In “The Newburgh Conspiracy,” the article beginning on page 40 of this issue, author James W. Wensyel makes passing reference to the fact that an awards board at the Newburgh encampment “granted three sergeants purple, heart-shaped medals of valor, the first time in any army that enlisted soldiers were so honored.” He has since provided us with a footnote to that intriguing incident:
“On August 7, 1782, General George Washington established two awards for his soldiers. The first—the Honorary Badge of Distinction—consisted of strips of white cloth to be sewn above the left cuff of regimental coats, one for each three years of honorable service, an award that remained a tradition in the Army for the next two hundred years. Today’s GI s call the diagonal stripes ‘hash marks.’
“The second—the Badge of Military Merit—was far more restricted and far more coveted. It would be given upon recommendation of a soldier or officer, after consideration of a special awards board and approval of Washington himself, for ‘singularly meritorious service.’ It could be won only for ‘instances of unusual gallantry...extraordinary fidelity and essential service.’ Washington personally designed the medal as ‘the figure of a heart in purple cloth, or silk, edged with narrow lace or binding’ to be worn on the left breast. The soldier’s name would be entered into the Army’s Book of Merit, and Washington would himself present the medal to those selected. Soldiers awarded the purple heart medal, regardless of rank, could pass all sentinels and receive salutes as if they were officers.
“On April 24,1783, the awards board recommended that the medal be given to two Connecticut soldiers: Sergeant Elijah Churchill of the 2nd Regiment of Light Dragoons and Sergeant William Brown of the 5th Connecticut Regiment, Continental Line. Washington presented the awards on May 3. Several days later, the board recommended the award for Sergeant Daniel Bissell of the 2nd Connecticut Regiment, Continental Line, and on June 10, he received it.
“Existing official records document the medal’s award to only these three Connecticut soldiers. The Army’s Book of Merit, supposedly listing all winners of the medal, has never been found. The medals themselves disappeared over the years—Bissell’s to fire in 1813; Brown’s, after being passed down the generations of his family, to robbery in 1924; Churchill’s simply vanished—until 1961, when it was discovered in the hands of a great-grandson of the Revolutionary War hero (it is now on display at the restored New Windsor Cantonment).
“Yet there may well have been a fourth. In 1925, in an old barn in Deerfield, New Hampshire, an officer of the New Hampshire Society of the Cincinnati found a fragment of a greatcoat of Washington’s Continental Army. Badly moth-eaten and covered with the dust and cobwebs of ages, it hung on a wooden peg near the horse stalls. Sewn on the left breast was a heart-shaped badge of what appeared to be steel-gray silk. Some believed it to be a reminder of pledged faith from some soldier’s sweetheart, but the experts who studied it believed it to be a genuine purple heart medal of our war for independence; it is now on display in the national museum of the Society of the Cincinnati in Washington, D.C. We may never know who received it, when and for what deed of valor; what we do know is that since it differs slightly in design, it cannot be the still-missing medal of Sergeant William Brown.
“Although the purple heart fell into disuse by the Army after the Revolutionary War, it was revived on the anniversary of Washington’s birth, February 22, 1933. On that date, General Order No. 3 of the War Department again authorized award of the medal, with modifications of Washington’s design. The first of the reborn medals was issued to a young officer who showed great future promise—Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur.”