On July 12, 1862, the Medal of Honor was authorized by the United States Congress. This is the United States of America’s highest and most prestigious personal military decoration that may be awarded to recognize U.S. military service members who distinguished themselves by acts of valor. The medal is normally awarded by the President of the United States in the name of the U.S. Congress. Because the medal is presented “in the name of Congress”, it is often referred to informally as the “Congressional Medal of Honor”. However, the official name of the current award is “Medal of Honor”, as it began with the U.S. Army’s version. Within United States Code the medal is referred to as the “Medal of Honor”, and less frequently as “Congressional Medal of Honor”. U.S. awards, including the Medal of Honor, do not have post-nominal titles, and while there is no official abbreviation, the most common abbreviations are “MOH” and “MH”.
There are three versions of the medal, one for the Army, one for the Navy, and one for the Air Force. Personnel of the Marine Corps and Coast Guard receive the Navy version. The Medal of Honor is the oldest continuously issued combat decoration of the United States armed forces. The Medal of Honor was created as a Navy version in 1861 named the “Medal of Valor”, and an Army version of the medal named the “Medal of Honor” was established in 1862 to give recognition to men who distinguished themselves “conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity” in combat with an enemy of the United States.
The President normally presents the Medal of Honor at a formal ceremony in Washington, D.C., that is intended to represent the gratitude of the U.S. people, with posthumous presentations made to the primary next of kin. According to the Medal of Honor Historical Society of the United States, there have been 3,519 Medals of Honor awarded to the nation’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen since the decoration’s creation, with just less than half of them awarded for actions during the four years of the American Civil War.
In 1990, Congress designated March 25 annually as “National Medal of Honor Day”. Due to its prestige and status, the Medal of Honor is afforded special protection under U.S. law against any unauthorized adornment, sale, or manufacture, which includes any associated ribbon or badge.
In 1780, a forerunner to the Medal of Honor was the Fidelity Medallion — a small medal worn on a chain around the neck similar to a religious medal — that was awarded only to three militiamen from New York state, for the capture of John André, a British officer and spy connected directly to General Benedict Arnold during the American Revolutionary War. The capture saved the f ort of West Point from the British Army.
The first formal system for rewarding acts of individual gallantry by American soldiers was established by George Washington when he issued a field order on August 7, 1782, for a Badge of Military Merit to recognize those members of the Continental Army who performed “any singular meritorious action”. This decoration was America’s first combat decoration and was preceded only by the Fidelity Medallion, the Congressional medal for Henry Lee awarded in September 1779 in recognition of his attack on the British at Paulus Hook, the Congressional medal for General Horatio Gates awarded in November 1777 in recognition of his victory over the British at Saratoga, and the Congressional medal for George Washington awarded in March 1776. Although the Badge of Military Merit fell into disuse after the American Revolutionary War, the concept of a military award for individual gallantry by members of the U.S. Armed Forces had been established.
After the outbreak of the Mexican–American War (1846–1848) a Certificate of Merit (Meritorious Service Citation Certificate) was established by Act of Congress on March 3, 1847 “to any private soldier who had distinguished himself by gallantry performed in the presence of the enemy”. Five hundred and thirty-nine Certificates were approved for this period. The certificate was discontinued and reintroduced in 1876 effective from June 22, 1874 to February 10, 1892 when it was awarded for extraordinary gallantry by private soldiers in the presence of the enemy. From February 11, 1892 through July 9, 1918 (Certificate of Merit disestablished) it could be awarded to members of the Army for distinguished service in combat or noncombat; from January 11, 1905 through July 9, 1918 the certificate was granted medal status as the Certificate of Merit Medal (first awarded to a soldier who was awarded the Certificate of Merit for combat action on August 13, 1898).
This medal was later replaced by the Army Distinguished Service Medal which was established on January 2, 1918 (the Navy Distinguished Service Medal was established in 1919). Those Army members who held the Distinguished Service Medal in place of the Certificate of Merit could apply for the Army Distinguished Service Cross (established 1918) effective March 5, 1934.
In the fall of 1861, a proposal for a battlefield decoration for valor was submitted to Winfield Scott, the general-in-chief of the army, by Lt. Colonel Edward D. Townsend, an assistant adjutant at the War Department and Scott’s chief of staff. Scott, however, was strictly against medals being awarded, which was the European tradition. After Scott retired in October 1861, the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, adopted the idea of a decoration to recognize and honor distinguished naval service.
On December 9, 1861, U.S. Senator (Iowa) James W. Grimes, Chairman on the Committee on Naval Affairs, proposed Public Resolution Number 82 (Bill 82: 37th Congress, Second Session, 12 Stat. 329) “to promote the efficiency of the Navy” which included a provision for a Navy Medal of Valor which was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on December 21, 1861, “to be bestowed upon such petty officers, seamen, landsmen, and marines as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry and other seamen-like qualities during the present war.” Secretary Wells directed the Philadelphia Mint to design the new military decoration. On May 15, 1862, the United States Navy Department ordered 175 medals ($1.85 each) with the words “Personal Valor” on the back from the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia.
