A Road to Glory For All
Celebrating the Anniversary of the Purple Heart
August 7, 2014 by Mark Dye
In the days of the American Revolution, enlisted soldiers and noncommissioned officers in almost all European armies did not receive decorations for their service. But America was a new nation, built upon unique ideals, and its top general, George Washington, wanted a way to honor those who had served with distinction.
There was just one problem: the Continental Congress did not allow him to grant commissions or promotions in order to reward meritorious service. So he came up with his own idea:
"... 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 “Badge of Military Merit” was given to three soldiers from the war, and there was even a “Book of Merit” in which their names were recorded for posterity. (This book, however, has never been found.) The idea was to have a uniquely American way to honor those at all levels of the military, rather than just the officers, and to use the Badge of Merit as that honor.
After the war ended and the nation began to grow, however, the award was forgotten for more than 120 years.
It wasn’t until shortly after World War I that General John Pershing revived the idea for an award of merit for the enlisted ranks, and not until 1932 that action was finally taken on Pershing’s idea (it just so happened to also be the bicentennial of Washington’s birthday). That year, “General Order No. 3” took effect, which stated:
"...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.”
In May of that same year, some 138 WWI veterans received the new award for their actions in battle. They did so at Temple Hill in New Windsor, N.Y.—the same place the Continental Army stayed during the winter of 1782-1783.
The award’s criteria have changed several times since then. For example, the award was initially only available to those in the Army and Army Air Corps, and couldn’t be given posthumously to a family member. It became something primarily given to those injured in battle with the creation of the Legion of Merit in 1942.
While there are no firm numbers on just how many military members have received a Purple Heart since 1932, estimates put it at nearly two million. One person even received nine of them: Marine Corps Sgt. Albert L. Ireland, who was awarded five Purple Heart Medals in World War II and four more in the Korean War.
For more information about the Purple Heart, visit the Pentagon’s Institute of Heraldry.