A Brief History of the Congressional Medal of Honor

While it can be said that almost every Soldier and American is aware of the Congressional Medal of Honor and the honor that it bestows on those who have earned it, quite the opposite can be said about the knowledge of the history behind this prestigious award.  While its history is very vast and detailed, I have provided a summarized version here for your personal knowledge and enjoyment.

medal of honor

History of the Congressional Medal of Honor

December 9, 1861, Iowa Senator James W. Grimes introduced S. No. 82 in the United States Senate, a bill designed to “promote the efficiency of the Navy” by authorizing the production and distribution of   “medals of honor”.

December 21, 1861, the bill was passed, authorizing 200 such medals be produced “which shall be bestowed upon such petty officers, seamen, landsmen and marines as shall distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and other seamanlike qualities during the present war (Civil War).” President Lincoln signed the bill and the (Navy) Medal of Honor was born.

February 13, 1861, Army Assistant Surgeon Bernard J.D. Irwin rescues the 60 soldiers of 2d Lt. George Bascom’s unit at Apache Pass, AZ. Though the Medal of Honor had not yet been proposed in Congress (and actually wouldn’t even be presented to Irwin until 1894, it was the First heroic act for which the Medal of Honor would be awarded).

February 17, 1862, Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson introduced a similar bill, this one to authorize “the President to distribute medals to privates in the Army of the United States who shall distinguish themselves in battle.” Over the following months, wording changed slightly as the bill made its way through Congress.

May 24, 1861, In Alexandria, VA Army Private Francis Edwin Brownell performs the first action of the Civil War to merit the Medal of Honor

July 12, 1862, the Army Medal of Honor was born and signed by who else, but Abraham Lincoln.  The bill measure read:

“Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the President of the United States be, and he is hereby, authorized to cause two thousand “medals of honor” to be prepared with suitable emblematic devices, and to direct that the same be presented, in the name of the Congress, to such non–commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier-like qualities, during the present insurrection (Civil War).”

FINAL THOUGHTS: There is much more history to the Medal of Honor than what I have provided, but it is still, I think, important to understand how this prestigious award came to be.  From the early days of the Civil War, originally reserved for Navy seaman, to the present day warrior who rises above and beyond the call of duty for his fellow brother in arms.  To those who have earned this merit I am in awe and inspired.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief history of the Medal of Honor.  Do you have any particular Medal of Honor stories that you would like to share? Please do so in the comments area below. Thank you.

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11 thoughts on “A Brief History of the Congressional Medal of Honor”

  1. If you are ever a Fort Benning, GA it would behoove you to visit the new NIM (National Infantry Museum) located just outside the gate. In addition to the great displays they have there displaying the history of the Infantry branch, there is a nice display which lists every single Congressional Medal of Honor recipient! It is truly awinspiring to see those who have sacrificed so much.

    1. Did you know that only one woman has earned the Medal of Honor? Mary Edwards Walker, a medical doctor and the Army’s first female surgeon, volunteered with the Union Army during the Civil War. She was known to cross enemy lines to help soldiers, which led to her eventual capture by Confederate troops in 1864. It was thought that she was also acting as a spy during that time. She was released as part of a prisoner exchange. In 1865, President Andrew Johnson presented her with the Medal of Honor, which was later revoked, along with 911 other noncombatant recipients, when the Army changed its eligibility requirements. She continued to wear hers, however, and in 1977, the Army restored her award.

      1. Great lesson, Amy.

        I never knew the Congressional Medal of Honor could be revoked. Very interesting. And I never knew that there was only 1 female recipient either.

        Thanks for the lesson.

        Chuck

      2. That is interesting, that there has only been one woman. I am glad her award was restored, because it certainly sounds to me like she went above and beyond and risked her life above that of her comrades.

    2. It is awe inspiring to see who has all gotten the Medal of Honor. I have been humbled by watching all the recent MoH presentations to deserving warriors. It makes me proud to serve and call them brother.

  2. Justin,

    Thanks for sharing this post about the history of the Congressional Medal of Honor. I learned a lot by reading it. Like you, I am inspired by people who go “above and beyond” during combat and earn this award. I had a former Commander (LTG Robert Foley) who had the CMOH and he was an exceptional man and leader.

    Chuck

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