History of the Purple Heart

Cover Image
Photo credit Photo courtesy of Department of Defense


Did you know that the Purple Heart is America’s oldest military award? In 1782, although the Revolutionary War was basically over and peace talks were happening in Paris, Gen. George Washington needed a way to quell the talk of rebellion. Congress was running out of money after years of war against England. Troops were hungry and unpaid and there was talk of mutiny.

He decided to create the Badge of Military Merit to recognize heroic acts by his troops.

The requirements for earning the badge were a lot different from today’s Purple Heart. Soldiers had to do something unusually heroic or perform some act that was essential to the success of the Continental Army. While that sounds more like something you’d have to do to earn the Medal of Honor, the badge was actually a cloth purple heart with the word “merit” stitched across it in white. So, in a way, both the Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart came from the Badge of Military Merit.

One thing that made the badge different was that it was the first award meant for enlisted troops. Before this, the only way to recognize heroism by an enlisted soldier was to promote him, or for a general to give him a battlefield commission.

No one knows for sure how many soldiers ever received the Badge of Military Merit, though. It could be as few as three. And the book in which recipients’ names were recorded has been lost for more than 200 years.

Washington’s order was allowed to lapse after the war ended and the Purple Heart wasn’t revived until Feb. 22, 1932, on Washington’s 200th birthday. Designed by Elizabeth Will, an Army heraldic specialist, the modern medal features a profile image of Washington. Once again, the medal was awarded for meritorious service, but now soldiers could also receive it if they’d been wounded by the enemy.

The award was made retroactive -- World War I soldiers who had earned certain awards could apply for the Purple Heart. The first medal was presented to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Army chief of staff at the time.

At first, the Purple Heart was only available to soldiers, but in 1942 Congress changed the rules for earning the award, authorizing it only for wounds, and made it available to all services, including some civilians.

Civilians who worked with the military, like Red Cross workers or war reporters, remained eligible for the award until 1997. Civilian employees of the Defense Department who are killed or wounded by an enemy now receive the Defense of Freedom Medal.

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