The Badge of Military Merit circa 1783
Image copyright: New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation
The award known as the Purple Heart has a history that reaches back to the waning days of the American
Revolution. The Continental Congress had forbidden General George Washington from granting commissions and
promotions in rank to recognize merit. Yet Washington wanted to honor merit, particularly among the
enlisted soldiers. On August 7, 1782, his general orders established the Badge of Military Merit:
"... The General ever desirous to cherish virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and
encourage every species of Military merit directs whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed,
the author of it shall be permitted to wear on his facings, over his left breast, the figure of a heart in
purple cloth or silk edged with narrow lace or binding."
This award was open only to enlisted men and granted them the distinction of being permitted to pass all
guards and sentinels as could commissioned-officers. The names of the recipients were to have been kept in
a "Book of Merit" (which has never been recovered). At the present time there are three known recipients of
the Badge of Military Merit: Sergeant Elijah Churchill, 2nd Continental Dragoons; Sergeant William Brown,
5th and Sergeant Daniel Bissel, 2nd Connecticut Continental Line Infantry.
Washington stated that the award was to be a permanent one, but once the Revolution ended, the Badge of
Merit was all but forgotten until the 20th century.
General John J. "Blackjack" Pershing suggested a need for an award for merit in 1918, but it was not until
1932 that the Purple Heart was created in recognition of Washington's ideals and for the bicentennial of
his birth. General Order No.3 announced the establishment of 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.
By order of the Secretary of War:
General, Chief of Staff
On May 28, 1932, 137 World War I veterans were conferred their Purple Hearts at Temple Hill, in New Windsor, NY. Temple Hill was
the site of the New Windsor Cantonment, which was the final encampment of the Continental Army in the winter of 1782-1783. Today,
the National Purple Heart continues the tradition begun here in 1932, of honoring those who have earned the Purple Heart.
The Purple Heart has undergone many changes with respect to the criteria for being awarded. At first,
the Purple Heart was exclusively awarded to Army and Army Air Corps personnel and could not be awarded
posthumously to the next of kin. In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order allowing
the Navy to award the Purple Heart to Sailors, Marines, and Coast Guard personnel. Also in that year, the
Purple Heart was made available for posthumous award to any member of the military killed on or after
December 7, 1941.
Originally the Purple Heart was awarded for meritorious service. Being wounded was one portion of
consideration for merit. With the creation of the Legion of Merit in 1942, the award of the Purple Heart
for meritorious service became unnecessary and was therefore discontinued. The Purple Heart, per regulation
is awarded in the name of the President of the United States to any member of the Armed Forces of the
United States who, while serving under competent authority in any capacity with one of the U.S. Armed
Services after April 5, 1917 has been wounded, killed, or has died after being wounded.