The Medal of Honor

America’s highest military decoration

Second Lieutenant Ernest Childers, a Muscogee Creek Native American, receiving the Medal of Honor from General Jacob L. Devers for his actions taken on September 22, 1943 in Italy 
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Every American knows that the Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration of the United States, but how much do you really know about it? We wrote this article in anticipation of the upcoming National Medal of Honor Day on March 25 to give you a brief rundown on the inception and history of America’s most coveted military award. Originally devised as the country’s first-ever military decoration for valor with vaguely defined requirements, it grew to become the highest-ranking award for U.S. servicemen. 3536 medals have been awarded to 3517 recipients to this day (read on for an explanation of the incongruity), not counting revocations. This article is dedicated to all recipients of the award, including the 618 posthumous recipients, and the 63 recipients still with us today.
 
The Medal of Honor is presented by the President of the United States, in the name of Congress, and is conferred only upon members of the U.S. armed forces who distinguish themselves by conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.
 
The history of the Medal of Honor begins in 1861, the first year of the Civil War. The U.S. did not yet have a battlefield decoration for valor, and one was proposed by Lieutenant Colonel Edward D. Townsend to Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, Commanding General of the United States Army. Scott refused to introduce the award, considering battlefield valor decorations to be a tradition associated with European monarchies. Scott, however, retired in October 1861, and the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, picked up on the idea, specifically for naval use at first.

Lieutenant Colonel Townsend, who first suggested the Medal of Honor
(Photo: Library of Congress)

The relevant bill was passed in December, and was followed by one establishing the medal for the Army in February the next year. The two versions were almost identical, but the anchor connecting the medal to the ribbon was an anchor in the Navy version, and an eagle perching on two cannons in the Army one. The Army version also had the words “The Congress to” on the back, above the space for the recipient’s name.

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, who first adopted the idea of the medal
(Photo: Library of Congress)

The two bills had different definitions on who was eligible. The Navy version said "to be bestowed upon such petty officers, seamen, landsmen, and marines as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and other seaman-like qualities during the present war....”, while the Army version’s phrasing was "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." Three points should be noted: one, the medal was originally designed just for the Civil War; two, commissioned officers were not eligible for it; and three, the bills did not state that the gallantry and qualities it rewarded had to be displayed in combat.
 
The centerpiece of the medal depicted a female figure, an allegory of the Union. She rests her left hand on a fasces (a bundle of twigs with an axe stuck in it, a symbol of authority in ancient Rome), while her right hand holds up a shield to repulse a man holding two snakes symbolizing secession. The image is essentially identical to the modern naval version of the medal, but with different symbology. In the present-day version, the woman is officially identified as Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, justice, law and victory, and the patron of arts, trade and strategy, while the two snakes represent Discord.

The original Army version of the Medal of Honor. This one belonged to John Morehead Scott, one of the Andrews Raiders.
(Photo: Gary Todd / Wikipedia)

An 1863 revision made the medal permanent, to be used even after the Civil War, and made commissioned officers in the Army eligible – though Navy officers had to wait until 1915.  
 
The first man to receive the Medal of Honor was Private Jacob W. Parrott. Parrot was a member of Andrews’ Raiders, a group which famously commandeered the train engine The General to do as much damage to a Confederate railroad line as possible. The small force was captured and several members executed, but the rest escaped. Andrews himself, hanged by the Confederates, was a civilian and thus not eligible for the award, but Parrott and five others were decorated.

Jacob Parrott, the first recipient of the Medal of Honor
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Another early recipient that must be mentioned is Bernard J. D. Irwin. While Irwin was not the first to be given the Medal of Honor, the action he received it for actually preceded not only the Great Locomotive Raid, but even the establishment of the decoration. In February 1861, he and 14 other men saved 60 U.S. soldiers from an Apache force that had them surrounded, earning him the medal, which he received in 1894, on the occasion of his retirement.

