At his headquarters in Newburgh, New York, on August 7, 1782,
General George Washington devised two new badges of distinction
for enlisted men and noncommissioned officers. To signify loyal
military service, he ordered a chevron to be worn on the left
sleeve of the uniform coat for the rank and file who had completed
three years of duty "with bravery, fidelity, and good conduct";
two chevrons signified six years of service. The second badge,
for "any singularly meritorious Action," was the "Figure
of a Heart in Purple Cloth or Silk edged with narrow Lace or Binding."
This device, the Badge of Military Merit, was affixed to the uniform
coat above the left breast and permitted its wearer to pass guards
and sentinels without challenge and to have his name and regiment
inscribed in a Book of Merit. The Badge specifically honored the
lower ranks, where decorations were unknown in contemporary European
Armies. As Washington intended, the road to glory in a patriot
army is thus open to all."
Three badges were awarded in the waning days of the Revolutionary
War, all to volunteers from Connecticut. On May 3, 1783, Sergeants
Elijah Churchill and William Brown received badges and certificates
from Washington’s hand at the Newburgh headquarters. Sergeant
Daniel Bissell, Jr., received the award on June 10, 1783.
Churchill was a 32-year old carpenter from Enfield who entered
the 8th Connecticut as a private on July 7, 1775. On
May 7, 1777, he re-enlisted for the duration of the war as a corporal
in the 2d Continental Light Dragoon Regiment, later the 2d Legionary
Corps, and was promoted to sergeant on October 2, 1780. He was
cited for gallantry in action at Fort St. George near Brookhaven
on Long Island, at Coram, New York, in November 1780, and at Tarrytown,
New York, in July 1781.
A native of Stamford, Brown enlisted in the 5th Connecticut
Regiment as a corporal on May 23, 1775, and re-enlisted as a private
on April 9, 1777, for the duration in the 8th Connecticut.
He was promoted to corporal on May 8, 1779, and to sergeant on
August 1, 1780, transferring with the consolidation of units to
the 5th Connecticut on January 1, 1781, and to the
2d Connecticut on January 1, 1783. No record of his citation has
been uncovered, but it is believed that he participated in the
assault on Redoubt No. 10 during the siege of Yorktown.
Bissell, from East Windsor, enlisted on July 7, 1775, as a fifer
in the 8th Connecticut Regiment, and on April 1, 1775,
signed on for the duration as a corporal in the 5th
Connecticut. He became a sergeant on September 1, 1777, and ended
the war with the 2d Connecticut. Under Washington’s direct orders
he posed as a deserter in the city of New York from August 14,
1781, to September 29, 1782, relaying valuable information to
the Continental command.
The award fell into disuse following the Revolution and was not
proposed again officially until after World War I. On October
10, 1927, Army Chief of Staff General Charles P. Summerall directed
that a draft bill be sent to Congress "to revive the Badge
of Military Merit."
For reasons unclear, the bill was withdrawn and action on the
case ceased on January 3, 1928, but the Office of The Adjutant
General was instructed to file all materials collected for possible
The rough sketch accompanying this proposal showed a circular
disc medal with a concave center in which a relief heart appeared.
The reverse carried the legend: For Military Merit.
A number of private interests sought to have the medal reinstituted
in the Army. One of these was the board of directors of the Fort
Ticonderoga Museum in New York.
On January 7, 1931, Summerall’s successor, General Douglas MacArthur,
confidentially reopened work on a new design, involved the Washington
Commission of Fine Arts. His object was medal issued on the bicentennial
of George Washington’s birth.
Miss Elizabeth Will, an Army heraldic specialist in the Office
of the Quartermaster General, was named to redesign the newly
revived medal, which became known as the Purple Heart. Using general
specifications provided to her, Ms. Will created the design sketch
for the present medal of the Purple Heart. Her obituary , in the
February 8, 1975 edition of The Washington Post newspaper,
reflects her many contributions to military heraldry.
The Commission of Fine Arts solicited plaster models from three
leading sculptors for the medal, selecting that of John R. Sinnock
of the Philadelphia Mint in May 1931.
As described in Army Regulations 600-35 of November 10, 1941,
the design consisted of a purple enameled heart within a bronze
quarter-inch border showing a relief profile of George Washington
in Continental uniform. Surmounting the enameled shield is Washington’s
family coat of arms, the same used by the heart shape and the
coat of arms of the obverse is repeated without enamel; within
the heart lies the inscription, For Military Merit, with space
beneath for the engraved name of the recipient. The device is
1-11/16 inches in length and 1-3/8 inches in width, and is suspended
by a rounded rectangular length displaying a vertical purple band
with quarter-inch white borders.
The War Department announced the new award in General Order No.
3, February 22, 1932:
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 War:
Chief of Staff
The association of the Purple Heart with wounds or fatality suffered
in the line of meritorious service also stems from this time.
Eligibility for the new award was defined to include:
- Those in possession of a Meritorious Service Citation Certificate
issued by the Commander-in Chief of the American Expeditionary
Forces in World War I. The Certificates had to be exchanged
for the Purple Heat or the award and Oak Leaf Clusters as appropriate.
This preserved the ideal of presenting the award for military
merit and loyal service.
- Those authorized by Army Regulations 600-95 to wear wound
chevrons. These men also had to apply for the new award.
- Those not authorized wound chevrons prior to February 22,
1931, but who would otherwise be authorized them under stipulations
of Army Regulations 600-95.
Revisions to AR 600-45 at the time, defining conditions of the
award, elaborated upon the "singularly meritorious act of
extraordinary fidelity service" required. "A wound which
necessitates treatment by a medical officer and which is received
in action with an enemy, may, in the judgment of the commander
authorized to make the award, be construed as resulting from a
singularly meritorious act of essential service." War Department
Circular No 6 dated February 22, 1931, carried the same instructions.
The Navy Department at this time saw no reason to authorize the
Purple Heart for its officers and men. The Department maintained
that the award was "purely an army decoration."
No record survives today of the identity of the first individual
to revive the revived and redesigned Purple Heart. Local posts
of the American Legion held ceremonies to honor recipients, and
it was also common to invite the Adjutant General of state National
Guards to preside over the ceremonies and present awards, but
the practice was nowhere standard.
Developments concerning the Purple Heart after 1931 served to
define further eligibility requirements for the award and to identify
it even more closely with bloodshed or loss of life in the nation’s
In Executive Order 9277 of December 3, 1942, President Franklin
D. Roosevelt extended the use of the award to the Navy, the Marine
Corps, and the Coast Guard after December 6, 1941, and established
a uniform application of standards for the award in the Army and
President Harry S. Truman, in Executive Order 10409 of November
12, 1952, retroactively extended Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast
Guard eligibility for the Purple Heart back to April 5, 1917,
to cover World War I.
President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 11016 on April
25, 1962, extending eligibility as well to "any civilian
national of the United States, who while serving under competent
authority in any capacity with an armed force…, has been, or may
hereafter be, wounded."
Current eligibility and conditions for the award are defined
in Army Regulations 600-8-22. Paragraph 2-8e carries the notice
that "any member of the Army who was awarded the Purple Heart
for meritorious achievement or service, as opposed to wounds received
in action, between 7 December 1941 and 22 September 1943, may
apply for award of an appropriate decoration instead of the Purple
The Purple Heart is ranked immediately behind the bronze star
in order of precedence among the personal awards; however, it
is generally acknowledged to be among the most aesthetically pleasing
of American awards and decorations.