The Medal of Honor is the highest honor in recognition of “gallantry in action.” Yet when President Abraham Lincoln signed “An act to further promote the efficiency of the Navy” into law on December 21, 1861, the creation of this honor is just a paragraph in section seven.
Only 200 “medals of honor” were authorized by Lincoln to be awarded to enlisted members of the Navy “during the present war.” Over the years, the medal has changed, going through revisions to the design, the rules under which it was awarded, and the inclusion of officers and members of the other branches of service.
It has been awarded fewer than 3,500 times.
One medal is currently on display through January 17, 2012, in the Rotunda of the National Archives.
This Medal of Honor was awarded to Sgt. James Hill, 14th New York Artillery, for extraordinary heroism on July 30, 1864, at Petersburg, Virginia, for capturing a flag and shooting a Confederate officer who was rallying his men. Hill died in captivity at Andersonville, Georgia, before the medal could be presented. The medal was designed by William Wilson & Sons, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1862.
The display also includes a letter of recommendation to another soldier. After the Civil War ended, the historian of the 37th Massachusetts Regimental Association, recommended that Pvt. Samuel E. Eddy of Company D be awarded a Medal of Honor. At Sailor’s Creek, Virginia, on April 6, 1865, Eddy came to the aid of the regimental adjutant, Lt. John S. Bradley, who was wounded and in mortal danger.
Eddy left the safety of friendly lines, killed Bradley’s assailant thus saving the adjutant’s life, and was in turn bayoneted and pinned to the ground. While Eddy wrestled with his opponent, he reloaded his rifle, shot his foe, then removed the bayonet from his body, and returned to friendly lines. The award of the Medal of Honor was authorized on August 24, 1897.