The nation’s highest medal for valor under enemy fire dates back over 150 years and has been awarded to well over 3,000 men and one woman in honor of heroic acts, including everything from stealing enemy trains to braving machine gun fire to pull comrades to safety.
This is the true history of the Medal of Honor.
Army Pvt. Jacob Parrott was one of Andrew’s Raiders and the first recipient of the Medal of Honor. Most of the other soldiers on the raid were eventually awarded the medal.
(Illustration by William Pittenger, Library of Congress)
The idea of creating a new medal for valor got its legs when Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles suggested to Iowa Senator James Grimes that he author legislation to create such an accolade. The idea was that such an honor would increase morale among the sailors and Marines serving in a navy fractured by a burgeoning civil war. Grimes’s bill was introduced on Dec. 9, 1861, and quickly gained support.
The bill quickly made it through Congress and President Abraham Lincoln signed it into law on December 21. At the time, the president was authorized to award 200 medals to Navy and Marine Corps enlisted personnel. It would be another seven months, July 1862, before Army enlisted personnel were authorized to receive the medal — but another 2,000 medals were authorized at that time.
The first medal to be awarded went to a soldier, Army Pvt. Jacob Parrott, one of Andrews’ Raiders who stole a locomotive in Big Shanty, Georgia, and took the train on a 87-mile raid across Confederate territory in April, 1862. Parrott received the Medal first, but nearly all Army personnel on the raid eventually received it. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton presented the first six.
The Navy was the first service authorized to present Medals of Honor, but the Army beat them to the punch. Still, hundreds of medals were awarded to deserving sailors for actions taken during the conflict, including this one presented to William Pelham for actions on the USS Hartford in 1864.
(Naval History and Heritage Command)
Although Andrews’ Raiders were among the first to receive the Medal of Honor, they were not the first persons to earn it. Recommendations for the award trickled in for actions taken earlier.
The earliest action that would earn an Army Medal of Honor took place in February, 1861, when assistant Army surgeon Bernard Irwin rescued 60 soldiers from a larger Apache force with only 14 men. The first naval action to earn the medal took place in October, 1862, when sailor John Williams stayed at his position on the USS Commodore Perry when it was under heavy fire while steaming down the Blackwater River and firing on Confederate batteries.
In 1863, the medal was made permanent and the rules were broadened to allow its award to Army officers. Soon after, in 1864, a former slave named Robert Blake became the first Black American to receive the Medal of Honor when he replaced a powder boy who was killed by a Confederate shell, running powder boxes to artillery crews while under fire.
In 1865, the first and only award of the of the Medal of Honor to a woman occurred. Dr. Mary E. Walker had served in the Union Army during the war and requested a commission. President Andrew Johnson refused but ordered that she be awarded a Medal of Honor in recognition of her bravery and service under fire even though she had served as a civilian and was ineligible.
Seven years later, the Civil War had ended but campaigns against Native Americans were being fought in earnest. It was during these Indian Wars that William “Buffalo Bill” Cody also received the medal despite being technically ineligible.
The medals for Walker and Cody were rescinded in 1917 but later reinstated. Walker’s was reinstated in 1977, Cody’s in 1989.
It’s sometimes noted that the Civil War-standard for the Medal of Honor was lower than the standard applied during World Wars I and II and more modern conflicts. The change in requirements began in 1876 after a surge of recommendations poured in following the Battle of Little Big Horn.
Additional recommendations came from the Legion of Honor, a group led by Medal of Honor recipients that would later become the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. In 1897, President William McKinley adopted new, higher standards that would later be applied during World War I.
Air Force Capt. Jay Zeamer received a Medal of Honor of the Gillespie design featuring a blue ribbon with 13 stars, the word valor, and a wreath of laurels.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Ken LaRock)
While Civil War and Indian Wars-era Medals of Honor featured designs that incorporated a red, white, and blue ribbon and multiple clasps, in 1904, Medal of Honor recipient and Gen. George Gillespie introduced a new design with a blue ribbon carrying 13 stars. It also added a laurel wreath around the iconic star, added the word “VALOR” to the medal, and made a number of other, smaller design changes.
All Medal of Honor designs approved after 1904 are an evolution of this design.
In 1915, the Navy broadened its rules for the medal so that naval officers, like their Army counterparts, were eligible. In 1918, additional rules for the Army Medal of Honor required that the valorous action take place in conflict with an enemy, that the recommended awardee be a person serving in the Army, and that the medal be presented within three years of the valorous act.
Another change during World War I was that the Medal of Honor was officially placed as the highest medal for valor. While it had always been one of the top awards, it was previously uncertain if the Medal of Honor always outranked service crosses, distinguished service medals, and the Silver Star. In July 1918, the relative tiers of each medal were established, officially putting the Medal of Honor on top.
U.S. Coast Guardsman Douglas Munro and his compatriots work to protect U.S. Marines on the beaches of Guadalcanal during a withdrawal under fire from Japanese soldiers.
(U.S. Coast Guard)
The other military services would later adopt similar restrictions.
The only award of the Medal of Honor to a Coast Guardsman took place during World War II after Signalman First Class Douglas Munro braved Japanese machine gun fire to rescue Marines and sailors during the Battle of Guadalcanal. He was shot in the head during the engagement and died soon after returning to U.S. lines.
Because no Coast Guard version of the medal had ever been designed, Munro’s family was presented the Navy version. A 1963 law allowed for a Coast Guard design but no design has been approved and no medals of such a design have ever been made.
The Air Force made its own design for the medal in 1956 and it was officially adopted in 1965. Prior to that, airmen received the Army award.
Today, there are three approved versions of the Medal of Honor, one for each the Army, the Air Force, and the naval services.
To date, the medal has been presented to nearly 3,500 people.