The Badge of Military Merit
As we learn more about our family history, some of us may have the fortune to discover the military records of our ancestors. One of the oldest military awards still given to members of the U.S. military is the Purple Heart. Did you know that the Purple Heart was originally known as the Badge of Military Merit? On August 7, 1782, George Washington, then commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, ordered the creation of the Badge of Military Merit to honor soldiers who exhibited exceptional bravery and loyalty in battle.
The Badge of Military Merit is considered to be the first military award of the United States Armed Forces. Designed by Washington himself in the form of a purple heart, the badge was intended as a military order for soldiers who exhibited, “not only instances of unusual gallantry in battle, but also extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way.” It is thought that this was the first time in modern history that military awards were presented to common soldiers. This was contrary to the practice in Europe, which typically only honored high-ranking officers who had achieved victory.
A carpenter by trade, Churchill entered the 8th Connecticut Regiment as a private on July 7, 1775 and re-enlisted for the duration of the Revolutionary War as a corporal in the 2d Continental Light Dragoon Regiment. On May 3, 1783, Churchill received the Badge of Military Merit from Washington’s hand at his headquarters at Newburgh. He was cited for gallantry in action at Fort St. George on Long Island, at Coram, New York, in November 1780, and at Tarrytown, New York, in July 1781.
Records of his citation have been lost, but it is believed that he was honored for his heroism at the Siege of Yorktown. A decisive victory by a combined force of American Continental Army troops led by Washington and French Army troops led by the Comte de Rochambeau over the British Army commanded by General Cornwallis, the siege proved to be the last major land battle of the Revolutionary War. Brown was also awarded the badge by Washington on May 3, 1783.
A soldier and a spy for the Continental Army, Bissell posed as a deserter in the city of New York under the direct orders of General Washington. For thirteen months, Bissell served in the British Infantry Corps led by Benedict Arnold. He was able to relay valuable information, including detailed maps of the enemy’s position. Bissell was awarded the Badge of Military Merit on June 10, 1783.
After the Revolutionary War, the badge fell out of use until 1932, when the United States War Department authorized the new Purple Heart Medal for soldiers. The re-instatement coincided with the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth.
Do you have people in your family tree who have been awarded the Purple Heart? Share their stories with us in the comments below!