In 1780, the Continental Congress created the first decoration of the United States military.
The Fidelity Medallion, also known as the “André Capture Medal”, was to be awarded to those soldiers who participated in the capture of Major John André, of the British army.
Major André had been the contact to Benedict Arnold and had helped organize his defection.
Historical records indicate that three soldiers, all members of the militia of New York state, were awarded the Fidelity Medallion after his capture: Private John Paulding, Private David Williams, and Private Isaac Van Wart.
The obverse of the medallion was inscribed “Fidelity”; the reverse, with the motto, “Amor Patriæ Vincit”, which means, “The love of country conquers.”
The Fidelity Medallion, however, was never again bestowed and it quickly became regarded as a commemorative decoration.
As the Revolutionary War progressed, individual achievement or valor on the battlefield was typically rewarded with a field promotion along with an associated pay raise.
In 1782, as a cost-cutting measure, the Continental Congress directed General Washington to cease the practice of recognizing individual achievement or valor by promotion.
In response to this directive, General Washington penned written orders to the Continental Army from the Hasbrouck House at his headquarters in Newburgh, New York on August 7, 1782.
With this order, Washington created two awards for enlisted or non-commissioned officers.
The first award authorized a chevron to be worn on the left sleeve for every three years of service.
The second award was the Badge of Military Merit.
This individual honor was designated for men who singularly performed deeds of valor or unusual merit.
Any man who received it would be granted privileges normally reserved for officers.
The practice in Europe at the time was to honor high-ranking officers who had achieved victory, rather than honoring common soldiers.
In his order, General Washington noted that the “road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is…open to all.”
He intended The Badge of Military Merit to honor soldiers who exhibited, “not only instances of unusual gallantry in battle, but also extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way.”
The Badge of Military Merit was a purple cloth heart edged with narrow lace or binding and worn on the left breast of the uniform coat. It was designed by M. Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the same man who later designed our Nation’s Capitol City in Washington, D.C.
Of the Badge of Military Merit, General Washington wrote:
“The General ever desirous to cherish 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 the 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. Before this favour can be conferred on any man, the particular fact, or facts, on which it is to be grounded must be set forth to the Commander in chief accompanied with certificates from the Commanding officers of the regiment and brigade to which the Candadate for reward belonged, or other incontestable proofs, and upon granting it, the name and regiment of the person with the action so certified are to be enrolled in the book of merit which will be kept at the orderly office. Men who have merited this last distinction to be suffered to pass all guards and sentinals which officers are permitted to do. The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all. This order is also to have retrospect to the earliest stages of the war, and to be considered as a permanent one.”
Most historians indicate that only three people received the Badge of Military Merit during the American Revolutionary War, all of them noncommissioned officers, and the only ones who received the award from General Washington himself.
Those soldiers are as follows:
On May 3, 1783
Sergeant William Brown of the 5th Connecticut Regiment of the Connecticut Line
Sergeant Elijah Churchill of the 2nd Regiment Light Dragoons
On June 10, 1783
Sergeant Daniel Bissell of the 2nd Connecticut Regiment of the Connecticut Line
While these three soldiers were most likely the first to receive the Badge of Military Merit, discharge certificates of other Revolutionary War soldiers indicate that they also received the “Badge of Merit” for their years of faithful service.
Microfilmed images of these discharges bearing Washington’s signature can be found in the individual records of soldiers at the National Archives.
George Washington’s papers show that he also referred to the Badge of Military Merit as the Badge of Merit. This is evident in his orders to award the above-mentioned Sergeants Brown, Churchill and Bissell.
The “book of merit” or orderly book mentioned by Washington in his general orders of August 7, 1782 in which the awards were to be recorded has never been found.
After the Revolutionary War, the Badge of Military Merit faded into obscurity although it was never officially abolished.
Congress authorized the Medal of Honor early in the American Civil War.
Then, George Washington’s award was resurrected on the bicentennial of his birth in 1932 as the Purple Heart and is awarded today to any person wounded in action while serving in any of our Armed Forces. At that time, it was also determined that the Purple Heart Medal would be considered the official “successor decoration” to the Badge of Military Merit.
Status of original badges
Sergeant William Brown’s badge was discovered in a Deerfield, New Hampshire barn in the 1920s and is in the possession of the Society of the Cincinnati, New Hampshire Branch. It is now displayed at the American Independence Museum in Exeter, New Hampshire.
Other sources say that Brown’s badge was reported missing in 1924, and further, that the badge from New Hampshire belongs to an unknown fourth recipient.
The photograph at the top of this article shows Sergeant Churchill’s badge, which is owned by New Windsor Cantonment, National Temple Hill Association.
Churchill’s badge was discovered when a Michigan farmer who was the great grandson of Churchill wrote to a New York historical society saying he possessed the badge.
It was authenticated and is now on display at the National Temple Hill Association in Vails Gate, New York.
Sergeant Bissell’s badge was lost in an 1813 house fire.
Now WE know em