 1781.  (b) Sergeant William Brown: 5th Connecticut Regiment. Awarded the badge for leading an advance party — with only bayonets — penetrating the British lines at Yorktown, VA on 14 October 1781, and (c) Sergeant Daniel Bissell: 2nd Connecticut Regiment. Awarded the badge for masquerading as a British soldier from August 1781 to September 1782.[2]  Again, all three recipients were enlisted men — and the design was the forerunner of the modern Purple Heart Medal.

Between General Washington’s Merit Badge and the American Civil War, government officials issued certificates of merit and “brevet promotions” to recognize courageous conduct and meritorious service.  The first military decoration formally authorized by the United States government to symbolize valorous conduct was the Medal of Honor, approved for enlisted men of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.  President Lincoln signed the authorization on 21 December 1861.  In July 1862, Congress approved a Medal of Honor suitable for the U.S. Army (and Volunteer Army of the United States).

One should recall that the early American colonists migrated from England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. When they went to the New World, they took with them their long-held cultural values and traditions.  Among these was a general loathing for standing armies and the profession of arms.  See also: Citizen Soldier and the American Militia.  The reason for their profound contempt for the military was simple enough: British soldiers were instruments of government tyranny — a view reinforced throughout the American Revolutionary War.  This distrust of standing armies lasted from 1775 through 1941.

At the beginning of the American Civil War, the Union Army was comparatively small.  To build an armed force capable of defending the Union, it was necessary to augment it with federalized state militias.  Recruiting men to serve in the Civil War was no easier in 1861 than in 1776, and it became even more difficult once the knowledge of the horror of combat made its way into America’s living rooms.

Thus, the civil war gave the U.S. Congress two good reasons for instituting an American decoration for valor.  The first was the obvious: to honor American servicemen for their sacrifices.  The second reason was to incentivize enlisting in the Army — every romantic young man wants to become a hero.  The Navy was the first to adopt the Medal of Honor because it was the one service facing the gravest shortage of skilled crewmen.

Congress’s authorization for the Medal of Honor made certain stipulations.  Only acts of gallantry performed during the present conflict —the Civil War— would be recognized, and the Secretary of the Navy’s authorization was limited to two-hundred medals.

A new authorization signed in 1862 gave the Navy much more room for maneuver when it came to awarding the Medal of Honor and even authorized further rewards for committed, intrepid seamen. Now, a Sailor could earn a promotion by way of “extraordinary heroism” rather than wait until he aged into a higher rank, the usual practice. And now, unlike under the 1861 act, a Sailor could receive this promotion and a Medal of Honor for acts of heroism performed “in the line of his profession” and not necessarily in a combat situation. The first Medals of Honor struck resulted from this second act — of 1862.

The Purple Heart Medal

When Gen. John J. Pershing and the American Expeditionary Force arrived in Europe in 1917, the only existing American decoration was the Medal of Honor.  Pershing, his subordinate commanders, and the men of the rank and file soon became acutely aware that the British and French armies had a variety of military decorations and medals to recognize valorous service.

By the end of the First World War, the Army and Navy had developed additional medals to recognize exceptional heroism that does not meet the test of the Medal of Honor: The Navy Distinguished Service Medal, Navy Cross and Army Distinguished Service Medal, and Army Distinguished Service Cross.

These new medals (while giving much-deserved recognition to many servicemen) also required a high degree of combat heroism or meritorious service, and a few civilian and military leaders in Washington believed another decoration was needed — one that could be used to reward individuals of more junior rank for their valuable wartime services.

In the 1920s, the War Department studied the issue.  A few officers with knowledge of George Washington’s dormant Badge of Military Merit recommended that the merit medal be resurrected and renamed the Order of Military Merit.  Further, they suggested that the medal be awarded to any soldier in recognition of heroism not performed in actual combat or exceptionally meritorious service.

Ultimately, no action was taken on these proposals for another ten years — until General Douglas MacArthur assumed the office of Army Chief of Staff.  He revived interest in the merit medal by writing to Charles Moore, Chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts.  He informed Moore that the Army intended to revive General Washington’s old award on the bicentennial of his birth.

As a result, on 22 February 1932, the War Department published General Order No. 3 announcing that “the Purple Heart, established by General George Washington in 1782,” would be awarded to persons who, while serving in the Army of the United States, performs any singularly meritorious act of extraordinary fidelity or essential service.” Then, within a single parenthetical, the Army included this sentence: “A wound, which necessitates treatment by a medical officer, and which is received in action with an enemy of the United States, or as a result of an act of such enemy, may . . . be construed as resulting from a singularly meritorious act of essential service.”

This meant that the Purple Heart was an award for high-level service. But it also meant that an individual serving “in the Army” wounded in action could also receive the Purple Heart.  Not all wounds, however, qualified for the new decoration.  Rather, the wound had to be severe enough to necessitate medical treatment.

