A Brief History of the Congressional Medal of Honor

On March 25, 1863, a group of six volunteer Union soldiers gathered in the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton’s, office. Jacob Parrott, an infantryman, had been taken prisoner by Confederate soldiers during what is known as The Great Locomotive Chase. He managed to escape after being severely beaten. He and five others were here in Sec. Stanton’s office for a historical moment.

Jacob Parrott and his six fellow soldiers were the official first recipients of the Medal of Honor, what is now known as the highest military decoration.

The Congressional Medal of Honor has a long and rich history, all stemming back to that small, no frills meeting the Secretary of War’s office.

The Medal of Honor is meant to recognize U.S. military members for acts of valor. There is a version of the Medal of Honor, which is bestowed by the President on behalf of Congress, for the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Members of the Marine Corps or Coast Guard who are awarded the Medal of Honor are given the Navy’s version.

The idea of merit is one on which the military has built a lot of its recognition opportunities. For this, the highest honor, the criteria has been in place since 1963. The Medal of Honor can be awarded in the following circumstances:

  1. while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States;
  2. while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or,
  3. while serving with friendly forces engaged in armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.

This set of criteria also has deep roots that have evolved over time. In the earliest days, this highest honor could be awarded in non-combat situations. However, the most recent update to the criteria (as well as the creation of other awards for non-combat scenarios) established the  Medal of Honor for conflict situations. The award is given to a service member who “distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”

Prior to the Army and Air Force having their own iterations of the Medal of Honor, the Navy was  the first to be approved and designed. The firm William Wilson & Sons had the honor of submitting the winning design, and first Navy Medal of Honor was printed by the Philadelphia mint.

This nod to naval history and merit has numerous intricate details, each with their own meaning. Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and war, adorns the medal, as does a man holding a bunch of snakes. This man symbolizes discord, and Minerva is depicted defending against this – a nod to the sacrifices made and the purpose believed in by Civil War soldiers.  

The Army and Air Force medals would follow in later years, each with their own designs and interpretations of the history of the award itself. The symbolism and rich history of the highest military honor is evident in the artistry that is each Medal, awarded for acts of valor that ensure the continued freedom of our country.