By Robert Widener

Magazine Feature

“I would much rather have that medal around my neck than to be President of the United States,” said President Harry S. Truman when he presented the Medal of Honor to 15 servicemen on Oct. 12, 1945.

Indeed, the country’s highest military award for bravery is so revered that it commands the ultimate prestige above any other honor bestowed on an American. Of the more than 40 million veterans who have served since the beginning of the Civil War, only 3,456 have been awarded the Medal of Honor.

According to Evans E. Kerrigan, author of American Medals and Decorations, the award is rooted in the soil of our society: “Two principles lie behind the concept of a Medal of Honor—the people’s need for a symbol of their beliefs, and their grati­tude to those who do the most to protect those beliefs.”

At the pinnacle of a “pyramid of honor”—the towering standard—the Medal of Honor today has an intrinsic value much different than when it was created during the Civil War. No medal for valor existed at that time, and it ulti­mately was given for actions less than heroic. From its earliest origins in 1861, it took another 102 years for the medal to achieve its true stature.


When the Medal of Honor was first suggested, shortly after the beginning of the Civil War, it was met with seri­ous objections. Many felt it imitat­ed European military traditions, which many Americans thought were too aris­tocratic.

Dissenters were in the minority, how­ever, and a bill introduced by Sen. James W. Grimes of Iowa passed in Congress on Dec. 21, 1861. It allowed President Abraham Lincoln to authorize 200 Navy Medals of Honor. The award would be presented for both combat and non-combat bravery. Though the wording specified valor, it also was vague: “ … by their gallantry in action, and other sea­man-like qualities …”

A second congressional act followed on July 12, 1862, allowing Lincoln to authorize an Army Medal of Honor. Its intention was to recognize heroism in combat only. The wording was similar to the Navy’s award, but for “soldier-like qualities.”

It took nearly a year before the first Medal of Honor ceremony occurred on March 25, 1863. The award went to six survivors of the “Great Locomotive Chase.” In April 1862, 22 Union soldiers commandeered a Confederate train in Big Shanty, Ga., and headed northward, destroying rail tracks and telegraph lines along the way.

Of the group, Pvt. Jacob Parrott received the very first medal. A total of 19 train raiders eventually were so hon­ored, including the first posthumous award, given to Sgt. Maj. Marion Ross, 2nd Ohio Infantry.

The very first heroic act warranting the medal occurred on Feb. 13-14, 1861, at Apache Pass, Ariz., a full two months before the start of the Civil War. Army assistant surgeon Bernard J.D. Irwin led a relief column that rescued 60 sol­diers of 2nd Lt. George Bascom’s 7th Infantry from the clutches of Apache chief Cochise. Irwin finally received his medal in 1894.

The first action of the Civil War for which a Medal of Honor was awarded was by 21-year-old Pvt. Francis Edwin Brownell of the 11th New York Infantry. On May 24, 1861, Brownell shot dead a hotel proprietor who had killed a Union colonel over the display of a Confederate flag in Alexandria, Va.

The first Navy Medal of Honor was earned during the Battle of Vicksburg by Signal Quartermaster Robert Williams for heroism on the Yazoo River (Mississippi) Expedition, Dec. 23-27, 1862. Serving aboard the USS Benton, Williams displayed heroism when the enemy initiated close-shore battery fire on the ship during a nearly two-hour engagement.


Ultimately, 1,522 Medals of Honor were earned by Civil War vets. 2nd Lt. Thomas Custer, brother of the famous Gen. George Armstrong Custer, was the first recipient of two Medals of Honor. He also was the only soldier in the Civil War to receive it twice.

Despite the impressive number of medals given out, the Medal of Honor’s intent to reward bravery quickly becomes questionable upon examining the citations. In fact, some acts would barely be eligible for a modern-day com­mendation.

According to Ron Owens, author of Medal of Honor: Historical Facts and Figures, over one-third of the medals, 467, were given “for either capturing a Confederate unit’s flag, saving a Union flag from capture, planting the Union flag on some objective, recapturing a Union flag from the Confederates or some form of ‘gallantry as a color bearer.’ ”

Half the awards of the Navy Medal of Honor, 167, were given to participants in only two sea battles. In the Battle of Mobile Bay, Ala., on Aug. 5, 1864, 89 sail­ors and eight Marines on eight ships received the award. During the battle for Fort Fisher, N.C., in December 1864 and January 1865, 70 medals were distributed.

The Medal of Honor lost further value when in June 1863, 864 mem­bers of the 27th Maine Regiment were offered the medal as a bribe to extend their enlistment for the sake of defend­ing Washington, D.C. Gen. Robert E. Lee was on the march into Pennsylvania, and the nation’s capital seemed threatened.

Only 312 soldiers of the 27th stayed behind while the rest went home. The Confederate threat later passed with Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg. Yet medals for all 864 members of the regiment were sent to Maine for distribution. Col. Mark Wentworth, the regiment’s command­er, honored the 312 men, but refused to hand out the rest. He stored the remain­ing medals in his barn, but they were eventually stolen.

