The Medals of the Revolutionary War

"Few inventions could be more happily calculated to diffuse the knowledge and preserve the memory of illustrious characters and splendid events, than medals.” These words written in 1787 expressed the feelings of the Continental Congress in March 1776 when they instituted the tradition of awarding military medals as the highest distinction of national appreciation for our military heroes.

General Washington’s success in driving the British from Boston in 1776, General Horatio Gates’s victory at Saratoga in 1777, the storming of the British Forts at Stony Point and Paulus Hook in 1779, and General Greene’s Southern victories in 1781 all led to the final British surrender at Yorktown in 1781. These were great milestones in the United States’ War of Independence. The people and Congress were very proud of their heroes and wished to bestow a sign of national recognition especially upon those officers who had distinguished themselves in battle.

As a result, Congress voted to award gold medals to outstanding military leaders. The first approved medal honored George Washington and similar medals were bestowed upon other victors such as General Horatio Gates and Captain John Paul Jones for his naval victory over the Serapis in 1779.

Since Benjamin Franklin, the U.S. Ambassador to France at the time, had access to the best of the French Royal engravers, it was only natural for this country to turn to France for help in the actual production of our first military ribbons and medals. Under Franklin’s leadership the Chief Engraver of the Paris Mint produced the first medal in 1781. However, following Franklin’s departure from France, the development of the other medals for American heroes was extremely slow until Col. David Humphreys and, later, Thomas Jefferson became involved. It was not until March, 1790, that President Washington received his gold and silver medals approved by Congress over 10 years earlier.

Unlike present practice, these large table top presentation medals were not designed to be worn on the military uniform. Evidently many thought otherwise since General Horatio Gates’ portrait shows his medal hanging from a neck ribbon. It is interesting to note that Thomas Jefferson wanted to see that these medals, of which he was very proud, were known and preserved throughout the world. He intended to present sets of these medals to heads of state, foreign dignitaries and every college in the United States. Jefferson clearly saw medals as the best way to preserve the memory, valor and distinction of America’s soldiers and sailors. As a matter of interest, many of these early commemorative medallions are still being struck and offered for sale by the U.S. Mint.

The “Andre” medal broke the custom of restricting the award of medals to successful senior officers and is doubly unique in that it was designed for wear around the neck. The medal was presented by Congress in 1780 to the three enlisted men who captured British Major John Andre with the plans of the West Point fortifications in his boot. Patriots John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart and David Williams were the recipients of the Andre medal and as time passed were additionally authorized a lifetime pension. Major Andre, the captured British officer, was hung as a spy.

In August 1782, George Washington established the Badge of Military Merit, the first U.S. decoration which had general application to all enlisted men and one which he hoped would inaugurate a permanent awards system. At the same time, he expressed his fundamental awards philosophy when he issued an order from his headquarters at Newburgh, New York, which read:

“The General, ever desirous to cherish a virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and encourage every species of military merit, directs that, whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear on his facings, over his left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth or silk, edged with narrow lace or binding. Not only instances of unusual gallantry, but also of extraordinary fidelity, and essential service in any way, shall meet with a due reward...the road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus opened to all. This order is also to have retrospect to the earliest days of the war, and to be considered a permanent one.”

Although special and commemorative medals had been awarded previously, until this point no decoration had been established which honored the private soldier with a reward for special merit. The wording of the order is worth careful study. The object was “to cherish a virtuous ambition” and “to foster and encourage every species of military merit.” Note also, that Washington appreciated that every kind of service was important by proposing to reward, “not only instances of unusual gallantry, but also of extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way.” And finally, the wonderfully democratic sentence, “the road to glory in a patriotic army and free country is thus opened to all.”

Coming as it did, almost a year after Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, the message was never given widespread distribution and, as a result, there were only three known recipients of this badge, Sergeants Elijah Churchill, William Brown and Daniel Bissell. Unfortunately, after the Revolution, the award fell into disuse and disappeared for 150 years.

However, it did not die, primarily due to the efforts of the Army’s then Chief of Staff, General Douglas MacArthur, (and, by no accident, one of its first recipients). On the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth, February 22, 1932, the War Department announced that: “By order of the President of the United States, the Purple Heart, established by Gen. George Washington at Newburgh, New York hereby revived out of respect to his memory and military achievements.”

Washington’s “figure of a heart in purple” was retained as the medal’s central theme and embellished with Washington’s likeness and his coat of arms. The words “For Military Merit” appear on the reverse as a respectful reference to its worthy predecessor. Towards the end of the war or immediately after, General Washington also authorized a stripe to be sewn on the sleeve of outstanding noncommissioned officers to honor three years of exemplary service or those with six years wore two stripes. These exemplary service or good conduct stripes disappeared after the Revolutionary War along with the original Badge of
Military Merit.

However, while Congress would not approve medals for the Revolutionary soldiers the Continental Army officers banded together with their French counterparts and created the Order of the Cincinnati with a very distinctive medal to wear. In the years after the revolution, membership grew and members served in all the major offices of the United States Government as well as many state and local governments. Some, including Thomas Jefferson, were alarmed at the apparent creation of an elite order that excluded enlisted men and in most cases militia officers. However, over time, the order has evolved into a patriotic society and its’ first members set the tone by establishing commemorative decorations or medals when none were authorized by Congress.

Learn more about other wars in our military resources section.

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