The History of the Purple Heart

If you have family members who served in the U.S. military, one or more of them may have received an award called the Purple Heart. Though it did not always have the name it does today, the Purple Heart was awarded early in the history of the United States.

The idea of giving a Badge of Merit, as it was called then, was conceived by General George Washington following the end of the American Revolution. In 1782, Congress could not afford to give extra money to soldiers who showed exceptional bravery while serving in the Continental Army. Washington knew there were men who deserved special recognition, so he issued a general order that created the Badge of Merit.

Originally, the requirements for receiving the badge included instances of “unusual gallantry”, “extraordinary fidelity and essential service” to the U.S. army. The badge was shaped in “the figure of a heart in purple cloth or silk, edged with narrow lace or binding.” The word merit was crocheted into the fabric.

We know that at least three men who served in the Revolutionary War received the Badge of Merit. There were probably others, but their names aren’t known because the book which listed its recipients was lost. Washington meant the badge to be given to U.S. soldiers in future conflicts; however, its use declined after the Continental Army disbanded. The first newly named Purple Heart was given to General Douglas MacArthur in 1932.

Both the design of the Purple Heart and the requirements for receiving it have changed. The Purple Heart now displays a bust of George Washington and his coat of arms.  It is given to members of the U.S. military who were killed or wounded by enemy action or who were mistreated as prisoners of war.

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