Yesterday, August 7, was an important day for U.S. military history. August 7 marks the establishment of the Purple Heart as the first military decoration of the U.S. Army, the invasion of Guadacanal, and the start of the official American involvement in Vietnam.

The Purple Heart

The first military decoration in the U.S. military dates back to 1782 with the Badge of Military Merit created by General of the Armies, George Washington. There are some who claim that the “Fidelity Medalion” was the first, but this may be incorrect for several reasons. First, it was created by the Continental Congress to specifically commemorate a signal event, the capture of British Major John Andre by three Continental Army soldiers in 1780. It was only awarded to those three soldiers and was in tune with the practice of creating commemorative awards to soldiers and sailors for singular war acts.  Congress also awarded some 15 swords to officers for military valor as well as gold and silver medals (resembling coins) to various others. These medals represented commemorations of specific battles in the European practice of rewarding commanding officers. As such, they were strictly one-off awards that did not apply to the army or navy as a whole.

In 1772, General Washington created the Badge of Military Merit along with two Honorary Badges of Distinction which any soldier in his army could earn not just for gallantry in battle but for “extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way.” This too was a departure from the centuries-long tradition of awarding decorations only to officers for acts of valor or heroism on the battlefield. Signaling the American departure from the class-based social structure of Great Britain, Washington justified the creation of these badges by saying, “The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is open to all.”

The first “medal” awarded to soldiers by the U.S. Army was actually made of cloth.

A soldier who was awarded the Badge of Military Merit enjoyed the unusual privilege of being able to pass guards and sentinels like an officer. This may seem a small thing, but it was a big deal. In those days a soldier in a military camp wasn’t free to leave the camp without specific orders. Posted guards and sentinels were mostly there to prevent desertions. Of course, officers were considered to be above suspicion (Benedict Arnold being the exception) and could pass through guard posts without being detained and questioned. It was also a very big breach of custom and protocol for enlisted men on guard duty to question an officer about anything. Transgressions could be punished by flogging. Nevertheless, if his orders specifically required it, a sentry could request politely that an officer wait for an Officer of the Guard to speak to about entering or leaving the camp.