Birth of U.S. Army’s Medal of Honor

U.S. #2045 pictures the Army, Air Force, and Navy/Coast Guard/Marines Medals of Honor.

The Medal of Honor was created by legislation signed by President Abraham Lincoln on July 12, 1862.

Although awards had been given for military service since 1782, the first steps in creating the Medal of Honor as we know it were taken in 1861. It was at that time that Edward D. Townsend suggested to Commanding General of the U.S. Army, Winfield Scott, to introduce a medal for individual valor.

U.S. #2013 – Civil War spy and surgeon, Mary Walker was the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor.

Although Scott refused the proposal, Iowa Senator James W. Grimes took the idea to the Senate to “promote the efficiency of the Navy” after the general retired. The bill passed successfully and President Abraham Lincoln signed it on December 21, 1861. The bill allowed for the creation of 200 Medals of Valor “which shall be bestowed upon such petty officers, seamen, landsmen and marines as shall distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and other seamanlike qualities during the present war (Civil War).”

Two months later, Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson created a similar bill, giving the president the authority to “distribute medals to privates in the Army of the United States who shall distinguish themselves in battle.” The wording of the bill changed over time to read, that the president is “authorized to cause two thousand “medals of honor” to be prepared with suitable emblematic devices, and to direct that the same be presented, in the name of the Congress, to such non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier-like qualities, during the present insurrection (Civil War).” President Lincoln signed the bill into law on July 12, 1862.

U.S. #4822-23 honors the 464 World War II Medal of Honor recipients.
U.S. #4822-23 honors the 464 World War II Medal of Honor recipients.

On February 13, 1861, Army Assistant Surgeon Bernard J.D. Irwin rescued 60 soldiers at Apache Pass, Arizona. This was the first heroic act for which the medal would later be awarded. The first medals ever awarded were given to members of Andrew’s Raiders (of the Great Locomotive Chase) in March 1863. In that action, they commandeered a train, cut telegraph wires, and destroyed sections of a Southern railway for the Union cause.

U.S. #4822a-23a honors the 146 Medal of Honor recipients of the Korean War.

Though Lincoln had initially approved the Medal of Honor as an award for Civil War service, in 1863 it was made a permanent military honor. Since its creation, more than 3,500 medals have been awarded, with a little less than half of them going to Civil War soldiers. By the end of the Civil War, 680 Medals of Honor were awarded. A total of 1,520 were awarded for Civil War heroics by the end of the nineteenth century.

U.S. #4988a honors the 248 Medal of Honor recipients of the Vietnam War.

When a recipient is wearing the Medal of Honor, current members of the armed forces are encouraged to salute, even if they are a higher rank than the medal winner. It is a show of respect for the heroic deeds performed by those who willingly put themselves in danger for the good of their country.

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8 Comments

  1. I had never realized before that there were three differently designed Medals of Honor, each with different upside-down five-pointed star. The Army and Navy ones originated in 1862 in the Civil War and have gone through several design changes since. Recipients in the Marine Corps and Coast Guard receive the Navy version. Since the Air Force was part of the Army until 1947 (the Army Air Corps), Air Force recipients received the Army medal until 1965 when a separate Air Force medal was authorized. Interestingly, a separate Coast Guard Medal of Honor was authorized by Congress in 1965, but has never been designed. Thanks Mystic for all your little capsules of history.

  2. Let all the people of the USA see the real hero’s of our country and thank God for them and our freedom. United we stand and God Bless America.

    1. Amen. I would love it if all people in the US of A loved this country the way the readers of these articles obviously love this country.

  3. Thank you, Ron G USN. Adding to Mr Dandrea, Audey Murphy was the most decorated American soldier in WWII. Since he was an actor, one may know he was in a motion picture about his years as the soldier that was, during the war. I believe that his passing was rather impromptu.

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