The revolutionary origins of the Purple Heart

On Thursday former Secretary of Defense of Robert M. Gates received the 2011 Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center. The award was presented in a moving ceremony by two decorated members of the military –  Iraq war veteran Anthony Odierno and Sergeant First Class Dana Graham. Among numerous other citations, both had received the Purple Heart.

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The Purple Heart, awarded to those who have been wounded or killed in military service,  is one of the most recognizable military decorations in the United States. Few people know, however, that the Purple Heart has its origins in George Washington’s Continental Army.

 On August 7th, 1782, Washington created the Badge of Military Merit.  The Badge consisted of a purple heart-shaped cloth device which was worn on the recipient’s left breast.  Washington intended for the Badge to be awarded for “unusual gallantry” or “extraordinary fidelity and service;” he made clear that potential recipients had to be referred by their commanding officer to Washington himself, who would make the final determination on awarding the Badge.  Washington’s orders also decreed that ordinary soldiers as well as officers would be eligible for the Badge, observing that “[t]he road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all.”

Washington hoped to inspire acts of courage and gallantry in the Continental Army.  He was concerned with the unprofessional image which the Continental Army put forth in contrast to the well-polished and disciplined ranks of the British and French armies.  Furthermore, he wanted to inspire common soldiers to the patriot cause by showing that they were fighting for an egalitarian society in which anyone, regardless of their class, could be recognized for acts of valor.

The Badge fell into obscurity after the Revolutionary War, although it was never formally discontinued.  American involvement in World War I, which had resulted in large numbers of casualties, sparked a drive to see injured veterans recognized for their sacrifices.  As a result, in 1932, a Presidential order from Herbert Hoover revived the Purple Heart under the general criteria for which it is awarded today.  Over one million Purple Hearts were awarded in World War II alone; while it is difficult to determine the exact total number of Purple Heart recipients, nearly two million had been awarded as of June of 2010.

The Purple Heart is a symbol of the sacrifices required to defend our nation.  It also stands as a living connection to our Revolutionary forebears, connecting us through time to the heroes of our past.  So when you see a Purple Heart winner, thank them for their service, and think of how that medal ties us to our noblest founding ideals.

Mark Kehres is the Public Programs Trainer at the National Constitution Center.  His work involves bringing the stories of American history alive for visitors.

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