written by Todd DePastino
On August 7, 1782, George Washington created what would become known as the “Purple Heart.”
It was NOT, strictly speaking, the first US military decoration. Nor was it awarded for wounds suffered in war. But the Badge of Military Merit was of immense significance because, unlike almost all other awards in history up to that time, it was awarded to enlisted men.
The very first medal created by the Continental Congress in 1780 was the Fidelity Medallion awarded to three privates in the New York militia who captured British Army Major John André, Benedict Arnold’s Royalist contact. Those three were the only ones ever to receive the Fidelity Medallion, and it launched an important precedent: enlisted men were worthy of recognition.
Up to then, most military awards and decorations were reserved for officers. General George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, was a committed republican (small “r”). He believed, as he put it in a letter to the first Badge of Military Merit recipient, “the Road to Glory was open to all.” That first awardee was, in fact, a sergeant with the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons, Elijah Churchill.
But the war was coming to an end, and only two other Badges were awarded, both to fellow sergeants, William Brown, of the 5th Connecticut Regiment and Daniel Bissell of the 2nd Connecticut Regiment.
(Bissell’s act of merit was spying. He posed as a deserter, joined the British Army, and for thirteen months fed valuable intelligence and detailed maps of British positions back to Washington’s headquarters.)
The award itself was a “Figure of a Heart in Purple Cloth or Silk edged with narrow Lace or Binding.” It was to be worn on the uniform coat above the left breast. Of the three awarded, only two original badgs survive.
The “Purple Heart” went into abeyance after the Revolutionary War, as did almost all military decorations and awards. Americans did not see fit to reward military service at all.
In fact, for almost the first century of our country’s existence, military veterans received little in terms of recognition.
There was no such thing as Veterans Day or Memorial Day. There were hardly any war memorials. No national cemeteries. No VA, no benefits, no pensions. A good soldier could expect little more than a handshake at the end of his service.
A set of biting couplets penned in 1799 by Revolutionary War veteran Anthony Haswell expresses well the sense of forgotten-ness:
In Times of War, to God we humbly pray
To bless our arms, and grudge no Soldier pay.
When Dangers over, they are both alike requited,
God is forgot, and the poor soldier slighted.
Part of this forgetting came from the traditional American fear of large standing armis and professional soldiers. Founders like Washington believed in a republican form of government with elected leaders ruled by law, not inherited titles or power won through coercion. The Framers studied history and believed that military power was the one greatest threat to free republican government. Julius Caesar has crossed the Rubicon with his army into Rome and had overthrown the Roman Republic. Oliver Cromwell had transformed republican Britain into a military dictatorship. And, of course, there was Napoleon.
As Jefferson put it:
Bonaparte… transferred the destinies of the republic from the civil to the military arm. Some will use this as a lesson against the practicability of republican government. I read it as a lesson against the danger of standing armies.
Americans clung to the hope that the United States alone would avert the doom of previous republics.
Instead of standing armies, Americans embraced local militias where every citizen was, in effect, a soldier in waiting. In times of crisis, the theory went, men would put down their hammers and their plows and pick up their rifles and swords. As George Washington himself put it,
Every citizen who enjoys the protection of a free government owes not only a proportion of his property, but even of his personal services to the defence of it, and consequenelty, that the Citizens of America from 18 to 50 years of age should be borne on the Militia Rolls.
Military service was simply an obligation of citizenship. Every citizen a soldier.
This belief lingered well into the 20th century. As late as 1932, the President of the United States (Herbert Hoover) could say publicly, “The nation owes no more to the able bodied veteran than to the able bodied citizen.”
But, by then, the year of the Bonus March, public sentiment had shifted. People believed that special recognition and attention were due to military veterans. Local militias alone would no longer do. What we know of as the “military-industrial complex” was growing.
One small part of this new recognition was the revival of the Badge of Military Merit, the Purple Heart.
The occasion for the launching of a new medal was the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth on February 22, 1932.
Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur headed the effort and oversaw the work of the Washington Commission of Fine Arts, which was authorized to design the new medal. On Washington’s Birthday, 1932, the War Department issued General Order No. 3, creating the Purple Heart with Washington’s profile on the front.
It wasn’t strictly for the wounded. Anyone who had served since US entry into World War I (April 5, 1917) was eligible if they had received a Meritorious Service Citation Certificate or Army wound ribbon. MacArthur awarded Purple Heart #1 to–you guessed it–himself.
The subsequent history of the Purple Heart has been the gradual narrowing of eligibility and purpose. the the beginning of World War II, Purple Hearts were awarded both for wounds and merit. Then, in 1943, Congress created the Legion of Merit, and the Purple Heart was reserved for those wounded by enemy action.
Until fairly recently, civilians who work closely with the military could receive Purple Hearts. the great Scripps-Howard correspondent Ernie Pyle, for example, received a Purple Heart posthumously after being killed by a Japanese sniper on Ia Shima on April 18, 1945. A few animals even received them, including the famous Marine, Sergeant Reckless.
Perhaps most important, today, about the Purple Heart is what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t proclaim special valor or heroism. It doesn’t make a statement about how someone reacted to the stress of combat. Like the Combat Action Badge (CAB), the Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB), and Combat Medical Badge (CMB), the Purple Heart merely says, “I was there.”
And that says a lot.