The Purple Heart
The history of the nation's oldest military award … including how it disappeared for over a century and then made a comeback to what we know it as today.
"The General ever desirous to cherish virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and encourage every species of Military merit, directs that whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear … over his left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth …"
General George Washington on August 7, 1782. Washington, who called it the Badge of Military Merit, wanted to boost the morale of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. This honor was unique because it was available for "common soldiers," unlike others historically most intended for officers, royalty, etc.
The Original Recipients
- Sergeant Daniel Bissell: Spied on British troops in NYC and provided American forces with valuable intelligence.
- Sergeant William Brown: Heroic actions at the Siege of Yorktown.
- Sergeant Elijah Churchill: Bravery displayed during two raids against British forces on Long Island.
- Gen. Washington awarded a cloth purple heart to the three sergeants; the honor then went dormant. For about 150 years, no one else received it.
- Throughout most of WWI, the only U.S. military medal was the Medal of Honor.
- Other countries offered a variety of awards for their troops; U.S. officials began brainstorming additional awards.
- 1932: U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur re-established the Badge of Military Merit & renamed it the "Purple Heart."
- Douglas included a key criteria to qualify for the honor — "A wound, which necessitates treatment by a medical officer …"
World War II
- 1942: The Purple Heart is extended to service members beyond the U.S. Army, and includes not only those injured but also those killed in action.
- 1 Million+ Purple Hearts were presented to men and women wounded or killed during WWII.
- More than 500,000 extra medals remained after WWII as manufacturers tried to anticipate needed supply. Leftover medals were distributed during later wars, such as Korea, Vietnam, and beyond.
The Purple Heart was re-introduced by Gen. MacArthur on February 22, 1932 — the 200th anniversary of George Washington's birth.
Military members can receive the award multiple times if they are wounded more than once. Curry Haynes, who served in the Vietnam War, received 10 Purple Hearts for multiple injuries endured on two separate occasions. He passed away in July 2017.
Picture: downloaded from US Dept. of Defense website: https://www.defense.gov/Multimedia/Photos/igphoto/2001522010/
The History of the Purple Heart (National World War II Museum)
GENERAL ORDERS, 7 AUGUST 1782 (National Archives)
by Jenna Lee,