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This Day in History: The Medal of Honor is established for the first time

On this day in 1861, Congress authorizes a medal of honor for the Navy. Several months later, a medal of honor for the Army would also be established.


Did you know that different versions of the Medal are awarded to each branch of the military? And do you know about the Army officer who hoped that the Medal would never be established in the first place?

The Navy, Army, and Air Force each have their own Medal, although the Air Force version is a fairly recent addition. (It was authorized in 1965). The Marines and Coast Guard don’t have separate Medals; instead, their members receive the Navy one.


Those Medals wouldn’t have been established at all if Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the Union Army, had had his way. Scott thought that the tradition of awarding such medals was too European. Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that when the Army established its Medal in 1862, it was after Scott’s retirement.


More than 3,500 recipients have been awarded the Medal of Honor since 1861, but nearly half of these were awarded to Civil War veterans. Those statistics sound odd at first, but it’s worth remembering that the criteria for the Medal have changed over time.


When the Medal was first authorized in 1861-62, it was the only medal available for valorous military conduct. Thus, the criteria for receiving the Medal wasn’t quite as strict as it was today. It sounds odd to modern ears, but in the 1800s, veterans could simply petition Congress for the award. Other soldiers received the Medal for relatively simple actions, such as extending their tours of duty when called upon to do so.


Today, of course, the requirements are much tougher. A potential recipient must be nominated by someone else. Medals are awarded for an act of “personal bravery or self-sacrifice so conspicuous as to clearly distinguish the individual above his or her comrades.” It must involve “risk of life” and “[i]ncontestable proof” of the act.


Perhaps one simple statistic reflects how much things have changed:


From the Civil War until World War II, only 3 percent of Medals were awarded posthumously. Things changed drastically after the Greatest Generation went off to war! Since then, more than 60 percent of Medals have been awarded posthumously.


Today’s anniversary is about more than just a medal. It’s an opportunity to celebrate the many good men and women who have fought, bled, and died for our liberty.


That liberty is still worth fighting for today.


Primary Sources:

  • An Act to further promote the efficiency of the Navy (December 21, 1861) (reprinted HERE)

  • Editors of the Boston Publishing Company, The Medal of Honor: A History of Service Above and Beyond (2014)

  • History (Congressional Medal of Honor Society website)

  • Retirement of Gen. Scott.; His Letter of Resignation to the Secretary of War. Order of the President Placing Him on the Retired List. Visit of the President and Cabinet to the General Interesting Ceremony. Gen. McClellan's Order on assuming command (NY Times, Nov. 2, 1861) (reprinted HERE)

  • Rob Crotty, The Medal of Honor (National Archives; November 30, 2010 )

  • The Medal: 1861 to present (Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation website)

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