The Medal of Honor
The Medal of Honor is the highest military award for bravery that can be given to any individual in the United States of America. Conceived in the early 1860’s and first presented in 1863, the medal has a colorful and inspiring history which has culminated in the standards applied today for awarding this respected honor.
To judge whether a man is entitled to the Medal of Honor, all of the Armed Services apply regulations which permit no margin of doubt or error: (1.) The deed of the person must be proved by incontestable evidence of at least two eyewitnesses (2.) It must be so outstanding that it clearly distinguishes his gallantry beyond the call of duty from lesser forms of bravery and (3.) It must involve the risk of his life. However, until passage of Public Law 88-77, the Navy awarded Medals of Honor for bravery in saving lives, and deeds of valor performed in submarine rescues, boiler explosions, turret fires and other types of disasters unique to the naval profession.
A recommendation for the Army or Air Force Medal must be made within 2 years from the date of the deed upon which it depends. Award of the medal must be made within 3 years after the date of the deed. The recommendation for a Navy Medal of Honor must be made within 3 years and awarded within 5 years.
The History of the Medal of Honor
The Medal of Honor was the result of group thought and action and evolved in response to a need of the times. In the winter of 1861-62, following the beginning of hostilities in the Civil War, there was much thought in Washington concerning the necessity for recognizing the deeds of the American soldiers, sailors and marines who were distinguishing themselves in the fighting. The United States, which had given little thought to its Armed Forces during times of peace, now found them to be the focal point of attention. The serviceman was not just fighting, but was fighting gallantly, sometimes displaying a sheer heroism which a grateful Nation now sought to reward in a meaningful and dignified manner.
It was in this spirit that a bill was introduced in the Senate to create a Navy Medal of Honor. It was passed and approved by President Abraham Lincoln on December 21, 1861. It established the Medal of Honor for enlisted men of the Navy and Marine Corps – The first decoration formally authorized by the American Government to be worn as a badge of honor. Action on the Army medal was started two months later, when, on February 17, 1862, a Senate resolution was introduced providing for presentation of “medals of honor” to enlisted men of the Army and Voluntary Forces who “shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and other soldier like qualities.” President Lincoln’s approval made the resolution law on July 12, 1862. It was extended later to include Army officers as well as enlisted men and made the provisions retroactive to the beginning of the Civil War. It should be noted that awards to Navy and Marine Corps officers were not authorized until 1915.
There were some sincere men who believed that the idea of a Medal of Honor would not prove popular with Americans. But after the Civil War, and in succeeding years, the medal turned out to be too popular and the honors conferred upon its recipients had the effect of inspiring the human emotion of envy. A flood of imitators, including a number of prestigious veteran and patriotic organizations, sprang up following the Civil War and had the effect of causing Congress, eventually, to take steps to protect the dignity of the original medal. These took the form of major changes to the medal and ribbon and over the years, resulted, depending on the source, in seventeen Medal of Honor variations (six Army, ten Navy and one Air Force).
On April 27, 1916, Congress approved an act which created a “Medal of Honor Roll” upon which the names of honorably discharged recipients who had earned the Medal of Honor in combat were to be recorded. The purpose of the act was to provide a special pension of $10 per month for life and to give medal recipients the same recognition shown to holders of similar British and French decoration for valor. Unfortunately, the act had some unforeseen consequences since not all of the awards seemed to be for combat actions. Given these doubts, the Secretary of War appointed a board of five retired general officers for the purpose of “investigating and reporting upon past awards of the medal of honor by the War Department with a view to ascertaining what medals of honor, if any, have been awarded or issued for any cause other than distinguished conduct involving actual conflict with an enemy.”
By October 16, 1916, the Board had met, gathered all records on the 2,625 Medals of Honor which had been awarded up to that time, prepared statistics, organized evidence and began its deliberations. On February 15, 1917, all of the pertinent documentation had been examined and considered by the Board and 910 names were stricken from the list.
Of these 910 names, 864 were involved in one group, the 27th Maine Volunteer Infantry. The regiment’s enlistment was to have expired in June of 1863 but, to keep the regiment on active duty during a critical period (the Battle of Gettysburg), President Lincoln authorized Medals of Honor for any members who volunteered for another tour of duty. It was felt that the 309 men who volunteered for extended duty in the face of possible death, were certainly demonstrating “soldier like” qualities and as such were entitled to the Medal under the original law. But their act in no way measured up to the 1916 standards and a clerical error compounded the abuse. Not only did the 309 volunteers receive the Medal of Honor, but the balance of the regiment, which had gone home in spite of the President’s offer, also received the award.
In that case, as well as in the remaining 46 scattered instances, the Board felt that the Medal of Honor had not been properly awarded for distinguished services by the definition of the act of June 3, 1916. Among the 46 others who lost their medals were William F. (“Buffalo Bill”) Cody, Dr. Mary Walker, the only female medal recipient and the 29 members of the special Honor Guard that had accompanied the body of Abraham Lincoln from Washington, DC to its final resting place in Springfield, Illinois. There have been no instances of cancellation of Medal of Honor awards within the Naval services due to failure to meet the 1916 award criteria.
Read part two in this series about the Army Medal of Honor.Medal of Honor Military Medal,