The Badge of Military Merit circa 1782
The award known as the Purple Heart has a history that reaches back to the waning days of the American Revolution. The Continental Congress had forbidden General George Washington from granting commissions and promotions in rank to recognize merit. Yet Washington wanted to honor merit, particularly among the enlisted soldiers. On August 7, 1782, his general orders established the Badge of Military Merit:
This award was open only to enlisted men and granted them the distinction of being permitted to pass all guards and sentinels as could commissioned-officers. The names of the recipients were to have been kept in a “Book of Merit” (which has never been recovered). At the present time there are three known recipients of the Badge of Military Merit: Sergeant Elijah Churchill, 2nd Continental Dragoons; Sergeant William Brown, 5th and Sergeant Daniel Bissel, 2nd Connecticut Continental Line Infantry.
Washington stated that the award was to be a permanent one, but once the Revolution ended, the Badge of Merit was all but forgotten until the 20th century.
General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing suggested a need for an award for merit in 1918, but it was not until 1932 that the Purple Heart was created in recognition of Washington’s ideals and for the bicentennial of his birth. General Order No.3 announced the establishment of the award:
General, Chief of Staff
On May 28, 1932, 138 World War I veterans were conferred their Purple Hearts at Temple Hill, in New Windsor, NY. Temple Hill was the site of the New Windsor Cantonment, which was the final encampment of the Continental Army in the winter of 1782-1783. Today, the National Purple Heart continues the tradition begun here in 1932, of honoring veterans who have earned the Purple Heart.
The Purple Heart has undergone many changes with respect to the criteria for being awarded. At first, the Purple Heart was exclusively awarded to Army and Army Air Corps personnel and could not be awarded posthumously to the next of kin. In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order allowing the Navy to award the Purple Heart to Sailors, Marines, and Coast Guard personnel. Also in that year, the Purple Heart was made available for posthumous award to any member of the military killed on or after December 7, 1941.
Originally the Purple Heart was awarded for meritorious service. Being wounded was one portion of consideration for merit. With the creation of the Legion of Merit in 1942, the award of the Purple Heart for meritorious service became unnecessary and was therefore discontinued. The Purple Heart, per regulation is awarded in the name of the President of the United States to any member of the Armed Forces of the United States who, while serving under competent authority in any capacity with one of the U.S. Armed Services after April 5, 1917 has been wounded, killed, or has died after being wounded.
- History Time Line
- Journey through a timeline of the sacrifices made by America’s servicemen and women.
- Medical Treatment & Personal Protection
- Learn about the changing nature of war and the advances in service to those in the line of fire.
- Available to All, Desired by None
- The Purple Heart Medal is unique in that it is not sought but has been earned in combat. This space is for reflection and also for temporary exhibits and programming.
- Main Exhibition Gallery
- This space contrasts the harshness of war’s destruction with the care of the wounded as well as the very personal recollections of actual recipients.
- The Roll of Honor
- • Visitors may sit in one of the computer alcoves and access The Purple Heart Roll of Honor by engaging with an interactive computer database. The Roll of Honor is an ongoing work in progress. As we build the nation’s first comprehensive registry of Purple Heart recipients we greatly appreciate your assistance in collecting accurate information on all whose names and stories should be remembered here. If you would like more information, please ask one of our staff members. Enrollment packets are available at the gift shop.
- The Harsh Panorama of War
- As visitors enter the main exhibit space they are confronted with harsh, impersonal images of war. The images on display have been chosen to express heroic acts of bravery. At the base of these images, three-dimensional elements expressing that destruction and chaos contain images and artifacts for up-close inspection. The exhibit space balances these images with those of the caring for the wounded and the re-uniting of families.
- Video Interactive
- Visitors will see three large drum-like forms, which represent a bunker, a ship and an airplane fuselage. Through interactive video technology visitors will learn the human and personal stories of Purple Heart recipients and their families at home, as they talk about themselves and answer questions such as: “How did your experience change your life?”