In 1782, George Washington wrote “…extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way shall meet with a due reward,” and with that, he created the Purple Heart. Except that President Washington didn’t actually create the Purple Heart. To help celebrate one of our nation’s highest honors, let’s clear up three misconceptions about the medal.
What we call the Purple Heart didn’t come about until 1932 when General Douglas MacArthur issued General Order No. 3, “Re-Establishment of the Purple Heart medal.” Originally create as the “Badge of Military Merit,” George Washington himself designed the award himself and as he stated in his general orders on Aug. 7, 1782, said it was for soldiers who exhibited, “not only instances of unusual gallantry in battle, but also extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way.”
The original design was of a purple heart-shaped piece of silk that was edged with a silver binding. The word “Merit was stitched across the front of the heart in silver. When worn, the wearer could pass guards and sentinels without being challenged. They also had their name and regiment written in a “Book of Merit,” which has been lost over time. It was created for enlisted soldiers originally, something that normally didn’t happen at that time. The usual practice was to honor the high ranking officers, but General Washington said, “the road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is… open to all.”
Even though Washington wanted this award to be a permanent one for soldiers, it was forgotten about until 1927 when then Army Chief of Staff General Charles Pelot Summerall asked Congress to revive the badge of Military Merit. The request was withdrawn the following year, but all the material was collected for possible further use.
In 1931, MacArthur quietly began work on what would become the Purple Heart. He dictated specifications to Elizabeth Will, an Army heraldic specialist who created a sketch of the modern day Purple Heart. It was announced on Feb. 22, 1932 which was the 200th anniversary of Washington ’s Birthday.
The oldest award of the U.S. military
General Washington’s own diary gives us the names of the first three recipients of the original Purple Heart. Sergeant William Brown of the 5th Connecticut Regiment of the Connecticut Line and Sergeant Elijah Churchill of the 2nd Regiment Light Dragoons both received the honor from Washington himself on May 3, 1783. The next month, on June 10 the soon to be POTUS #1 gave Sergeant Daniel Bissell of the 2nd Connecticut Regiment of the Connecticut Line the Badge of Military Merit as well.
But two years before that, by an act of the Continental Congress in 1780, the Fidelity Medallion was awarded to three soldiers, Private John Paulding, Private David Williams and Private Isaac Van Wart. All three were members of the New York state militia. They also received $200 each annually for the rest of their lives.
Paulding, Williams and Van Wart had been part of the capture of Major John Andre. Andre was Benedict Arnold’s British army contact. Because of this the Fidelity Medallion is also called the Andree Capture Medal. It had the word “Fidelity” on the front and on the reverse it said, in Latin, “The love of country conquers.” It was never awarded to any one again and is considered a commemorative decoration now.
Only a few received the honor during the Revolutionary War
When it comes to history, facts are hard to fight. We do know for sure that Washington himself gave out the awards to Brown, Churchill, and Bissel because he wrote about it himself. Some historians believe that these three were it for the Revolutionary War. Until recently that is.
A recent Purple Heart research dig into the National Archives came up with three more citations honoring soldiers from the 18th Century war, with one signed by George Washington himself.
Sergeant William Dutton of the 7th Massachusetts Regiment received the Badge of Merit for “his faithful service for seven years and five months and discharge,” on June 10, 1783. Also on his discharge, a soldier named Peter Shumway received the Badge of Merit for six years of faithful service on June 9, 1783.
But on June 5, 1783, in a document signed by George Washington, Fifer John Sithins from the 2nd New Jersey Regiment received a discharge and the Badge of Merit for “seven years faithful service.” Therefore, until more documents are found this makes Sithins the third “Purple Heart” recipient and one of only four that we absolutely know were handed out by the first president of the United States.