Our Purple Heart Heritage

By Gallagher, George Merlin | Army, August 2003 | Go to article overview

Our Purple Heart Heritage


Gallagher, George Merlin, Army


The origin of the Purple Heart decoration stems from the opening volleys of the War of the American Revolution (1775-1783). It was at the battles of Lexington and Concord in the state of Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775, that colonial "patriots" resisted British tyranny, resulting in 93 brave men being wounded or killed by British Redcoats. Seven years of hard fighting later, the conflict ended on September 3, 1783, when the Treaty of Paris was signed by Great Britain and America. With the treaty came the recognition by the leading powers of the world that the United States of America existed as a free and independent nation.

Events leading up to the peace treaty are significant in the history of the Purple Heart. After Gen. George Washington's brilliant victory over the British military forces at Yorktown, Va., in October 1781, Washington moved his army of 7,000 soldiers and some 500 women and children to the town of New Windsor, located a small distance north of West Point, N.Y., on the Hudson River. The general, however, lo-cated himself, his wife Martha and his staff of aides in the now historic Johnathan Hasbrouck House in nearby Newburgh.

At Newburgh Gen. Washington took the time to review the conditions of his Army after the arduous campaigns of the preceding six years. This review included an examination of the many promises he had made to his troops, many of whom he was not able to keep on active duty for one reason or another. Behind the Revolutionary Army's outward appearance, he found a largely unpaid Army living in hardship. As an aside it is interesting to read a statement made then by Washington in Newburgh that still rings true today: "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by our nation." During the summer of 1782, Washington led his troops in extensive training. He left no stone unturned. He reviewed each brigade, giving praise when due and providing critiques for better performance. He took a personal interest in his troops and their welfare. One of the significant results of these efforts found its way into his General Orders issued on August 7, 1782, which were placed in his Orderly Book No. 64:

The general, ever desirous to cherish a virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and encourage every species of military merit, directs that whenever any singular meritorious action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear on his facings, over his left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth, of silk, edged with narrow lace or binding. Not only instances of unusual gallantry, but also of extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way shall meet with a due reward. Before this favor can be conferred on any man, the particular facts on which it is grounded must be set forth to the Commander in Chief, accompanied with certificates from the commanding officers of the regiment and brigade to which the candidate for reward belonged, or other incontestable proofs, and, upon granting it, the name and regiment of the person with the action so certified are to be enrolled in the book of merit which will be kept at the orderly office. Men who have merited this last distinction are to be suffered to pass all guards and sentinels which officers are permitted to do. The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus opened to all. This order is also to have retrospect to the earliest days of the war, and to be considered a permanent one.

In these orders we see the basis for the Badge of Military Merit that was awarded to three sergeants from Connecticut. The first was William Brown, who had earlier led the advance on Redoubt 10 at the battle of Yorktown. The second went to Elijah Churchill, who "with great gallantry" led the attacks on Forts St. George and Slongo on Long Island, N. …

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Our Purple Heart Heritage
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