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The Military Order of the Purple Heart

History of the Medal

Washington was indomitable usually working at least 12-14 hours per day, but his task throughout the war was monumental. He had to transform thousands of brave, inexperienced and undisciplined citizen soldiers into an effective fighting force capable of fighting a conventional as well as a guerilla war. Moreover, the Commander in Chief also had to create an effective intelligence service that would deliver accurate, actionable information on the enemy’s capabilities and intentions, persuade Congress and the States to deliver the supplies they had promised him and work effectively with the French who had different strategic objectives. Add to that the constant political interference in the appointment and promotion of officers and the corruption and profiteering in the supply chain and you begin to understand the appalling burdens that sat upon Washington’s shoulders for over seven years.

It was understandable that it was not until after Congress took away the power to grant commissions in the field and the war was winding down in August 1782 that the Commander in Chief had the time to devise ways to honor the courage of his enlisted men and non-commissioned officers. George Washington’s decision to create two awards exclusively for enlisted men and non-commissioned officers was unprecedented. Neither the British nor any other European army had decorations for anyone other than their officers.

But Washington believed passionately in the republican ideals of the revolution, and he also understood that his continentals were the first people’s army of patriotic volunteers who had fought for these ideals and who had been pushed to the outer limits of human endurance during the war.

Washington was committed to honoring his troops, but the idea for the “Badge of Military Merit” was probably Baron Von Steuben’s. The tough Prussian general may have had difficulty in instilling military discipline and order into the Continental army, but he admired their courage and fighting spirit. As a veteran of European wars, he would have been aware that the Czar of Russia had created the Cross of St. George for Gallantry and it is reasonable to speculate that he wanted the Americans to have a similar award for gallantry.

If we do not know for sure who inspired the “Badge of Military Merit”, we are even less sure about who designed it. Speculation runs from Pierre L’Enfant, later the architect of Washington DC, to Martha Washington or even General Washington himself. We will never know the truth. The original badge was made of purple silk edged with silver colored lace or binding on a wool background. One was embroidered with a leaf design; another – Sergeant Elijah Churchill’s - has the word “merit” crocheted into the fabric. The heart symbolized courage and devotion. Purple was associated with royalty and would stand out on any uniform.

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