American Valor
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History of the Medal
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History of the Medal

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.

Carl Sandburg

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 their acts.

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 criticism.”

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."

©2003 GWETA