The first official means for rewarding acts of gallantry by American soldiers was created by George Washington on August 7, 1782, when he created the Badge of Military Merit.
This is thought to be the first time in modern history that a military award would be presented to common soldiers. The practice in Europe was to only honor high-ranking officers–especially those of the aristocracy.
Although the Badge of Military Merit fell into disuse after the American Revolution, the concept of a military award for individual valor by members of the U.S. armed forces had been established.
In 1847, after the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, a Certificate of Merit was established for soldiers who distinguished themselves in action.
Early in the Civil War, a medal for honoring bravery was proposed to General Winfield Scott, the Commanding General of the U.S. Army. Scott, a respected commander despite being too rotund to mount a horse, scoffed at the suggestion, saying it smacked of European tradition. It was only after his retirement that Medal of Honor supporters in Congress introduced bills providing for the special decoration.
In the meantime, the U.S. Navy adopted the idea. Public Resolution 82, containing a provision for a Navy Medal of Valor, was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on December 21, 1861.
The medal was to be bestowed upon “petty officers, seamen, landsmen, and Marines as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry and other seaman-like qualities during the present war.”
Soon afterward, a resolution of similar wording was introduced for the Army and signed into law on July 12, 1862. It provided for awarding a Medal of Honor, as the Navy version also came to be called: “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.”
Although it was created for the Civil War, Congress made the Medal of Honor a permanent decoration in 1863, hence the name Congressional Medal of Honor. It is the highest U.S. military honor.
In total 3,515 medals have been awarded to 3,495 servicemen and one woman. Nineteen men received a second award: 14 of these received two separate medals for two separate actions, and five received both the Navy and the Army Medals of Honor for the same action.
Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, only 464 men received the Medal of Honor–more than half of them posthumously. The only president to receive this distinguished award received it posthumously.
President Teddy Roosevelt was denied the Medal of Honor during his lifetime. The Board cited a lack of eyewitnesses for his heroic actions at San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
A century later, President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded him the medal. His son, Teddy Jr., who served in both World Wars, also received the Medal of Honor posthumously.
The oldest living recipient of the Medal of Honor is Robert D. Maxwell, age 96 and the youngest living recipient is Kyle Carpenter, age 27. Both men were severely wounded when they shielded their comrades from grenades.
* Petition: Dear Lord, help us to always honor our heroes and to remember them. That way we know there will always be more.