Equally unheroic, 29 members of President Lincoln’s honor guard each received a Medal of Honor for accompa­nying the casket of the dead President on its journey to a cemetery in Springfield, Ill. They received their awards on May 20, 1865.

It was evident that the Medal of Honor sadly lacked strong guidelines to prevent it from being doled out for debatable deeds. Something had to be done.


One of the first steps for revision came in 1876. A board of officers under the direction of Brig. Gen. Alfred A. Terry reviewed award recommendations for the cavalry troops who tried to relieve Custer’s men at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June of that same year. Terry felt the award should not be given for soldiers who performed ordinary duties, but rather exclusively for acts of valor. In the end, only 22 from the relief force received the medal.

Terry’s decision created stringent criteria for future awards. Among the precedents set were time limits and specific guidelines, a method for deter­mining who met those guidelines and dismissing the qualification of “soldier-like qualities.”

But in 1890, the 25th anniversary of the Civil War generated new interest in her­oism during the war. That, plus political pressure from the Union veterans’ Grand Army of the Republic saw a decade of rampant medal awarding. Between 1890-99, some 700 new applications by Civil War veterans resulted in 683 new Medals of Honor, 127 in 1894 alone.

President William McKinley direct­ed the Army in 1897 to further tight­en regulations for awarding the medal. “Gallantry and intrepidity” above and beyond that of one’s fellow soldiers, eye­witness accounts and time limits of one year from the heroic act became stan­dard guidelines.

A major catalyst for further revision came on April 27, 1916, when Congress passed legislation that created an Army and Navy Medal of Honor Roll. The law set forth a special $10 monthly pension once the veteran reached 65.

But there was a catch—the action had to have been genuinely heroic. The law specified actions “involving actual con­flict with the enemy, distinguishable by conspicuous gallantry or intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.”

As a result, a special board of five generals convened two months later to review all 2,625 Medals of Honor. In February 1917, the board reported its findings, resulting in the rescinding of 911 awards, including all 864 presented to the 27th Maine Regiment.

The board also decided that the Medal of Honor given to Dr. Mary Walker, a civilian contract assistant surgeon and the only woman ever to receive one, was not properly awarded. Likewise, it felt that Buffalo Bill Cody and four other Indian scouts fell outside of the crite­ria. However, those decisions were later reversed: first for Walker in 1977 and then for the Army scouts in 1989.

Perhaps the most outrageous instance the board discovered concerned Asa B. Gardiner, a captain for the 22nd New York State militia during the Civil War. According to Joseph L. Schott in Above and Beyond, “Gardiner wrote a letter to the secretary of war requesting he be awarded a Medal of Honor ‘as a souvenir of memo­rable times now past.’ ” The board found that the medal had been issued to him with no further documentation.

The sweeping revisions and purge of 1917 led to a congressional act on July 9, 1918. The law further affirmed that the Medal of Honor be presented to a per­son who “distinguished himself conspic­uously by gallantry and intrepidity” in an armed conflict with the enemy.

More important, the legislation also created the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal and the Citation Star, a forerunner of the Silver Star. These new awards allowed lesser acts of heroism to be recognized. Though the law applied only to Army awards, the Navy followed suit a year later.

Standards were adhered to for the most part, though the medal was pre­sented for feats of exploration in later years to Charles Lindbergh and Adm. Charles Byrd, for instance.

Then on July 25, 1963, an act of Congress amended the U.S. Code estab­lishing once and for all that future Medals of Honor be awarded only for heroic action in combat. The Medal of Honor had finally found its true place at the pin­nacle of the medal system. Policies and standards were now firmly in place.


Even now, Civil War vets are still in the news concerning the Medal of Honor. In 2011, Frank White, the great-great-grandson of Pvt. David D. White, was lobbying for the award on behalf of his ancestor for capturing Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee.

White contends the Medal of Honor mistakenly was given to another soldier for that act during the Battle of Sailor’s Creek, April 6, 1865. Harris S. Hawthorn, 121st New York Infantry, is listed as the recipient.

In another example, a Civil War sol­dier’s name, 1st Lt. Alonzo Cushing, appears in the 2011 defense authoriza­tion bill along with three other names, qualifying them for the Medal of Honor.

Cushing died on July 3, 1863, dur­ing the Battle of Gettysburg. A piece of shrapnel tore through his abdomen dur­ing Pickett’s Charge at Cemetery Ridge. The 22-year-old held in his intestines, refusing to leave the battlefield. He con­tinued to direct his artillery unit, helping to repel the Confederate attack until he succumbed from the wound.

The Medal of Honor remains today a symbol of true heroism—envied by many, but possessed by few. Gen. George S. Patton said it best when he observed the award being given to a soldier at Casablanca, Morocco, in 1943: “I’d give my immortal soul for that decoration.”



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