From 1932 until the outbreak of World War II, the Army awarded around 78,000 Purple Heart Medals to living veterans and active-duty soldiers who had either been wounded in action or had received General Pershing’s certificate for meritorious service during World War I.[3]

While the Army issued most Purple Heart Medals to men who had fought in France from 1917 to 1918, a small number of wounded soldiers from the Civil War, the Indian Wars, and the Spanish-American War applied for and received the Purple Heart.  However, there were no posthumous awards for this early edition of the Purple Heart Medal.  General MacArthur made it clear in 1938 the Purple Heart — like Washington’s Badge of Military Merit — was “not intended to commemorate the dead; it was to animate and inspire the living.”

After Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the deaths of thousands of soldiers in Hawaii and the Philippines, the War Department abandoned MacArthur’s “posthumous award” policy.  On April 28, 1942, the Army announced that the Purple Heart would be awarded to “members of the military services killed  (or who died of wounds) on or after December 7, 1941.”

This policy change only applied to those killed after the Japanese attack on Hawaii.  Posthumous awards of the Purple Heart for pre–World War II conflicts were still not permitted.  Five months later, the Army made another significant change in the award criteria for the Purple Heart: it restricted the award to combat wounds only.  

While MacArthur’s intent in reviving the Purple Heart in 1932 was that the new decoration would be for “any singularly meritorious act of extraordinary fidelity or essential service” (with combat wounds being a subset of such fidelity or service), the creation of the Legion of Merit in 1942 as a junior decoration for achievement or service meant that the Army did not need two medals to recognize the same thing.  As a result, the Purple Heart became a decoration for those wounded or killed in action.

One additional change in the evolution of the Purple Heart Medal was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision on 3 December 1942 to allow the Secretary of the Navy to award the decoration to Sailors, Coast Guardsmen, and Marines.

The next significant change to the award criteria for the Purple Heart occurred during the presidency of John F. Kennedy.  When certain American service members in South Vietnam began being killed and wounded, they were deemed not eligible for the Purple Heart because they served in an advisory capacity (rather than as combatants).  Additionally, as a matter of law, the United States was not a formal participant in the ongoing war between the South Vietnamese, communist insurgents, and their North Vietnamese allies.  Thus, there was no “enemy” to satisfy the requirement of a wound or death received “in action against an enemy.”

President Kennedy signed an executive order on 25 April 1962 authorizing the Purple Heart Medal to any person killed or wounded “while serving with friendly foreign forces” or “as a result of action by a hostile foreign force.” By 1973, thousands more Americans had been awarded the Purple Heart.

Kennedy’s decision to expand the award criteria for the Purple Heart also meant that servicemen killed or wounded in lesser-known actions (such as the Israeli attack on the U.S.S. Liberty in 1967 and the North Korean seizure of the U.S.S. Pueblo in 1968) could also receive the Purple Heart.

A successive change to the Purple Heart regulations occurred in February 1984 when President Ronald Reagan recognized the changing nature of war and signed an executive order announcing that the Purple Heart would recognize those killed or wounded as a result of an “international terrorist attack against the United States.” Reagan also decided that the Purple Heart should be awarded to individuals killed or wounded “outside the territory of the United States” while serving “as part of a peacekeeping mission.” President Reagan’s decision resulted in a small number of Americans receiving the Purple Heart who otherwise would have been denied the medal.

On 25 April 2011, the Department of Defense announced that the Purple Heart Medal could be awarded to any service member sustaining “mild traumatic brain injuries and concussive injuries” in combat.  This decision acknowledged that brain injuries caused by improvised explosive devices qualify as wounds, even though such damages may be invisible.  Awards for traumatic brain injury were retroactive to 11 September 2001, the day of Al Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

On the issue of the severity of a brain injury, a serviceman or woman need not lose consciousness to qualify for the Purple Heart.  If a medical officer or health professional diagnoses concussive injury, and the “extent of the wound was such that it required treatment by a medical officer,” this is sufficient for the award of the Purple Heart.

One remaining issue is whether a Purple Heart is appropriate for someone with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.).  In 2008, after increasing numbers of men and women returning from service in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom were diagnosed as suffering from P.T.S.D., some commentators proposed awarding the Purple Heart for these psychological wounds.  After carefully studying the issue, the Defense Department concluded that having P.T.S.D. did not qualify a person for the Purple Heart because the disorder was not a “wound intentionally caused by the enemy — but rather a secondary effect caused by witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event.”


[1] The Continental Congress did vote to award George Washington, Horatio Gates, and John Paul Jones with gold medallions in recognition of their efforts in defeating the British forces, but none of these were awarded until after the end of the Revolutionary War, in 1790.

[2] The information gathered by Sergeant Bissell helped the Continental Army prepare for an attack on the British in New York City.

[3] Printed certificates signed by Pershing that read “for exceptionally meritorious and conspicuous services.”