In 1782, General George Washington established the first honor ever designated for the common soldier, declaring, “The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all.” With no money to pay for promotions, Washington ordered that a heart made of purple cloth or silk be awarded for “unusual gallantry.” Only three men are known to have won this Badge of Military Merit—the original Purple Heart: Sergeant Elijah Churchill, whose small detachment destroyed a British supply depot on Long Island in 1780; Sergeant William Brown, who led an advance party in a surprise attack at Yorktown just before the British surrendered in 1781; and Sergeant Daniel Bissell, who collected intelligence behind enemy lines in 1781-82. The badge eventually fell out of use, but it was revived in 1932, the bicentennial of Washington’s birth. U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur christened the enamel and gold medal bearing Washington’s silhouette the Purple Heart, and heraldic specialist Elizabeth Will, in the Office of the Quartermaster General, crafted the final design. The reverse is inscribed “For Military Merit.” The citation is awarded for combat wounds, making it, according to the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, “a decoration available to all who serve, but desired by none.”
Originally published in the December 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.