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
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.