Senator Henry Wilson, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, introduced a resolution on February 15, 1862, for an Army Medal of Honor. The resolution (37th Congress, Second Session, 12 Stat. 623) was approved by Congress and signed into law on July 12, 1862. This measure provided for awarding a medal of honor “to such non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and other soldier-like qualities during the present insurrection.” During the war, Townsend would have some medals delivered to some recipients with a letter requesting acknowledgement of the “Medal of Honor”. The letter written and signed by Townsend on behalf of the Secretary of War, stated that the resolution was “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.” By mid-November the War Department contracted with Philadelphia silversmith William Wilson and Son, who had been responsible for the Navy design, to prepare 2,000 Army medals ($2.00 each) to be cast at the mint. The Army 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”.
In 1863, Congress made the Medal of Honor a permanent decoration. On March 3, Medals of Honor were authorized for officers of the Army (37th Congress, Third Session, 12 Stat. 751). The Secretary of War first presented the Medal of Honor to six Union Army volunteers on March 25, 1863 in his office.
On April 23, 1890, the Medal of Honor Legion was established in Washington, D.C. The ribbon of the Army version Medal of Honor was redesigned in 1896 with all stripes being vertical. In 1904, the planchet of the Army version was redesigned by General George Lewis Gillespie to help distinguish the Medal of Honor from other medals, particularly the membership insignia issued by the Grand Army of the Republic. On March 3, 1915, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard officers became eligible for the Medal of Honor.
Based on the report of the Medal of Honor Review Board, established by Congress in 1916, 911 recipients were stricken off the Medal of Honor roll because the medal had been awarded inappropriately. Among them were Buffalo Bill and Mary Edwards Walker. Some medals were restored in 1977. A separate Coast Guard medal was authorized in 1963, but not yet designed or awarded.
A separate design for a version of the medal for the U.S. Air Force was created in 1956, authorized in 1960, and officially adopted on April 14, 1965. Previously, members of the U.S. Air Force received the Army version of the medal.
Each of the three versions of the Medal of Honor is constructed differently and the components are made from gilding metals and red brass alloys with some gold plating, enamel, and bronze pieces. The United States Congress considered a bill in 2004 which would require the Medal of Honor to be made with 90% gold, the same composition as the lesser-known Congressional Gold Medal, but the measure was dropped.
The Army version is described by the Institute of Heraldry as “a gold five pointed star, each point tipped with trefoils, 1½ inches [3.8 cm] wide, surrounded by a green laurel wreath and suspended from a gold bar inscribed VALOR, surmounted by an eagle. In the center of the star, Minerva’s head surrounded by the words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. On each ray of the star is a green oak leaf. On the reverse is a bar engraved THE CONGRESS TO with a space for engraving the name of the recipient.” The pendant and suspension bar are made of gilding metal, with the eye, jump rings, and suspension ring made of red brass. The finish on the pendant and suspension bar is hard enameled, gold plated, and rose gold plated, with polished highlights.
The Navy version is described as “a five-pointed bronze star, tipped with trefoils containing a crown of laurel and oak. In the center is Minerva, personifying the United States, standing with left hand resting on fasces and right hand holding a shield blazoned with the shield from the coat of arms of the United States. She repulses Discord, represented by snakes. The medal is suspended from the flukes of an anchor.” It is made of solid red brass, oxidized and buffed.
The Air Force version is described as “within a wreath of green laurel, a gold five-pointed star, one point down, tipped with trefoils and each point containing a crown of laurel and oak on a green background. Centered on the star, an annulet of 34 stars is a representation of the head of the Statue of Liberty. The star is suspended from a bar inscribed with the word VALOR above an adaptation of the thunderbolt from the Air Force Coat of Arms.” The pendant is made of gilding metal. The connecting bar, hinge, and pin are made of bronze. The finish on the pendant and suspension bar is hard enameled, gold plated, and rose gold plated, with buffed relief.
The Medal of Honor has evolved in appearance over time. The upside-down star design of the Navy version’s pendant adopted in early 1862 has not changed since its inception. The Army 1862 version followed and was identical to the Navy version except an eagle perched atop cannons was used instead of an anchor to connect the pendant to the suspension ribbon. In 1896, the Army version changed the ribbon’s design and colors due to misuse and imitation by nonmilitary organizations. In 1904, the Army “Gillespie” version introduced a smaller redesigned star and the ribbon was changed to the light blue pattern with white stars seen today. In 1913, the Navy version adopted the same ribbon pattern.
