The Medal of Honor

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Salutes the Armed Forces.

Often called -in error- the Congressional Medal of Honor, it isn't granted by Congress. The awards are made by the Department of Defense. Congress merely passes the legislation. And sometimes only after a lot of debate.


Early in the Civil War, the idea of a medal for valor was proposed to General-in-Chief of the Army Winfield Scott, but the general shot it down because he thought medals were a European affectation. The U.S. Navy had no such objections -and neither did Congress. So when Iowa senator James W. Grimes, chairman of the Naval Committee, introduced a bill on December 9, 1861, to "promote the efficiency of the Navy" by distributing "medals of honor," Congress passed it, authorizing 200 medals "which shall be bestowed upon such petty officers, seamen, landsmen and marines as shall distinguish themselves in by their gallantry in action and other seamanlike qualities during the present war." President Lincoln signed the bill and the Navy Medal of Honor was born.


Eventually, of course, the Army decided it wanted in on the act. Massachusetts senator Henry Wilson introduced a bill the following February authorizing "the president to distribute medals to privates in the Army of the United States who shall distinguish themselves in battle." This time, Congress debated the resolution for several months, but on July 12, 1862, passed legislation for the Army Medal of Honor. The act authorized the president to distribute 2,000 medals of honor in the name of Congress to noncommissioned officers and privates who distinguish themselves in action, and for "other soldier-like qualities, during the present insurrection." The Navy medals could be awarded for either combat or non-combat heroism, but Army medals were restricted to combat heroism. With these two acts, Congress created an award that grew in prominence in American history.

In March 1863, Congress amended the Army act to make Army officers eligible for the medal, but not officers of the Navy or Marines Corps. The odd arrangement continued until March 3, 1915, when Congress expanded the decoration to include Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard officers.

Since then, there have been three more amendments. The amendment of July 9, 1918, provided for military service abroad, and the amendment of July 25, 1963, provided for the inclusion of women. The following is the criteria for awarding the Medal of Honor as of February 25, 1995:

The Medal of Honor is awarded by the President, in the name of Congress, to a person who, while a member of the Army, distinguishes himself or herself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in action against an enemy of the United States; while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party. The deed performed must have been one of personal bravery or self-sacrifice so conspicuous as to clearly distinguish the individual above his or her comrades and must have involved risk of life. Incontestable proof of the performance of the service will be exacted and each recommendation for the award of this decoration will be considered on the standard of extraordinary merit.


But back in 1916, Congress began questioning if the 2,635 awards that had been made by that point met with statutory requirements; a board of five officers was created to review the records. Civil War awards raised the most questions because of the huge number. Researchers discovered that the very first Civil war medal awarded went retroactively to Assistant Surgeon Bernard J. D. Irwin for heroic action at Apache Pass, Arizona, on February 13-14, 1861, two months before the Civil war began and 16 months before the legislation for the Army medals had passed. Irwin kept his medal, and so did Private Francis E. Brownell of the 11th New York Fire Zouaves, whose actions on May 24, 1861, actually made him the Civil War's first Army recipient.

After completion of its review, the board recommended rescinding 911 medals. This included 864 medals issued to all the men of the 27th Maine Infantry, which the board ruled a clerical error; 29 who served as Lincoln's funeral guard; 12 that appeared to be frivolous; five because they were civilians; and one because of gender. Acting Assistant Surgeon Dr. Mary E. Walker served in battles from the First Bull Run in 1861 to Atlanta in 1864. The Army board rescinded her award in 1917 because she was not a man, though she served near the front lines and was held for four months in a Confederate prison camp. President Jimmy Carter restored Dr. Walker's award in 1977. William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody lost his medal by being a civilian scout and not a soldier, but in 1989 President George H. W. Bush reinstated that award.


One Medal of Honor went to drummer boy William "Willie" Johnston of Company D, 3rd Vermont Infantry, who received the honor on September 6, 1863, at the age of 13 for acts of heroism during the June 1862 Seven Days' Battles. Born on July 1, 1850, Willie was 11 at the time and the youngest person ever to receive the award.

The Army granted 424 awards between 1861 and 1898, when soldiers were fighting American Indians on the frontier. The medal was still being liberally granted during the Spanish-American War. Because much of the action occurred at sea, sailors collected 64 awards, the Marine Corps 15, and the Army 31. The most distinguished personality of the war, Lieutenant Colonel Teddy Roosevelt, never knew he earned the medal because his was awarded posthumously on January 16, 2001. After reexamining the process in 1917, Congress began providing different decorations for lesser acts of heroism. Only 124 Medal of Honor awards were granted during World War I: 95 to the Army, 21 to the Navy, and 8 to the Marine Corps. For extreme valor during the 1918 war-ending offensives in France, five Marines received Medals of Honor from both the Army and the Navy.


During World War I, another group of men served their country in a whole new way, by flying rickety airplanes made of wood, wire, and canvas. They were part of the Army Air Services and in 1917 were not fully appreciated by ground commanders. Still, four flyers received Army Medals of Honor -three of them posthumously. Sole survivor Eddie Rickenbacker had scored 26 victories and became America's top ace.