Bernard J. D. Irwin, the first to carry out an action that was rewarded with the Medal of Honor
(Photo: U.S. Army)

The Army established the Medal of Honor Review Board in 1916 to review past decorations. An entire new hierarchy of medals was being established, and the board’s job was to help create a clean slate by finding old Medals of Honor that were awarded based on decisions that no longer stood up to scrutiny. The board ended up striking 911 past recipients from the list for lacking the prerequisites. Most of the struck recipients were members of the 27th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment. In 1863, Confederate troops were drawing close to Washington D.C., just as the regiment’s enlistment was about to end. The Army, worried that the capital might fall, offered a Medal of Honor to each man in the regiment who reenlisted to guard the city. Some 300 men did so, but shoddy paperwork caused a medal to be issued to every member, including the majority who went home. A second, much smaller group of 29 were made up of President Lincoln’s funeral guard, who were given the medal. Finally, six names were struck because they were civilians. This last group included two well-known names: Mary Edwards Walker, and William Frederick Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill.
 
Walker was a civilian surgeon working for the Union army under contract. She often placed herself in danger by crossing the battle lines to treat the wounded, and was arrested by the Confederacy as a spy after she helped a Confederate doctor perform an amputation. After the war, she requested a retroactive brevet promotion or a commission to validate her service. This was denied, but she was decorated with the Medal of Honor instead. This was technically illegal, so her decoration was revoked in 1917. The decision caused a controversy, as two male doctors, also awarded the medal despite being civilians, were allowed to keep theirs. Walker’s Medal of Honor was reinstated in 1977, although with highly disputed legality. She remains the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor in the history of this decoration.

Mary Edwards Walker with her Medal of Honor
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Buffalo Bill served the Army as a scout during the ongoing conflicts collectively called the Indian Wars, and was documented to show great courage in the dangerous position, and he received the medal in 1872. He, like many other scouts, however, was technically a civilian, and the 1917 revision stripped him and four other scouts of their medals. Cody’s medal, like those of the other four scouts, was eventually restored in the late 1980s, after the Army Board for Correction of Military Records retroactively changed the scouts’ papers to make them enlisted men.

“Buffalo Bill” Cody a few years after receiving the Medal of Honor
(Photo: public domain)

The medal has three versions today, which came into existence over several revisions. The Navy version is essentially identical to the original one described earlier, and it is also awarded to Marines and Coast Guardsmen. A separate Coast Guard medal was authorized in 1963, but never designed or awarded. The single Guardsman to ever receive one, Signalman First Class Douglas Munro, was given the naval version posthumously. He died in 1942, during the Battle of Guadalcanal, when he used his landing craft as a shield to protect another vessel full of retreating Marines.

The modern Navy version of the medal
(Photo: fineartamerica.com)

The present-day Army version differs from the original in many ways, most notably by ditching the scene in the center and replacing it with the head of Minerva. The Air Force version, created in 1956 and also awarded to members of the Space Force, uses Jupiter’s thunderbolt as the anchor, and has an altogether different lady on it: the head of the Statue of Liberty. This choice was made in an attempt to distinguish itself from Army in general (which it had long been a part of), and from the Institute of Heraldry, which usually designs awards, and is a part of the Army.

The modern Army (left) and Air Force (right) versions of the Medal of Honor
(Photos: U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force)

There was one variation of the medal that was visually the most distinct of all, the Tiffany Cross Medal of Honor, named after the Tiffany jewelry company that designed it. As already mentioned, the original bills establishing the Medal of Honor did not specify that it had to be awarded for combat action, and the Navy kept awarding it for non-combat displays of valor all the way through World War I. In 1919, they decided to introduce a new type of Medal of Honor: the old star-shaped design would be retained for non-combat heroism, while the new cross would be awarded for actions taken in battle. At least that was the idea, but the Tiffany Cross version was poorly regulated, and at least three men received it for patently non-combat actions. (In the case of Richard E. Byrd and Floyd Bennett, it was the first successful heavier-than-air flight to the North Pole and back.) The cross was unpopular, possibly partially because it resembled the German Iron Cross. The Navy abandoned the cross in 1942, replacing it with the original star design while stopping the practice of awarding the medal for non-combat action.

The short-lived Tiffany Cross Medal of Honor
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Like all other American military awards, the original version of the Medal of Honor was designed to be worn on the chest, suspended on a short ribbon. The modern version, with its long blue neck ribbon decorated with thirteen stars for the original thirteen colonies that formed the United States, is one of only two U.S. military decorations to be worn in the neck. The other is the Commander’s Degree of the Legion of Merit, which is usually awarded to individuals serving foreign governments, and who therefore wouldn’t be eligible for the Medal of Honor, anyway.

