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The Purple Heart: America's Oldest Medal

Did you know that the Purple Heart is America's oldest military award? In 1782, although the Revolutionary War was basically over and peace talks were happening in Paris, Gen. George Washington needed a way to quell the talk of rebellion. Congress was running out of money after years of war against England. Troops were hungry and unpaid and there was talk of mutiny.

A painting.
Continental Army
Members of the Continental Army color guard march through the snow in “The Continentals,” an 1875 painting by Frank Blackwell Mayer. Library of Congress photo
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 750101-O-ZZ999-001

He decided to create the Badge of Military Merit to recognize heroic acts by his troops.

The requirements for earning the badge were a lot different from today's Purple Heart. Soldiers had to do something unusually heroic or perform some act that was essential to the success of the Continental Army. While that sounds more like something you'd have to do to earn the Medal of Honor, the badge was actually a cloth purple heart with the word "merit" stitched across it in white. So, in a way, both the Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart came from the Badge of Military Merit.

One thing that made the badge different was that it was the first award meant for enlisted troops. Before this, the only way to recognize heroism by an enlisted soldier was to promote him, or for a general to give him a battlefield commission.

Badge of Merit, the Purple Heart is America’s oldest military award.
Badge of Military Merit
The Badge of Military Merit issued to Sgt. Elijah Churchill is on display at the New Windsor Military Cantonment State Historic Site in New York. New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation photo
Photo By: Photo by
VIRIN: 180924-O-ZZ999-221

No one knows for sure how many soldiers ever received the Badge of Military Merit, though. It could be as few as three. And the book in which recipients' names were recorded has been lost for more than 200 years.

Washington's order was allowed to lapse after the war ended and the Purple Heart wasn't revived until Feb. 22, 1932, on Washington's 200th birthday. Designed by Elizabeth Will, an Army heraldic specialist, the modern medal features a profile image of Washington. Once again, the medal was awarded for meritorious service, but now soldiers could also receive it if they'd been wounded by the enemy.

The award was made retroactive — World War I soldiers who had earned certain awards could apply for the Purple Heart. The first medal was presented to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Army chief of staff at the time.

At first, the Purple Heart was only available to soldiers, but in 1942 Congress changed the rules for earning the award, authorizing it only for wounds, and made it available to all services, including some civilians.

Civilians who worked with the military, like Red Cross workers or war reporters, remained eligible for the award until 1997. Civilian employees of the Defense Department who are killed or wounded by an enemy now receive the Defense of Freedom Medal.

Two medals with ribbons sit inside cushioned boxes.
Purple Hearts
Two Purple Heart medals with ribbons sit inside cushioned boxes at The Institute of Heraldry at Fort Belvoir, Va.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Reina Delgado
VIRIN: 220921-N-LM581-1130

  • Army Sgt. Stubby, a dog who was smuggled to Europe by members of the 102nd Infantry Regiment, earned the Purple Heart twice during World War I — once for being wounded in a gas attack and once for being wounded by a grenade.

    However, as of April 25, 1962, when President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 11016 and formally established the rules for awarding the Purple Heart medal, military service animals are no longer able to receive the award.

  • About 1.07 million Purple Hearts were awarded during World War II, more than were awarded in all of the other conflicts of the 20th century combined.

  • Chief Nurse Beatrice Mary MacDonald was assigned to a British Clearing Hospital in Belgium during World War I. In 1917, she lost her right eye when German aircraft bombed her hospital. She received the Purple Heart for her wounds in 1936, retroactively making her the first woman to earn the award. She was also the first woman to earn the Distinguished Service Cross. MacDonald served with the Army in Belgium and France for the rest of the war. 

    A historic photo of a woman sitting in rubble.
    Beatrice Mary MacDonald
    Chief Nurse Beatrice Mary MacDonald in a destroyed French town, circa 1917-19. New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation photo
    Photo By: New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation
    VIRIN: 170901-O-ZZ999-001

  • One of the most famous civilians to earn the Purple Heart was Ernie Pyle, a war correspondent who covered World War II from the trenches of Europe before being killed in the Battle of Okinawa.

  • Audie Murphy received the Purple Heart three times during World War II. He also received every combat award for valor available from the Army — including the Medal of Honor — as well as French and Belgian awards for heroism.  

  • Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Reckless, a horse, received the Purple Heart twice for wounds she received in combat during the Korean War.

  • The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor is in New Windsor, New York.

(This article was first published on Oct. 15, 2018.)

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