The Only Medal
By Michael P. Musick
Ambrose Bierce, a veteran of prolonged combat as a member of the Ninth Indiana Infantry who presumably knew something about the word, slyly defined valor as "a soldierly compound of vanity, duty, and the gambler's hope." Whatever it was, it (and its opposite) was manifestly not in short supply during the Civil War. Yet as the conflict opened, not a single medal could be regularly awarded by the United States to military men to recognize valor, fidelity, wounds, or any other virtue or sacrifice. The need for such an award was underscored by each telegraphic dispatch and casualty list from the battlefront.
Finally, on December 21, 1861, a bill to provide for a Medal of Honor for enlisted men of the navy and marine corps became law. A statute providing the same type of award to Army enlisted men who "shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldierlike qualities" was signed July 12, 1862, and amended March 3, 1863, to include officers.1 This, then, was the only medal officially awarded on a regular basis by the government of the United States during the conflict: the Medal of Honor, still the highest award for courage in the service.
Today the Medal of Honor stands atop a "pyramid of honor" that includes the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, the Navy Cross, the Purple Heart, and others. Its significance in the Civil War cannot be understood outside its place in history.
The first Medals of Honor were presented on March 25, 1863, to six veterans of a raid led by James J. Andrews against a Southern railroad line stretching from Tennessee to Georgia. Although ultimately a failure, this expedition (also called the Mitchel Raid, after Gen. Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel, its sponsor) seemed to epitomize the kind of selflessness being shown by the young volunteers in the War for the Union. The raid and its aftermath were the subject of a dramatic Wait Disney motion picture in 1956, The Great Locomotive Chase, with Fess Parker as Andrews.
Acts of heroism were not of a lesser order in the Civil War, but a comparison of the citations given for acts performed then with recent awards could leave that impression. The most common reason assigned for the award of a medal was the capture of an enemy flag, that foremost symbol of regimental honor. Deeds that would later not qualify an individual for a Medal of Honor were recognized with the award because standards for it were unclear, and no other was available.
Thanks in large part to former Union soldiers who had received the medal and organized into the Medal of Honor Legion, that situation changed on April 27, 1916, when an act of Congress established the Medal of Honor Roll. A board determined that the decoration had to be earned in conflict with a foe and that the action for which it was awarded must have been conspicuously gallant or intrepid, at the risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty. The board looked into the origins of the 2,625 medals presented as of that date, many for deeds done years before the award was made, since there had been no time limit. Legislation in 1918 imposed a time restriction and otherwise codified regulations for the medal.
The deliberations of the 1916 board produced a decision to strike 911 names from the Medal of Honor Roll. Among those ordered to return their medals was Dr. Mary E. Walker, a physician who had tended the wounded at Fredericksburg and Chickamauga and who bore the distinction of being the only women recipient (an award restored by the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records in 1977).2 An astonishing 864 medals were ordered withdrawn from the survivors of the Twenty-seventh Maine Infantry, which had been induced to remain in the defenses of Washington, D.C., during the Gettysburg campaign by the promise of a decoration.
The extent of documentation for awards of the Medal of Honor varies. The bases for awards during the Civil War are generally quite brief, whereas late nineteenth-century recognition of deeds done during that conflict frequently entailed fuller documentation and can be useful as a source for battle narratives. Indexes are by name of recipient, not by battle, though several published lists are by war, and a 1978 congressional document supplies succinct citations giving the circumstances of each award. The original records may be found in several series rather than in one convenient file. Indexes available at the National Archives provide file citations for specific persons.
The Confederacy never managed to produce an equivalent artifact. Aside from the few Davis Guard Medals for the defense of Sabine Pass, September 8, 1863, and the New Market Cross of Honor awarded to the Virginia Military Institute Cadet Battalion of the Battle of New Market, May 15, 1864, only a published "Roll of Honor" was to be had, and that was supported only haphazardly.
Echoes of bygone bravery were evoked in 1900 when the United Daughters of the Confederacy first introduced their semiofficial Southern Cross of Honor for Confederate veterans. In 1907 the War Department authorized the Civil War Campaign Medal for honorable service in the Federal army, and for years remaining badges were also given to descendants of veterans, but when the stock was exhausted, no new ones were fabricated.
Records in the National Archives on only two categories of individuals awarded the Medal of Honor have been microfilmed: M929, Documents Relating to the Military and Naval Service of Blacks Awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor from the Civil War to the Spanish American War, and T732, Records Relating to Military Service in the Civil War of Medal of Honor Winners from Michigan.
Also see these related articles:
- Lincoln, Gettysburg, and the Papers of the Presidents
- Missing in Action: Battle Reports— Beyond the Official Records
- Campaigns and Courts-Martial
- Honorable Reports -- Battles, Campaigns, and Skirmishes
1. Precedents for the Medal of Honor can be seen in the Purple Heart of the Revolution, the Certificates of Merit of 1847, brevet rank, and the special medals, swords, and thanks voted to officers by Congress.
2. Records Relating to the Correction of Military Records, NNM 377-2, Mary Walker, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's-1917, Record Group 94, National Archives, Washington, DC.
Sources: Above and Beyond: A History of the Medal of Honor from the Civil War to Vietnam, Produced in Cooperation with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society of the United States of America (1984); John M. Carroll, The Confederate Roll of Honor (1984); Evans E. Kerrigan, American War Medals and Decorations (1964); Joseph B. Mitchell, The Badge of Gallantry: Recollections of Civil War Congressional Medal of Honor Winners (1968); Michael P. Musick, "The Mystery of the Missing Confederate Medals of Honor," Military Collector and Historian 23 (Fall 1971); Stanley S. Phillips, Civil War Corps Badges and Other Related Awards, Badges, Medals of The Period (1982); John J. Pullen, A Shower of Stars: The Medal of Honor and the 27th Maine (1966); Senate Committee on Veterans' Affair, Medal of Honor Recipients, 1863-1978 (1979).
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