The History of the Medal of Honor

In 1990, Congress declared March 25th as National Medal of Honor Day, but how did the Medal of Honor come to be?

Continue reading to find out! 

The Medal of Honor Origin Story 

According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, on December 9, 1861, Iowa Senator James Grimes,  Chairman on the Committee on Naval Affairs, submitted Bill S. 82 during the Second Session of the 37th Congress, “An Act to further promote the Efficiency of the Navy“. The bill included a provision for 200 “medals of honor” to be given to petty officers, seamen, landsmen, and marines who had distinguish themselves during the Civil War.

On December 21, the bill was passed and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln. Secretary Welles directed the Philadelphia Mint to design the new military decoration. On May 15, 1862, the United States Department of the Navy ordered 175 medals ($1.85 each) from the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia with “Personal Valor” inscribed on the back of each one.

On February 15, 1862, Senator Henry Wilson, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs and the Militia, introduced a resolution for a Medal of Honor for the Army.  The resolution was approved by Congress and signed into law by President Lincoln on July 12, 1862 (“A Resolution to provide for the Presentation of “Medals of Honor” to the Enlisted Men of the Army and Volunteer Forces who have distinguished, or may distinguish, themselves in Battle during the present Rebellion“).  The Army’s version had “The Congress to” written on the back of the medal. Both versions were made of copper and coated with bronze, which gave them a reddish tint. To learn more about the design of the Medal of Honor, click here.

Medal of Honor awarded posthumously in 1866 to John Scott.

 On March 3, 1863 Congress made the Medal of Honor a permanent decoration, and authorized it to all members, including commissioned officers, of the U.S. Army. The first U.S. Army soldiers to receive the medal were six members of a Union raiding party who crossed into enemy (Confederate) territory to destroy bridges and railroad tracks between Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia in 1862. One of these men was Jacob Parrott, seen below.

Jacob Parrott, the first man to receive the Medal of Honor.

Who Is Eligible for a Medal of Honor? 

Medals of Honor are awarded sparingly and are bestowed only to the bravest of the brave; it is the United States’ highest military award for valor.

The Medal of Honor is authorized for any military service member who distinguishes himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty:

  • While engaged in an 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.

According to the Medal of Honor Historical Society of the United States, there have been 3,526 Medals of Honor awarded to 3,507 individuals since the decoration’s creation, with over 40% awarded for actions during the American Civil War. There are only 69 living Medal of Honor recipients.

ASOM Connection

Corporal Rudy Hernandez, pictured below, was a Soldier in the esteemed 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team that earned the Medal of Honor during the Korean War. 

When his platoon came under attack and his comrades were forced to withdraw due to lack of ammunition, Cpl. Hernandez, although wounded by a grenade, continued to fire at the enemy until a ruptured cartridge rendered his rifle inoperative. 

Cpl. Hernandez then rushed the enemy, armed only with a rifle and bayonet. He killed six assailants before falling unconscious from grenade, bayonet, and bullet wounds; however, his heroic action halted the enemy advance and enabled his unit to counterattack and retake the lost ground. 

The picture below depicts the Corporal Rudy Hernandez exhibit at the U.S. Army Airborne & Special Operations Museum, and was made in-house by our talented museum staff. 

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