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CHIPS Articles: A Matter of Honor — History of the Medal of Honor

A Matter of Honor — History of the Medal of Honor
By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tim Comerford, Naval History and Heritage Command Communication Outreach Division - February 5, 2016
For more than 150 years, the Medal of Honor (MoH) has recognized conspicuous gallantry in those who have earned it. Congress authorized U.S. Navy enlisted personnel to wear the nation’s highest honor Dec. 21, 1862.

The medal started with a congressman who had a vested interest in the Navy.

“The Navy Medal of Honor was proposed in 1861 by Senator James Grimes of Iowa who chaired the Senate Naval Committee,” explained Tim Frank, formerly a Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) historian who spent two years with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. “He introduced Senate bill number 82 to ‘Promote the efficiency of the Navy’ which was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on December 21, 1862.”

The award has had many changes through the years. According to the Naval History and Heritage Command’s website, “The Navy and Marine Corps’ Medal of Honor is our country’s oldest continuously awarded decoration, even though its appearance and award criteria has changed since it was created for enlisted men.”

The medal is a five-pointed star tipped with trefoils (point down). In the center of each arm is a crown of oak and laurel, representing strength and achievement. A circle of 34 stars surrounds the center of the star (and forms the base to each arm). The stars represent the number of States in the Union at the outbreak of the Civil War. In the center of the medal is the standing figure of Minerva, the Goddess of civic strength and wisdom, warding off Discord (“the foul spirit of secession and rebellion”) who is represented in a crouching attitude, holding serpents in his hands which with are striking at Minerva with forked tongues. In her right hand she holds a shield taken from the Great Seal of the United States, and in her left she holds a fasces, which represents the lawful authority of the state. The medal is suspended from the ribbon by an anchor which is connected by two rings that pass through the upper arms of the medal. The reverse of the Navy Medal of Honor is plain for engraving the recipient’s name.

The Navy presented its first Medals of Honor April 3, 1863 to 41 Sailors, 17 of them for actions in the attacks at Forts Jackson and St. Philip (April 24, 1862). By the end of the Civil War, more than 1,500 of the medals were awarded. Many people today may not know it was proposed only for the lower ranks of personnel until more than 50 years after its introduction.

“The Navy Medal of Honor was only for enlisted personnel,” said Frank. “In 1915, Congress authorized the President to present ‘a suitable Medal of Honor to be awarded to any officer of the Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard who shall have distinguished himself in battle or displayed extraordinary heroism in the line of his profession.’”

“The Army Medal of Honor was approved on July 12, 1862 and Secretary of War Edward Stanton wanted the medals to be of the same design,” Frank said. “The only difference was that the Navy Medal of Honor was suspended from its ribbon by an anchor and the Army Medal of Honor was suspended by an eagle.”

Though the look of the MoH has changed over its distinguished history, the Navy has always returned to the original design.

“In 1919, the Navy adopted a second design known as the ‘Tiffany Cross,’” said Frank. “From 1919 until 1942, the Tiffany Cross was supposed to be awarded for combat heroism while the old design was maintained and awarded for heroism in the line of one’s profession. That wasn’t always the case because Tiffany Crosses were presented to Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett for Arctic exploration as well as to John Otto Siegel for rescuing men from a burning schooner. In 1942, the Navy went back to awarding only the Medal of Honor of the old design. The only major change since its inception has been the ribbon. In 1913, the Navy adopted the neck ribbon.

The Army, though, has completely revamped the medal over the years.

“The ribbon changed over the years and in 1904, the Army totally redesigned its Medal of Honor,” Frank explained.

According to Frank, the Army redesigned its medal because other organizations had medals that looked similar. For example, the Grand Army of the Republic had a medal that, from far away, looked like a MoH. The new design was distinct. The Navy kept its design. The Air Force Medal of Honor was authorized in 1960.

“I’d imagine each service wants to keep its own design. It’s like the Service Crosses. Each service has their own with distinct symbols. The Navy Medal is suspended by an anchor, the Army is suspended by an eagle and the Air Force is suspended by eagle claws, wings and lightning bolts,” said Frank.

Receiving one MoH is a significant achievement, but 19 people have actually received two. One of them was Lt. John McCloy. Though retiring as an officer, McCloy was awarded both of his Medals of Honor while serving in the enlisted ranks. The first he earned as a Coxswain during the Boxer Rebellion in China (1899-1901). McCloy’s citation reads, “In action with the relief expedition of the Allied forces in China, 13, 20, 21, and 22 June 1900. During this period and in the presence of the enemy, Coxswain McCloy distinguished himself by meritorious conduct.”

He earned his second medal as a Chief Boatswain in the Mexican Campaign (during the Mexican Revolution in 1914) his citation during that campaign reads, “For heroism in leading 3 picket launches along Vera Cruz sea front, drawing Mexican fire and enabling cruisers to save our men on shore, 22 April 1914. Though wounded, he gallantly remained at his post.”

Also of interest to Frank were two related Navy personnel who received the MOH.

Rear Adm. Frank Friday Fletcher and his nephew, Lt. (later Adm.) Frank Jack Fletcher both earned Medals of Honor at Vera Cruz,” Frank said.

There’s more information available on U.S. Navy Medal of Honor recipients and the medal’s history here.

A list of official U.S. Navy recipients of the MoH can be found here.

And a list of Marine Corps recipients can be found here.

Obverse of a Medal of Honor awarded to Rear Admiral Frank F. Fletcher For Distinguished Conduct in Battle during the Vera Cruz intervention. Photo courtesy of NHHC.
As printed in the official publication “Medal of Honor, 1861-1949, The Navy,” page 86. Photo courtesy of NHHC.
Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, USN, photographed on board ship, 17 September 1942. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the U.S. National Archives, courtesy of NHHC.
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