The Medal of Honor is instantly recognized as our nation’s highest award for heroism. The familiar words, “Above and beyond the call of duty” are etched into every child’s memory as dreams of battlefield gallantry flicker across their thoughts and deeds while engaged in playground antics. Few know, however, that while the Medal of Honor was instituted in March of 1863, we had other ways of recognizing gallantry that date back to the American Revolution.
In August of 1782, Gen. Washington wrote: “The General … 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.” From that directive, we know of three “Purple Hearts for Military Merit” that were awarded to soldiers of the Continental Line and then the award fell into disuse and was eventually revived in 1932 as an award for being wounded in combat.
At the close of the American Revolution in 1781, Congress authorized the purchase and presentation of 15 swords to be made in Paris and inscribed with the thanks of Congress to the recipient—who had been nominated by Gen. Washington for superior service and gallantry. Eight of these swords are known to have survived.
During the War of 1812, Congress similarly presented 27 swords to those who had displayed gallantry at the Battle of Lake Erie. Eight are known to still exist today.
In another example, which is the only time Congress has presented an actual firearm to a soldier for heroism, at the Battle of Plattsburgh, N.Y., in 1814, 17 young men enlisted to help defend the city and received inscribed Hall’s rifles with personalized plaques that highlighted their service. Ten of these are accounted for today.
In March of 1863, six Medals of Honor were awarded at the War Dept. to the surviving soldiers who had taken part in the great locomotive chase later immortalized by Buster Keaton in the 1926 film “The General.” Inscriptions on the back read, “The Congress to ...” and then the name, rank and location of the event were engraved upon the first medals given for valor in our military history.
Today, the Medal of Honor is our nation’s most-revered symbol of courage and gallantry. More than 3,000 have been earned since the Civil War, and those who survive to receive the award are held in high esteem for the rest of their lives.
Through the generosity of Norm Flayderman, Jack Lewis and Marvin Applewhite, the NRA National Firearms Museum has four original Medals of Honor in the collection. They are currently on exhibit, along with other symbols of valor that predate the Civil War.
Through the generosity of John McMurray, Craig Bell and Alan Boyd, of the American Society of Arms Collectors, the National Firearms Museum is pleased to announce the opening of Symbols of Valor, a collection of two of the Revolution’s presentation swords, two Lake Erie swords, one Plattsburgh Hall’s rifle and five Medals of Honor.
The exhibit is displayed with an original oil painting by Gilbert and Jane Stuart of George Washington, recently donated by the Estate of Doc Thurston of Charlotte, N.C.
The NRA National Firearms Museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., seven days a week. Check out nramuseum.org for more info.