This Day in History: George Washington creates the Purple Heart (sort of)
On this day in 1782, General George Washington created a military award that would be the predecessor for the Purple Heart.
Washington’s award was called the “Badge of Military Merit.” It was a purple, heart-shaped piece of silk with binding and the word “Merit” stitched across it. The award was specifically intended for soldiers in the lower ranks who had performed “any singularly meritorious action.” Washington sought to reward “instances of unusual gallantry” and of “extraordinary fidelity and essential service.”
Simultaneously, Washington created another chevron that was to be given to those who had completed three years of duty “with bravery, fidelity, and good conduct.” A soldier could wear two chevrons if he completed more than six years of service.
In England, such awards to the lower ranks would not have been given, but Washington felt differently. “The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country,” he stated, “is thus open to all.”
Washington’s Purple Heart was awarded to at least three soldiers, all from Connecticut: Elijah Churchill, William Brown, and Daniel Bissell, Jr.. A “Book of Merit” was created to record the names of honorees. Unfortunately, that book was lost after the war, and the award was forgotten for a time.
Briefly in 1927, then again in 1931, the Army worked to reinstate the award. General Douglas MacArthur hoped to have the medal reinstated in time for Washington’s 200th birthday. He was successful, and the award was re-established on February 22, 1932. The new Purple Heart displays a bust of Washington, along with a coat of arms.
General MacArthur announced the award:
“By order of the President of the United States, the Purple Heart established by General George Washington at Newburgh, August 7, 1782, during the War of the Revolution, is hereby revived out of respect to his memory and military achievements.”
Today, the Purple Heart is considered the country’s oldest award for military merit.
Celebrating America's Freedoms: The Purple Heart (U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs)
Fred Borch, For Military Merit: Recipients of the Purple Heart (Naval Institute Press 2013)
George Washington, General Orders (Aug. 7, 1782)
Julian M. Olejniczak, To Be a Soldier: A Selective American Military History (2015)
Professor Ray Raymond, The Badge of Military Merit (The Military Order of the Purple Heart website)
The Badge of Military Merit / The Purple Heart (U.S. Army Center of Military History website)
The Legacy of the Purple Heart (4th ed. revised 2001)