A Purple Heart is displayed in Washington, DC, at the Society of the Cincinnati's Anderson House Museum and another at Washington's Headquarters State Historic Site in Newburgh, New York.
Attached to the piece of dark blue cloth is a purple heart of silk, bound with braid and edged with lace. The cloth is believed to be part of the uniform or the tunic of a soldier of the Continental Army. There is no name, rank or regimental insignia on the piece of cloth.
The Purple Heart itself is what signified a hero of the Revolutionary War. It was awarded to three soldiers - Sgts. Elijah Churchill, William Brown, and Daniel Bissell Jr. On May 3, 1783, Churchill and Brown received the Purple Heart, then called the Badge of Military Merit, from Gen. George Washington, its designer and creator. Bissell received his on June 10, 1783. These three are the only known recipients of the award during the Revolutionary War.
On August 7, 1782, at his Newburgh, New York headquarters, Washington devised two badges of distinction to be worn by enlisted men and noncommissioned officers. The first was a chevron to be worn on the left sleeve of the coat. It signified loyal military service. Three years of service with "bravery, fidelity and good conduct" were the criteria for earning this badge; two chevrons meant six years of service.
The second, named the Badge of Military Merit, was the "figure of a heart in purple cloth or silk edged with narrow lace or binding." This badge was for "any singularly meritorious action" and permitted the wearer to pass guards and sentinels without challenge. The honoree's name and regiment were inscribed in a Book of Merit.
After the Revolutionary War, no more Americans soldiers received the Badge of Military Merit. It was not until October 10, 1927, that Army Chief of Staff, General Charles P. Summerall, directed a draft bill to be sent to Congress "to revive the Badge of Military Merit."
The Army withdrew the bill on January 3, 1928, but the Office of the Adjutant General filed all correspondence for possible future use.
Although a number of private efforts were made to have the medal reinstituted, it wasn't until January 7, 1931 that Summerall's successor General Douglas MacArthur, confidentially reopened the case. His object was to have a new medal issued on the bicentennial of George Washington's birth.
Miss Elizabeth Will, in the Office of the Quartermaster General, created the design from guidelines provided her. The only difference in her design is that a sprig appeared where the profile of Washington is on the present Purple Heart.
John R. Sinnick of the Philadelphia Mint made the plaster model in May 1931. The War Department announced the new award on February 22, 1932.
After the award was reinstated, recipients of a Meritorious Service Citation Certificate during World War I, along with other eligible soldiers, could exchange their award for the Purple Heart.
At the same time, revisions to Army regulations defined the conditions of the award.
"A wound which necessitates treatment by a medical officer and which is received in action with an enemy, may in the judgment of the commander authorized to make the award be construed as resulting from a singularly meritorious act of essential service." At that time the Navy Department did not authorize the issue of the Purple Heart, but Franklin D. Roosevelt amended that. By Executive Order on December 3, 1942, the award was extended to the Navy, Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard beginning December 6, 1941.
President Harry S. Truman retroactively extended eligibility to the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard to April 5, 1917, to cover World War I.
President John F. Kennedy extended eligibility on April 25, 1962, to "any civilian national of the United States who, while serving under competent authority in any capacity with an armed force..., has been, or may hereafter be, wounded."
President Ronald Regan, on February 23, 1984, amended President Kennedy's order, to include those wounded or killed as a result of "an international terrorist attack." Purple Heart Medals were awarded to military members or next of kin who were wounded or killed in the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001.
Army regulations, amended June 20, 1969, state that any "member of the Army who was awarded the Purple Heart for meritorious achievement or service, as opposed to wounds received in action, between December 7, 1941 and September 22, 1943, may apply for award of an appropriate decoration in lieu of the Purple Heart."
There are no records of the first individual who received the revived and redesigned Purple Heart. Local posts of the American Legion and the Adjutant Generals of state National Guards both held ceremonies to honor recipients.
What Washington wrote in his orderly book on August 7, 1782 still stands today:
"The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all. This order is also to have retrospect to the earliest stages of the war, and to be considered a permanent one."
Shortly after the award was re-instituted a group of combat wounded veterans in Ansonia, Connecticut, formed the first chapter of the civilian organization whose membership was composed of recipients of the decoration. Their action gave birth to a fraternal body which, until then, had been just a record on paper. The living organization grew rapidly during and after World War II and is now a nationwide body. It became known as the "MILITARY ORDER OF THE PURPLE HEART of the United States of America, Inc." (MOPH) The organization was chartered by Congress by H.R. 13558 which became Public Law 85-761, on August 26, 1958.
MOPH maintains its' national headquarters in Springfield, Virginia, and has chapters throughout the United States. The organization represents veterans' interests before Congress, the Veterans Administration, the Department of Defense, and elsewhere.
In addition, the Order is proud of its key role in the National Service Program. The Order maintains a full time National Service Director who supervises the over 300 salaried and volunteer service officers. All Purple Heart Service Officers have been accredited by the Veterans Administration. They provide assistance and representation for all veterans, their dependents and survivors, in obtaining their rightful entitlements and benefits. All service is always FREE.
Published in U S Legacies Magazine October 2004