August 7, 1782 – George Washington Creates the Badge of Military Merit, Which Became the Purple Heart

On this day in history, George Washington issued an order to create the Badge of Military Merit to recognize meritorious action.

“… 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.”

The Badge of Military Merit circa 1783 Image copyright: New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

The Badge of Military Merit circa 1783
Image copyright: New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

There are only three known recipients of the Badge of Military Merit, all from the American Revolutionary War: Sergeant Elijah Churchill, 2nd Continental Dragoons, later the 2nd Legionary Corps; Sergeant William Brown, 5th Connecticut Regiment, and Sergeant Daniel Bissell, 2nd Connecticut Continental Line Infantry (later Colonel of the 5th Infantry).

Once the American Revolution ended, the Badge of Merit was all but forgotten until the 20th century.

In 1932 army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur revived the badge renaming it the Purple Heart. 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:
Douglas MacArthur
General, Chief of Staff”

MacArthur himself was the first recipient, on the bicentennial of Washington’s birthday, February 22, 1932.

General Pershing (second from left) decorates Brigadier General MacArthur (third from left) with the Distinguished Service Cross.

General Pershing (second from left) decorates Brigadier General MacArthur (third from left) with the Distinguished Service Cross.

The medal is primarily designed to recognize meritorious service. The Purple Heart is also given to soldiers wounded or killed in battle.

In April of 1942 the military allowed posthumous awards of Purple Hearts, and in September 1942 the War Department designated the award to be given exclusively for wounds or deaths in combat.

John F. Kennedy, wounded in action in August of 1943, is the only U.S. president to have received the honor.

Various rulings in recent years have ruled out frostbite, heat stroke, and PTSD as eligible injuries.

In 1996 the regulations were amended to allow prisoners of war to receive the Purple Heart.

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