The Medal of Honor

Today’s post comes from National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications staff writer Rob Crotty.

A letter from William Carney acknowledging receipt of his Medal of Honor (Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, RG 94; ARC 594895)

According to Army Regulation 670-1, a soldier can now receive 31 military decorations “as a distinctively designed mark of honor denoting heroism, or meritorious or outstanding service or achievement.” During the Civil War, there was only one: the Medal of Honor.

The U.S. Army does not have a longstanding history of handing out awards. During the Revolutionary War, Gen. George Washington handed out exactly three awards to recognize “any singularly meritorious action.”

Certificates were handed out for soldiers who distinguished themselves during the Mexican-American War, but that was discontinued when the conflict ended. At the start of the Civil War, there was no way to recognize the merit of the nation’s soldiers.

Gen. Winfield Scott approved of this. He believed medals smacked of European affectation.

By the summer of 1861, however, Congress had approved a medal of valor for the Navy, and within a year the Army had followed suit with a medal of honor “to such noncommissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldierlike qualities, during the present insurrection.” By 1863, Congress had modified the law to include officers and expanded its tenure beyond the Civil War.

In 1862, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton gave out about 300 of the medals to troops who extended their military tours to protect the nation’s capital. More than 500 additional medals were struck by mistake and kept in the regiment commander’s barn until the 1890s, when veterans raided it.

In some instances following the Civil War, veterans simply wrote in requests for the medal with scant proof of their heroism and received the medal in the mail. It was in 1897 that the Secretary of War began requiring “incontestable proof” to receive the medal. New rules also meant a soldier couldn’t apply for his own Medal of Honor.

The free-for-all regarding the medal explains why almost half of the medal’s 3,449 recipients earned it during the Civil War, and why more service members earned the medal during the Indian Wars than during World War I and Vietnam combined.

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