After World War I, the Navy decided to separate the Medal of Honor into two versions, one for combat and one for non-combat. The original upside-down star was designated as the non-combat version and a new pattern of the medal pendant, in cross form, was designed by the Tiffany Company in 1919. It was to be presented to a sailor or marine who “in action involving actual conflict with the enemy, distinguish[es] himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty” Despite the “actual conflict” guidelines — the Tiffany Cross was awarded to Navy CDR (later RADM) Richard E. Byrd and Floyd Bennett for arctic exploration. The Tiffany Cross itself was not popular. In 1942, the Navy returned to using only the original 1862 inverted 5-point star design, and ceased issuing the award for non-combat action.
In 1944, the suspension ribbons for both the Army and Navy version were replaced with the now familiar neck ribbon. When the Air Force version was designed in 1956, it incorporated similar elements and design from the Army version. It used a larger star with the Statue of Liberty image in place of Minerva on the medal and changed the connecting device from an eagle to an heraldic thunderbolt flanked with wings as found on the service seal.
Since 1944, the Medal of Honor has been attached to a light blue colored moiré silk neck ribbon that is 1 3⁄16 inches (30 mm) in width and 21¼ inches (550 mm) in length. The center of the ribbon displays thirteen white stars in the form of three chevron. Both the top and middle chevrons are made up of 5 stars, with the bottom chevron made of 3 stars. The Medal of Honor is one of only two United States military awards suspended from a neck ribbon. The other is the Commander’s Degree of the Legion of Merit, and is usually awarded to individuals serving foreign governments.
On May 2, 1896, Congress authorized a “ribbon to be worn with the medal and [a] rosette or knot to be worn in lieu of the medal.” The service ribbon is light blue with five white stars in the form of an “M”. It is placed first in the top position in the order of precedence and is worn for situations other than full-dress military uniform. The lapel button is a ½-inch (13 mm), six-sided light blue bowknot rosette with thirteen white stars and may be worn on appropriate civilian clothing on the left lapel.
In 2011, Department of Defense instructions in regard to the Medal of Honor were amended to read “for each succeeding act that would otherwise justify award of the Medal of Honor, the individual receiving the subsequent award is authorized to wear an additional Medal of Honor ribbon and/or a ‘V’ device on the Medal of Honor suspension ribbon” (the “V” device is a ¼-inch-high (6.4 mm) bronze miniature letter “V” with serifs that denotes valor). The Medal of Honor was the only decoration authorized the use of the “V” device (none were ever issued) to designate subsequent awards in such fashion. Nineteen individuals, all now deceased, were double Medal of Honor recipients. In July 2014, DoD instructions were changed to read, “A separate MOH is presented to an individual for each succeeding act that justified award.” As of 2014, no attachments are authorized for the Medal of Honor.
On October 23, 2002, Pub.L. 107–248 was enacted, modifying 36 U.S.C. § 903, authorizing a Medal of Honor flag to be presented to each person whom a Medal of Honor is awarded. In the case of a posthumous award, the flag will be presented to whomever the Medal of Honor is presented to, which in most cases will be the primary next of kin of the deceased awardee.
The flag was based on a concept by retired U.S. Army Special Forces First Sergeant Bill Kendall of Jefferson, Iowa, who in 2001, designed a flag to honor Medal of Honor recipient Captain Darrell Lindsey, a B-26 pilot from Jefferson who was killed in action during World War II. Kendall’s design of a light blue field emblazoned with 13 white five-pointed stars was nearly identical to that of Sarah LeClerc’s of the Institute of Heraldry. LeClerc’s gold fringed flag, ultimately accepted as the official flag, does not include the words “Medal of Honor” as written on Kendall’s flag. The color of the field and the 13 white stars, arranged in the form of a three-bar chevron, consisting of two chevrons of five stars and one chevron of three stars, emulate the suspension ribbon of the Medal of Honor. The flag has no set proportions.
The first Medal of Honor flag recipient was U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith, who was presented the flag posthumously. President George W. Bush presented the Medal of Honor and flag to the family of Smith during the award ceremony for him in the White House on April 4, 2005.
A special Medal of Honor Flag presentation ceremony was held for over 60 living Medal of Honor recipients on board the USS Constitution in September 2006.
There are two distinct protocols for awarding the Medal of Honor. The first and most common is nomination and approval through the chain of command of the service member. The second method is nomination by a member of the U.S. Congress, generally at the request of a constituent. In both cases, if the proposal is outside the time limits for the recommendation, approval to waive the time limit requires a special Act of Congress. The Medal of Honor is presented by the President on behalf of, and in the name of, the Congress. Since 1980, nearly all Medal of Honor recipients — or in the case of posthumous awards, the next of kin—have been personally decorated by the Commander-in-Chief. Since 1941, more than half of the Medals of Honor have been awarded posthumously.