President Obama awarding the Medal of Honor (with the modern neck ribbon) to Marine Corporal William Carpenter in 2014
(Photo: White House)

As we mentioned earlier, the number of medals issued to date does not equal the number of recipients. Nineteen servicemen have received the Medal of Honor twice, the first of them being Civil War officer Thomas Custer, who received the two medals for two separate acts of heroism a few days apart. He was a younger brother to the infamous George Armstrong Custer, and he died alongside his latter in the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Thomas Custer, wearing both of his Medals of Honor
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Five of the double recipients were a special case. They were Marines serving under Army command in World War I, and received a medal each from both branches of the armed forces. This is no longer possible, and, in fact, there have been no double recipients since the end of that war.
 
There have been several cases of two close family members both receiving the medal. Five pairs of brothers have been awarded the decoration, and two pairs of fathers and sons. One of the latter was Arthur MacArthur Jr.,who earned it in the Civil War by picking up the fallen regimental flag and leading a spontaneous  charge against an entrenched Confederate position on a hilltop. His son, Douglas MacArthur
(Read our earlier article), received it for the defense of the Philippines in World War II, even though he performed no specific act of valor to earn it.

Arthur MacArthur Jr., the father of Douglas MacArthur, wearing an older version of the Medal of Honor on his chest
(Photo: unknown photographer)

The other father-and-son pair were Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (Read our earlier article) Interestingly, it was the son who got his first, and both were awarded posthumously. Roosevelt Jr. received it for landing on Utah Beach with the very first wave on D-Day to direct arriving forces, but he only got the award in September 1944, two months after his death from a heart attack. His father, the only president to receive the award so far, got it in 2001 for his charge on San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

Theodore Roosevelt Jr. with his jeep Rough Rider, named after his father’s volunteer outfit in the Spanish-American War
(Photo: U.S. Army)

The last of the 473 World War II recipients, Hershel "Woody" Williams, passed away in June 2022 at the age of 98. He joined the Marines at the age of 19. He became a flamethrower operator and was deployed to the Pacific Theater with the 3rd Marine Division. He earned the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Iwo Jima in February 1945. He was wounded in March and was removed from the front. Williams received the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman at the White House in October 1945. He remained in the Marine Corps after the war and worked for the Veterans Administration for 33 years.

Hershel “Woody” Williams received the Medal of Honor on October 4, 1945, from President Harry S. Truman
(Photo: public domain)

Finally, one man holds the unique distinction of having received a Medal of Honor that was classified Top Secret. Hiroshi Miyamura was a Japanese-American soldier who served in World War II with the famous 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Infantry Regiment, largely composed of Japanese-American volunteers. He was recalled to active duty at the beginning of the Korean War. His squad came under an overwhelming Chinese attack one night; Miyamura ordered his men to retreat, then held up the Chinese, cutting down over 50 of them with his machine gun before being wounded and captured. He received the decoration during the 28 months he spent in North Korean captivity. The award was classified due to fears that the North Koreans might have killed him had they learned about his actions.

Miyamura receiving the Medal of Honor from President Eisenhower in 1953
(Photo: Department of Defense)

The National Medal of Honor Day was established by Congress in 1990 to “foster public appreciation and recognition of Medal of Honor Recipients.” The date of March 25 was chosen because it was on this date when the first Medals of Honor were presented to six members of Andrews' Raiders. Another institution created to preserve the memory of Medal of Honor recipients and bring their stories closer to the public is the National Medal of Honor Museum, set to open soon in Arlington, Texas.

A rendering of the future National Medal of Honor Museum
(Photo: National Medal of Honor Museum)

National Medal of Honor Day promotion

Save $600 on all tours

The Medals of Honor of different branches of the U.S. armed forces
(Photo: public domain)
On the occasion of the upcoming National Medal of Honor Day, we are offering all our available tours with a discount of $600 if you book and pay in full by March 25, 2024. Note that this offer applies only in case of new bookings, and it cannot be combined with other special promotions. If you have any questions related to this promotion or our tours, please contact our travel consultants at info@beachesofnormandy.com or by calling our toll-free number: +1 855-473-1999.
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