Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Purple Heart

by Nancy McCammon-Hansen

At her Mather Lecture on January 4, Marsha Wright brought along the Purple Heart that her father, Morris J. Ringenberg, had won for service at the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. Since many of us have likely never seen a Purple Heart, we thought it would be a good time to write a little about this high honor given to the men and women who have served our country.

A brief examination of the history of the Purple Heart shows that its origins and history are somewhat open to debate, so we have chosen as our source for the bulk of the information in this blog post.

A Purple Heart is exactly that—a purple heart with a gold border and the bust of George Washington resting in the middle of the heart. Purple Hearts are awarded in the name of the President of the United States to any member of the Armed Forces or civilian national of the US who has been wounded, killed or dies after being wounded in action against an enemy of the United States. Those receiving the Purple Heart are not recommended for the honor, as is true for many medals, but are entitled to the medal after meeting certain criteria, not all of which we have listed here. Oak Leaf Clusters are awarded for subsequent injuries and are worn on the medal or a ribbon.

The forerunner to the Purple Heart was the Badge of Military Merit. 

New Windsor, N.Y., in the Hudson Valley, is the home of the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor. New Windsor served as a major depot of the Continental Army and Army Medical Department during the Revolutionary War. It was here that General George Washington created the Badge of Merit to reward the faithfulness of his soldiers. The town of New Windsor has worked hard to preserve the history of this era.

The Continental Congress did not want Washington to grant commissions or promotions to recognize merit but the General saw a need to honor same, especially for enlisted soldiers, who had suffered many hardships in the fight for independence against Great Britain. Washington established the badge on August 7, 1782.

"... The General ever desirous to cherish virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and encourage every species of Military merit directs 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."
Only enlisted men could receive the award and their names were to be kept in a “Book of Merit” that has never been found. But three persons are known to have received the award:
  • ·      Sergeant Elijah Churchill, 2nd Continental Dragoons
  • ·      Sergeant William Brown, 5th
  • ·      Sergeant Daniel Bissel, 2nd Connecticut Continental Line Infantry

Washington did not want the award to be permanent and so the Badge of Merit was forgotten until the time of World War I when General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing  suggested that an award for merit was needed. 
       In 1932,
“the Purple Heart was created in recognition of Washington's ideals and for the bicentennial of his birth. General Order No.3 announced the establishment of the award:
"...By order of the President of the United States, the Purple Heart, established by General George Washington at Newburgh, August 7, 1782, during the War of the Revolution is hereby revived out of respect to his memory and military achievements.
By order of the Secretary of War:
 Douglas MacArthur 
General, Chief of Staff”
New Windsor was the site of the conferment of the Purple Heart for 138 World War I veterans on May 28, 1932.
According to
“The Purple Heart has undergone many changes with respect to the criteria for being awarded. At first, the Purple Heart was exclusively awarded to Army and Army Air Corps personnel and could not be awarded posthumously to the next of kin. In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order allowing the Navy to award the Purple Heart to Sailors, Marines, and Coast Guard personnel. Also in that year, the Purple Heart was made available for posthumous award to any member of the military killed on or after December 7, 1941.
“Originally the Purple Heart was awarded for meritorious service. Being wounded was one portion of consideration for merit. With the creation of the Legion of Merit in 1942, the award of the Purple Heart for meritorious service became unnecessary and was therefore discontinued. The Purple Heart, per regulation, is awarded in the name of the President of the United States to any member of the Armed Forces of the United States who, while serving under competent authority in any capacity with one of the U.S. Armed Services after April 5, 1917 has been wounded, killed, or has died after being wounded.”

Editor's note: For information on members of the military in past wars who were residents in Allen County, go the catalog of the ACPL's Genealogy Center at and type in "American Legion" and "Fort Wayne".

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