Compared with the 1,198 awards granted during the Civil war, only 464 were authorized during World War II. Among the recipients were First Lieutenant Vernon Baker, whose regiment was the first African-American unit to go into combat in World War II, and Second Lieutenant Van T. Barfoot, a Choctaw Indian from Mississippi who showed "extraordinary heroism, demonstration of magnificent valor, and aggressive determination in the afce of point-blank fire" to inspire his fellow soldiers in the capture of a new position near Carano, Italy in 1944.

The Korean War produced 133 recipients and the Vietnam War 246, but then the flow of Medal of Honor awards drastically decreased. Congress authorized only two medals during Somalia, one during Afghanistan, and four during Iraq, all posthumously. To date, 3,467 medals have been awarded to 3,448 individuals, including one for each of the nine unknown soldiers.


Congress granted a special bonus to all Medal of Honor recipients on April 17, 1916: a $10 monthly lifetime pension at age 65, providing the recipient was honorably discharged. In 1961 Congress reviewed the 1916 law and increased the pension to $100 a month beginning at age 50. It is now $1,000 a month with no age limitation. Medalists can fly worldwide on government aircraft and are entitled, along with their families, to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


The 1862 medals for the Army and the Navy were minted as an inverted gold star with the image of Minerva, the Roman goddess of war, surrounded by 34 tiny stars representing the states of the Union. The traditional Army emblem of an eagle held the medal, while the flukes of an anchor held the Navy medal. Both were connected to a ribbon of 13 vertical red and white stripes below a plain blue field. The medals remained exactly as they were first designed until the beginning of the 20th century. Today there are separate Medals of Honor authorized by the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard.

The present Army medal consists of a gold star inset with the head of Minerva, surrounded by a wreath, topped by an eagle on a bar inscribed with the word "Valor." The medal is attached by a hook to a light blue moire silk neck band stitched with 13 embossed stars. Congress expected many of the medals to be awarded posthumously, and the count has lately reached 618.

The Navy medal is the least changed. The original design has been re-engraved and is no longer flat. It's still held by the flukes of an anchor but the ribbon has been changed to the light blue moire silk neck band like the Army medal. A Coast Guard medal has been authorized but has yet to be designed. A Navy medal of Honor has been given posthumously to the sole Coast Guard recipient, Signalman First Class Douglas A. Munro, for heroism during the Battle of Guadalcanal.

It wasn't until July 6, 1960, that legislation was passed to award a Medal of Honor for the U.S. Air Force, which Congress separated from the Army and made an independent entity in 1947. Instead of Minerva, the Air Force medal displays the head of the Statue of Liberty. The medal is more ornate than the Army or Navy versions; the star is surrounded by a large green wreath and hangs from an adaptation of the thunderbolt from the Air Force coat of arms.


By Conflict

Civil War     1522
Indian Campaigns     426
Korea 1871     15
Spanish American     110
Samoa     4
Philippine Insurrection     80
Philippine Outlaws     6
Boxer Rebellion     59
Mexican Campaign     56
Haiti (1915-1934)     8
Dominican Republic     3
World War I     124
Nicaraguan Campaign     2
World War II     464
Korean War     133
Vietnam     246
Somalia     2
Operation Iraqi Freedom     4
Operation Enduring Freedom     6
Peacetime     193
Unknowns     9

[Ed. note: Since this was published in 2009, several more Medals of Honor have been presented. You can find them at the bottom of this page at the Medal of Honor site.]

By Branch of Service

Army     2404
Navy     746
Marine Corps     297
Air Force     17
Coast Guard     1


The longest-delayed award to a Medal of Honor recipient went to Army Corporal Andrew Jackson Smith of the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the Union's all-black regiments in the Civil war. On November 30, 1864, during a bloody charge on Honey Hill, South Carolina, Smith retrieved the fallen regimental colors and carried them under extreme enemy fire throughout the battle. The Medal of Honor was granted on January 18, 2001, more than 136 years after the action.  

General Douglas MacArthur was the oldest Medal of Honor recipient at age 62. The citation was awarded on April 1, 1942, for his heroic defense of the Philippines and his offensive efforts on the Bataan peninsula. Hid father, Lieutenant General Arthur MacArthur, had earned the Medal during the Civil War, making them the only father and son to have received the award.

In January 2002, retired general Joe Foss, 86, a former Marine fighter pilot and one of the most highly decorated U.A. war veterans, was detained at a security checkpoint at the Phoenix, Arizona, airport because he was carrying an item with sharp edges. The sharp object turned out to be the Medal of Honor he had received in 1943 from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The general was on his way to West Point to speak to the sophomore class there -and to show them his medal. After the general had to remove his shoes, tie, and belt three times in three different areas of the airport, he was allowed to board his plane.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Salutes the Armed Forces.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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Two things not mentioned in the article that I think deserve mention:
ALL service members, regardless of rank, salute a medal of honor recipient - - for example if a private is a medal of honor winner, generals have to salute him.
It is also my understanding that any children of a medal of honor recipient are eligible to receive an autamatic appointment to the service academy (i.e. West Point, Annapolis, etc.) of their choice if they so desire.
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"In March 1963, Congress amended the Army act to make Army officers eligible for the medal, but not officers of the Navy or Marines Corps. The odd arrangement continued until March 3, 1915, when Congress expanded the decoration to include Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard officers."

I think one of these dates is wrong.
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