Valor is a gift. Those having it never
know for sure if they have it till the test comes. And those having
it in one test never know for sure if they will have it when the
next test comes.
For those who have valiantly engaged themselves
in war, Sandburg’s reflections likely ring true. Bravery among
enlisted personnel is not uncommon; it can be argued that all soldiers
demonstrate courage during combat, even if others never witness
But, there are great acts of military valor that
do not go unnoticed. These are recognized through the Medal of Honor—
presented by the president in the name of Congress— the highest
military honor that can be bestowed upon any American.
On December 9, 1861 Iowa Senator James W. Grimes
introduced S. No. 82 in the United States Senate, a bill designed
to "promote the efficiency of the Navy" by authorizing
the production and distribution of "medals of honor".
On December 21st the bill was passed, authorizing 200 such medals
be produced" which shall be bestowed upon such petty officers,
seamen, landsmen and marines as shall distinguish themselves by
their gallantry in action and other seamanlike qualities during
the present war (Civil War)." President Lincoln signed the
bill and the (Navy) Medal of Honor was born.
Two months later on February 17, 1862 Massachusetts
Senator Henry Wilson introduced a similar bill, this one to authorize
"the President to distribute medals to privates in the Army
of the United States who shall distinguish themselves in battle."
Over the following months wording changed slightly as the bill made
its way through Congress. When President Abraham Lincoln signed
S.J.R. No 82 into law as 12 Stat. 623-624 on July 14, 1862, the
Army Medal of Honor was born. It read in part:
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives
of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the
President of the United States be, and he is hereby, authorized
to cause two thousand "medals of honor" to be prepared
with suitable emblematic devices, and to direct that the same be
presented, in the name of the Congress, to such non--commissioned
officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their
gallantry in action, and other soldier-like qualities, during the
present insurrection (Civil War).
Though there are myriad military heroes, many unsung,
the Medal of Honor sets specific provisions for recipients. At least
two eyewitnesses must provide “incontestable evidence”
to a deed that proves to “be so outstanding, that it clearly
distinguishes gallantry beyond the call of duty from lesser forms
of bravery, involve the risk of life, and be the type of deed, which,
if not done, would not subject the recipient to any unjustified
The correct title of the award is the Medal of Honor.
Because the U.S. President presents the medal in the name of the
United States Congress, it is sometimes called the Congressional
Medal of Honor. The latter title is typically connected only with
the organization—the Congressional Medal of Honor Society—that
represents those who have earned the medal. There are also
three medals for the Navy, Army, and Air Force.
Conceived in 1860 and first awarded in 1863, the
Medal of Honor has been awarded only 3,459 times to 3,440 recipients,
almost half of them Civil War soldiers. (There have been 19 double
recipients.) More than half of those who have received the Medal
of Honor did not survive the action for which it was awarded.
Over the years, the Medal of Honor’s parameters
have undergone revisions to ensure it is justly bestowed upon those
who merit it, even if this is done in a belated fashion. It took
nearly 60 years, for example, for 29 African-American and Asian-American
heroes to be recognized for their actions in World War II. They
were finally honored, many posthumously, at ceremonies at the White
House in 1997 and 2000. There have also been cases where medals
were rescinded and then reinstated, mistakenly awarded, and even
abused by recipients.
On rare occasions, the Medal of Honor has been issued for individual acts of bravery occurring during peacetime.
Capt. Charles A. Lindbergh, for example, received the medal for
his “heroic courage and skills as a navigator, at the risk
of his life, for his nonstop flight in his airplane from New York
to Paris, France, 20-21 May 1927."