In the U.S. military, the history of awards and decorations is, for the most part, not really something that is taught or handed down as a historical legacy. While military medals have an important role in the U.S. military, the history of how military medals became a part of the U.S. military culture is rarely discussed. That said, here’s what we’ve dug up.
A medal is normally metal that is struck with a design to commemorate an event. They are created using various methods, but these days most are done using pressured machines. In the past, bronze, silver and gold were used. Today, most military medals are made of metal alloys.
Antonio di Puccio Pisano, also known more commonly as Pisanello, is known widely as the inventor of the medal as we know it today. Pisano’s first medal, made in 1438, commemorated the visit to Italy of Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaeologus. Pisanello’s medals were small reliefs or portraits and according to historians, they were given out to nobility. Pisanello’s medal-making process stayed in Italy until around the 16th Century and then it spread to neighboring countries in Europe.
While it is subject to debate, the historian Titus Flavius Josephus wrote that Alexander the Great presented a button-like award to one of his military leaders which could mark the first military medal ever presented. And the Romans also used coin-like medallions to recognize military participation, effort and achievement and some of those medallions adorned Roman warriors as jewelry. Roman soldiers decorated themselves with medallions known as phalera. The phalerae that had been awarded to them represented the campaigns in which they had fought.
Similarly, according to an article published by the U.S. Navy, the Egyptians had the Order of the Golden Fly, a golden necklace decorated with flies to signify themselves as a pestilence to the enemy. During the Middle Ages, the jewelry presented for military achievement evolved into a pendant-like item, shaped like a disc. Known as a bracteate, this thin medal included loops that made them easy to wear. One of these, the Liuhard medalet, was struck in 6th Century CE.
In the 16th Century, medals were struck by rulers to commemorate specific events, including military battles and more specifically, military victories. The wider use of military medals was on the rise and the roots of our current military award system grew from this era. Specifically, combatants were presented with tokens from those who had sent them into harm’s way, but it should come as no surprise to anyone in the ranks that the bulk of the appreciation was poured on high-ranking military leaders.
Fast forward to the 13 colonies. Many in the U.S. military ranks incorrectly believe that the first U.S. military medal was the Badge of Military Merit which was created in 1782 and eventually became the Purple Heart. However, the oldest U.S. military medal is in fact the Fidelity Medallion which was created by the Continental Congress in 1780 and presented to those who captured British Army Major John André, the man who had worked with Benedict Arnold to betray the colonies. The Fidelity medal, also known as the André Capture Medal, was presented to three soldiers who were members of the New York militia. Privates Isaac Van Wart, David Williams and John Paulding all received the award. The Fidelity Medallion was never again awarded and for this reason the Badge of Military Merit is considered the first military medal of the U.S. military.
It is worth noting though that the Continental Congress had voted to present General George Washington, General Horatio Gates and Captain John Paul Jones with gold medallions for their national contributions in defeat of the British, however, the recognition would not be bestowed until 1790 after Washington was president. So the first-ever U.S. military medals were presented to Army privates and not high-ranking officers.
And while those who have served understand the difference, it is important to note that many in the civilian sector make no differentiation between awards and decorations. Yet they are two vastly different things. A decoration is usually earned for specific acts of bravery or achievement. An award or service medal is usually presented for service in a particular role or for service in a particular geographical area during a specific period of time.
For example, a military member who served as part of the COVID-19 response is eligible to wear the Armed Forces Service Medal or the Humanitarian Service Medal see (Depot Blog article). A soldier who deployed to Iraq is authorized to wear the Iraqi Campaign Medal and a soldier who has deployed to Afghanistan is authorized to wear the Afghanistan Campaign Medal, much like the Vietnam Service Medal is awarded for service in the geographical theater areas of Vietnam. These awards are earned by participation in a specific operation, like the Southwest Asia Service Medal for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
One of the lesser known and early “service medals” is the Légion d’honneu which was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 to recognize meritorious service. The award has since evolved into being one of France’s highest honors, but when Bonaparte created it, the award was inclusive and awarded to all ranks. Bonaparte recognized that these awards had a positive impact on the morale of his soldiers. They were, however, normally restricted for wear in formal uniforms. Bonaparte’s soldiers, in keeping with practices established by the Crusaders hundreds of years earlier, wore their awards over their left breast near the heart. The left side is also the shield side where swords were normally worn to be drawn with the right hand, shields protected not only the heart, but the awards.
Decorations are presented to the individual for gallantry, meritorious service or achievement. For example, a private can earn an Army Achievement Medal for being an exceptional soldier. A sailor can develop a new maintenance widget on a ship that saves the Navy millions of dollars per year and earn a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal. A Marine can fight like a lion in a firefight while deployed and earn a Silver Star for gallantry. The point is, there are some awards that are given to everyone for being a part of an event (commemorating an event) and there are some medals presented to the individual for a job well done.
The one thing we know for sure is the military medals system of the U.S. military is imperfect. It is a system where some argue that awards like the Bronze Star Medal, Air Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Legion of Merit and other military medals are given out too liberally to those who are closer to the flag pole and those who are out executing the mission and putting themselves at greater risk earn military medals of lesser impact. Opinions vary on the efficacy of the U.S. military medals system, but one thing is definite.
It was George Washington’s establishment of the Badge of Military Merit in 1782 that truly ushered in the use of U.S. military medals and created a military medals system for gallantry, fidelity and service. In 1932, Army Chief of Staff, General Douglas MacArthur revived the dormant Badge of Military Merit and the Purple Heart was established by order of the president with Washington’s likeness in the center of the medal and the words “For Military Merit” stamped on the reverse side of the medal, a tip of the hat to the award’s original roots.