History of the Purple Heart
Purple Heart Recipient Database
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Short History of the Purple Heart


After his victory over the British at Yorktown, Virginia, in October 1781, General George Washington established his headquarters at Newburgh NY, to keep a watchful eye on the English forces. He had a keen appreciation for the importance of the common soldier in any campaign and often recognized outstanding valor or merit with a commission or advancement in rank for the soldier concerned. In the summer of 1782, the Continental Congress ordered him to stop. There were no funds to pay the soldiers -- much less the officers . Searching for some means of recognizing his men, he wrote a General Order on August 7, 1782 that read in part as follows:

"The General, ever desirous to cherish virtuous ambition in his soldiers as well as 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 his 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 due reward... The name and regiment of the persons so certified are to be enrolled in a Book of Merit which shall be kept in the orderly room... Men who have merited this distinction to be suffered to pass all guards and sentinels which officers are permitted to do... The order to be retroactive to the earliest stages of the war, and to be a permanent one... The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all."


Sgts. Elijah Churchill, William Brown, and Daniel Bissell Jr. are the only known recipients of this award during the Revolutionary War. On May 3, 1783, Churchill and Brown received the Purple Heart. Bissell received his on June 10, 1783. It was never officially abolished, however the badge was allowed to fall into disuse and was forgotten as no further awards were made after the Revolutionary War.

Prior to the celebration of General Washington's Bi-Centennial in 1932, a search for his papers was initiated. After having been lost or misfiled for almost 150 years, the General Order of 1782 was discovered as was the accounts of the three men who received the award. The Book of Merit has never been found. Beginning in 1927, several efforts by the Army and private citizens attempted to revive the "Badge of Military Merit.". Finally on January 7, 1931 General Douglas MacArthur confidentially opened the case with the objective of having the new medal issued on the bicentennial of General Washington's birth. The War Department announced the "new" award on February 22, 1932.

Army Regulations were revised at about this time to state:

"A wound which necessitates treatment by a medical officer and which is received in action with an enemy, may in the judgment of the commander authorized to make the award be construed as resulting from a singularly meritorious act of essential service."


At that time the Navy Department did not authorize the issue of the Purple Heart, but Franklin D. Roosevelt amended that. By Executive Order on December 3, 1942, the award was extended to the Navy, Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard beginning December 6, 1941.

President Harry S. Truman retroactively extended eligibility to the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard to April 5, 1917, to cover World War I.

President John F. Kennedy extended eligibility on April 25, 1962, to "any civilian national of the United States who, while serving under competent authority in any capacity with an armed force..., has been, or may hereafter be, wounded."

Army regulations, amended June 20, 1969, state that any "member of the Army who was awarded the Purple Heart for meritorious achievement or service, as opposed to wounds received in action, between December 7, 1941 and September 22, 1943, may apply for award of an appropriate decoration in lieu of the Purple Heart." Thus the award was restricted to those wounded in action.

President Ronald Regan, on February 23, 1984, amended President Kennedy's order, to include those wounded or killed as a result of "an international terrorist attack."

There are no records of the first individual who received the revived and redesigned Purple Heart. This revived form is of metal, instead of perishable cloth, made in the shape of a rich purple heart bordered with gold, with a bust of Washington in the center and the Washington Coat-Of-Arms at the top. The latter is believed to have been the source of the stars and stripes of the American Flag. Intrinsically, the Purple Heart is the world's costliest military decoration - nineteen separate operations are required to make it from the rough heart stamped from bronze to the finished medal, plated with gold and enameled in various colors, suspended from a purple and white ribbon.

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