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What is the Congressional Medal of Honor?

Instructor: Molly Richards

Molly has ten years of middle school teaching experience and two master's degrees in teaching.

The Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest award for any man or woman serving in the United States military. The medal reflects a person's willingness to risk life and limb for this country and has its roots in America's deadliest war, the Civil War.

Recognizing Service

Since the Revolutionary War in the late 1700s, millions of Americans have volunteered to defend and honor the United States of America. Some wars have been fought on U.S. soil and some overseas, but all have included men and women who have risen above the call of duty. All servicemen and women show courage and bravery when enlisting in the military, however some Americans saw the need to recognize those who went above and beyond during the Civil War.

Between the Revolutionary War in the 1780s and the Civil War in the 1860s, America fought in other conflicts and wars. Though nothing was actually formally established by Congress during this time, various certificates, badges, or medals of honor and merit were presented to individuals who displayed acts of courage. The Congressional Medal of Honor was created in 1861 to formally and officially honor these men and women previously awarded in other ways.

Civil War

The American Civil War (1861-1865) between the Union and Confederate States of America was different than any other war fought by the U.S because it was between states in the U.S., and Americans on both sides volunteered to defend the principals of each region. It also proved right away to be a bloody war, with new technology, (at the time) cutting edge weapons, and a lack of proper medical care. Still that did not stop men, women, and even young teens from signing up to defend their country and beliefs.

Congressional Medal of Honor

The three Congressional Medals of Honor
Medals of Honor

In December of 1861, Iowa Senator James W. Grimes introduced a bill that was created to honor those in the United States Navy. The Navy Medal of Honor was signed into law later that month and was presented by the President of the United States on behalf of Congress. Two hundred medals were minted.

In February of 1862, Massachusetts Senator Harry Wilson introduced a similar bill for the army; this time when the bill was passed and signed, 2,000 medals were minted. The United States Air Force was not officially created until 1947; airmen before then were awarded the Army Medal of Honor. All three are awarded for the same purpose, however each branch of the military has a variant of the original design from 1861.

Recipients of the Medal of Honor

The first act for which the Medal of Honor was awarded went to an assistant surgeon, Bernard J.D. Irwin. In 1861, Irwin voluntarily rescued 60 soldiers in Arizona. Although this was the first act for which the Congressional Medal of Honor was given out, Irwin did not receive the medal until 30 years later.

The first act that merited the medal during the Civil War was given to Francis E. Brownell in May of 1861. Congress denied his request for the medal two times before he was awarded it with the help of a congressman, because when it was first created, there were no real guidelines for who could be awarded the medal.

In 1963, Congress established a set of guidelines. According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, these guidelines include:

  1. Engaged in action against an enemy of the United States
  2. Engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force
  3. Serving with friendly forces engaged in armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party

Mary Edwards Walker
Mary Edwards Walker

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