Since 1990, March 25 each year has been designated National Medal of Honor Day in support of all those who have received the eponymous accolade. However, rather surprisingly, it is one of America’s least known and least celebrated holidays.
Last week President Obama presented 24 veterans with the Medal of Honor in the largest ceremony of its kind since World War II. You may have read about it or watched it live, but how much do you really know about the Medal of Honor itself?
Medal of Honor: Naval Origins
The Medal of Honor actually started out life just for the Navy. At the end of 1861, a bill by Iowa Senator James W. Grimes was introduced for 200 members of the Navy who “distinguish[ed] themselves by their gallantry in action” during the Civil War. It wasn’t until six months later, in July 1862, that President Lincoln signed a bill for a Medal of Honor for members of the Army.
In fact, the first heroic act for which the Medal would be presented took place in 1861, a full year before the Army Medal of Honor was introduced. It was awarded to Bernard J.D. Irwin (who was an Army Assistant Surgeon), who rescued 60 soldiers at Apache Pass, AZ, although he only received the Medal 33 years after this event took place.
In July 1863 at Fort Wagner, SC, the first African-American earned the Medal of Honor. As part of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, former slave William Harvey Carney made history during combat. 87 other African-American men have followed in his footsteps by being awarded the Medal of Honor, along with 59 Hispanic-Americans, 33 Asian-Americans and 32 Native-American men. Most of the men who were awarded the Medal by President Obama last week were able to receive it after a comprehensive review of previous discriminations in Medal of Honor presentations due to race or ethnicity.
Over the years, numerous brave men have given their lives in action and been awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. The first of these were four of Andrew’s Raiders, who were hanged as spies in 1862, after their involvement in the Great Locomotive Chase during the Civil War. Despite the fact that over 100 acts of gallantry which would be awarded the Medal had already taken place, the first Medals of Honor to actually be presented were awarded to six of Andrew’s Raiders who survived. This presentation took place in 1863.
Only one man ever earned two Medals of Honor during the Civil War: 2nd Lt. Thomas Custer, who was the brother of General Custer (the officer who led the Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn). Since then, 18 other men have been awarded the Medal twice. However, in 1919 an act was passed which disallowed the presentation of the Medal of Honor more than once to each person – instead, other, lesser awards were introduced, such as the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal and the Silver Star.
There has only been one woman in history who has been awarded the Medal of Honor. Dr. Mary Walker was one of eleven people involved in the Battle of Bull Run in 1861 who were awarded the Medal. However, it wasn’t until 1865 that she actually received the Medal – President Johnson decided to award her the Medal instead of granting her a commission, as she had requested!
In 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt declared that all Medals of Honor should be presented ‘by the President, as Commander-in-Chief, or by such representative as the President may designate’, ‘with formal and impressive ceremony’. The first of these presentations took place the very next year at the White House.
In 1917, a Board of Generals met to review every occasion for which the Army Medal of Honor had been awarded since the Civil War. During this purge, they revoked a staggering 911 Medals, including those of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and the aforementioned Dr. Mary Walker, due to the fact that they were both civilians. However, Dr. Walker’s Medal was reinstated in 1977, and Buffalo Bill’s was restored 12 years later.
Since its commission, the highest number of Medals to be earned in one day is a whopping 96! These were awarded to soldiers in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1863.
Airmen performed acts of heroism, earning them America’s highest award for the first time in 1917, as part of World War I. During this time, 119 men in total across all branches of the military were awarded the Medal of Honor, although the majority had to wait until after the war to be presented with it. Douglas Munro gave his life in 1942 in a heroic act, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor. He became the first and only member of the U.S. Coast Guard to receive the Medal to date.
As of 1965, the Army, Air Force, and Navy, Marines and Coast Guard combined, all have their own, separate design for the Medal of Honor. The U.S. Air Force Medal of Honor now includes a depiction of the Statue of Liberty.
To date, there have been an incredible 3,487 people who have earned their country’s highest award, the Medal of Honor. Of those, 81 are still living, including four World War II veterans. On today, this national day of celebration, why not do something to commemorate, remember and celebrate our country’s greatest heroes? Fly your flag with pride. Share this post! Visit a memorial. Whatever you do, spare a thought for those who have gone far above and beyond the call of duty for our protection.