Although not required by law or military regulation, members of the uniformed services are encouraged to render salutes to recipients of the Medal of Honor as a matter of respect and courtesy regardless of rank or status, whether or not they are in uniform. This is one of the few instances where a living member of the military will receive salutes from members of a higher rank.
The Medal of Honor confers special privileges on its recipients. By law, recipients have several benefits:
- Each Medal of Honor recipient may have his or her name entered on the Medal of Honor Roll (38 U.S.C. § 1560).
- Each person whose name is placed on the Medal of Honor Roll is certified to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs as being entitled to receive a monthly pension above and beyond any military pensions or other benefits for which they may be eligible. The pension is subject to cost-of-living increases; as of December 1, 2014, it is $1,299.61 a month.
- Enlisted recipients of the Medal of Honor are entitled to a supplemental uniform allowance.
- Recipients receive special entitlements to air transportation under the provisions of DOD Regulation 4515.13-R. This benefit allows the recipient to travel as he or she deems fit across geographical locations, and allows the recipient’s dependents to travel either Overseas-Overseas, Overseas-Continental US, or Continental US-Overseas when accompanied by the recipient.
- Special identification cards and commissary and exchange privileges are provided for Medal of Honor recipients and their eligible dependents.
- Recipients are granted eligibility for interment at Arlington National Cemetery, if not otherwise eligible.
- Fully qualified children of recipients are eligible for admission to the United States service academies without regard to the nomination and quota requirements.
- Recipients receive a 10 percent increase in retired pay.
- Those awarded the medal after October 23, 2002, receive a Medal of Honor Flag. The law specified that all 103 living prior recipients as of that date would receive a flag.
- Recipients receive an invitation to all future presidential inaugurations and inaugural balls.
As with all medals, retired personnel may wear the Medal of Honor on “appropriate” civilian clothing. Regulations specify that recipients of the Medal of Honor are allowed to wear the uniform “at their pleasure” with standard restrictions on political, commercial, or extremist purposes (other former members of the armed forces may do so only at certain ceremonial occasions).
Most states (40) offer a special license plate for certain types of vehicles to recipients at little or no cost to the recipient. The states that do not offer Medal of Honor specific license plate offer special license plates for veterans for which recipients may be eligible.
The first Army Medals of Honor were awarded by and presented to six “Andrews Raiders” on March 25, 1863, by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, in his office in the War Department. Private Jacob Parrott, a U.S. Army volunteer from Ohio, became the first recipient of the medal, awarded for his volunteering for and participation in a raid on a Confederate train in Big Shanty, Georgia on April 12, 1862 during the American Civil War. The six decorated raiders met privately afterward with President Lincoln in his office, in the White House. The first Navy Medal of Honor was awarded by Secretary of War Stanton to 41 sailors on April 4, 1863 (17 for action during the Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip). The first Marine awarded the Navy Medal of Honor was John F. Mackie on July 10, 1863, for his rifle action aboard the USS Galena on May 15, 1862.
The only Coast Guardsman to be awarded the Medal of Honor (posthumous) was Signalman First Class Douglas Munro on May 27, 1943, for evacuating 500 Marines under fire on September 27, 1942 during the Battle of Guadalcanal. Munro was a Canadian-born, naturalized U.S. citizen. The only woman awarded the Army Medal of Honor was Mary Edwards Walker, who was a civilian Army surgeon during the American Civil War. She received the award in 1865 for the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861) and a series of battles to the Battle of Atlanta in Sept. 1864 … “for usual medal of honor meritorious services.”
While the governing statute for the Army Medal of Honor (10 U.S.C. § 6241), beginning in 1918, explicitly stated that a recipient must be “an officer or enlisted man of the Army”, “distinguish himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty”, and perform an act of valor “in action involving actual conflict with an enemy”, exceptions have been made such as for Charles Lindbergh, a civilian pilot and U.S. Army Air Corps reserve officer in 1927. Lindbergh’s medal was authorized by a special act of Congress that directly contradicted the July 1918 act of Congress that required that all Army recipients be “in action involving actual conflict with an enemy”. The award was based on the previous acts authorizing the Navy medal to Byrd and Bennett (see above). Some congressmen objected to Lindbergh’s award because it contradicted the 1918 statute, but Representative Snell reportedly quelled this dissent by explaining that “it was and it wasn’t the Congressional Medal of Honor which Lindbergh would receive under his bill; that the Lindbergh medal would be entirely distinct from the valor award for war service.”
A 20-cent commemorative stamp honoring the Medal of Honor, was issued on June 7, 1983, at the Pentagon near Washington, DC. The stamp honors not only the medal but all those to whom it has been awarded. Designed by Dennis J. Holm and modeled by V. Jack Ruther, the stamp was printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in the offset/intaglio process, with forty stamps per pane, perforated 11. A quantity of 108,820,000 stamps were released.