A couple of weeks ago I attended a ceremony for a recipient of the Silver Star Medal, the military’s third-highest honor. That ceremony got me thinking about the United States’ highest military honor — the Congressional Medal of Honor. I became curious about its history, how many people have earned it and what the medal symbolizes. I figured if I was interested in this, perhaps others would be too.
The MOH is the award that I’m sure most Americans are familiar with. Whenever a service member is awarded the medal, generally, the president of the United States presents the medal and it makes national headlines.
The medal is awarded for valor in action against an enemy force and can be awarded to any person who served in the U.S. armed forces.
The history of the MOH begins in December 1861, when Iowa Senator James Grimes introduced a bill designed to “promote efficiency of the Navy” by authorizing the production and distribution of “medals of honor.” The bill was passed and subsequently signed by President Abraham Lincoln and 200 medals were produced to be awarded to “… 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).”
A similar bill was introduced by Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson two months later that would authorize the president to award the medal to Army privates who distinguished themselves in battle. After making its way through Congress, the bill was adjusted and when it was signed by Lincoln it authorized two-thousand medals to be prepared. The medals would be awarded to non-commissioned officers and privates who “distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier-like qualities, during the present insurrection (Civil War).”
The design of the star-shaped medal is different for the Army, Air Force and Navy. The original design for the Navy MOH included at its center Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and war wearing a helmet with an owl, representing wisdom, while a man recoils from her, representing discord.
The Navy medal remains mostly unchanged, however the ribbon changed from having red, white and blue stripes to a blue ribbon with 13 stars, symbolic of the 13 original colonies. All three medals have the same ribbon.
The Army MOH was created soon after the original Navy medal in 1862 and included an eagle grasping a saber in its talons above the star. It also included a simple portrait of a helmeted goddess of war to replace Minerva and the man.
In 1965, the Air Force MOH was created and it replaced the Minerva portrait with the head of the Statue of Liberty. It also includes the Air Force coat of arms, instead of an eagle above the star.
Being selected to receive the MOH is a long process that can take years. The service member’s chain of command must start the award process. The application must then be approved through multiple people and departments including the secretary of defense and the president who approves or disapproves the medal.
The first MOH was awarded March 25, 1863 to Pvt. Jacob Parrot. Since then, there have been 3,498 recipients. There are currently 76 living recipients of the MOH.
The most recent MOH was awarded July 18, to Maj. Charles S. Kettle.
For more information about the MOH, visit www.cmohs.org.
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