The first medal ever created for the U.S. military was the Badge for Military Merit in 1782. It was created by Gen. George Washington and it was awarded for “any singularly meritorious action.” It was the first award in U.S. Army medals history.
The Badge of Military Merit was awarded to three soldiers during the Revolutionary War: Daniel Bissell, Jr., Elijah Churchill, and William Brown. After the Revolutionary War the decoration was largely forgotten.
In 1927, Gen. Charles P. Summerall, then the U.S. Army chief of staff, tried to revive the Badge of Military Merit, but he was unsuccessful. However, in 1931, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, reinvigorated the issue and on Feb. 22, 1932, Washington’s 200th birthday, the U.S. War Department announced the creation of the “Order of the Purple Heart.”
The new Purple Heart displayed a bust of Washington and it is considered the oldest American military decoration for military merit. It is awarded to members of the U.S. armed forces who have been killed or wounded in action against an enemy.
There are numerous awards and decorations that can be presented to members of the U.S. Army. While it is rare, members of sister services can recognize soldiers and present awards from other branches of service. It is not uncommon, especially for soldiers who work closely with other services, for an Army soldier to receive an award from the Air Force, Navy or another branch of service or to receive a joint award, like the Joint Service Commendation Medal.
In addition to that, allied nations may present foreign awards and decorations to U.S. Army personnel who served with them. This is also a part of U.S. Army medals history. During Operation Desert Storm, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait both issued their country’s version of the Kuwait Liberation Medal to U.S. military personnel who defended those nations against Iraq. Similarly, the Republics of Vietnam and South Korea also presented service awards (Vietnam Campaign Medal and Republic of Korea War Service Medal) to U.S military personnel. In addition, alliances, like NATO and the United Nations, also have awards for those who have served on their missions, like the NATO Medal and the UN Medal, both which can also be included in the U.S. Army medals history.
While the majority of U.S. Army personnel will earn awards like the Army Commendation and Army Achievement Medal, or the Meritorious Service Medal, the most revered decorations are the top three decorations for gallantry because they can only be earned on the battlefield. These medals are presented for valor against an enemy and they are legendary in U.S. Army medals history.
The nation’s top award for valor is the Medal of Honor and it is about 50 percent larger than the other medals. It was created in 1861. The first action to merit the award took place in in February 1861 during the Apache Wars when Assistant Army surgeon Bernard John Dowling Irwin rescued 60 soldiers and in May of that year, in Alexandria, Virginia, Army Pvt. Frances Edwin Brownell, performed the first action of the Civil War to merit the Medal of Honor, when he killed an innkeeper who had shot his commanding officer.
It's important to note that the Medal of Honor was not approved by the U.S. Congress and President Abraham Lincoln until December 1861. Initially it was approved as a Navy award, but seven months later it was opened to the U.S. Army and became part of the U.S. Army medals history.
In April 1862, union raiders commandeered a locomotive in Georgia and drove it north toward Tennessee cutting telegraph lines and damaging the rail line. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton awarded some of the raiders the Medal of Honor which is why Pvt. Jacob Wilson Parrott is sometimes considered the first to receive the decoration.
Since then, more than 3,500 Medals of Honor have been awarded. It is often referred to as the Congressional Medal of Honor because it is the only decoration approved by the U.S. Congress. It is presented by the President of the United States, in the name of Congress, to U.S. military members who distinguish themselves through conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in action against and enemy of the United States.
The Army Medal of Honor’s ribbon is light blue with 13 embroidered stars for the 13 original states. The reverse of the medal is blank, but the words, “The Congress To,” appear on the back of the “Valor” bar, and the recipient's name is filled in below. The bail has an eagle, a symbol of the United States, clutching shafts of arrows and while perched on a bar bearing the word “Valor.” Green laurel surrounds the oak clusters, representing strength, are in the points of the star. The laurel clusters, for victory, form an open wreath. The words “United States of America” surround a profile of the helmeted Goddess of War with an owl on her helmet representing wisdom. There are three versions of the Medal of Honor (one for the Army, one for the Air Force, and one for the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard). The Medal of Honor is the only Civil War era medal to be presented in the modern age.
The Distinguished Service Cross is the Army’s second highest military decoration that can be awarded to a member of the U.S. Army. It is awarded for extraordinary heroism: 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, according to U.S. Army medals history.
The award, created in 1918, is not easy to earn. Actions that merit the Distinguished Service Cross must be of such a high degree that they are above those required for all other U.S. combat decorations but do not merit award of the Medal of Honor. The Distinguished Service Cross is equivalent to the Navy Cross (Navy and Marine Corps, and Coast Guard when operating under the authority of the Department of the Navy) and the Air Force Cross.
The Silver Star, also created in 1918, is the third-highest military combat decoration that can be awarded to a member of the U.S. Army. It is awarded for gallantry in action: 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.
Actions that merit the Silver Star must be of such a high degree that they are above those required for all other U.S. combat decorations but do not merit award of the Medal of Honor or the Distinguished Service Cross.