By Jessica J. Sheets, U.S. Army Military History InstituteJuly 21, 2008
On August 7, 1782, General George Washington ordered "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." Washington made it clear that the badge could be bestowed upon soldiers of any rank. It was the first decoration in the Army to include enlisted troops. That Purple Heart could also be awarded for "extraordinary fidelity and essential service."
The first Badges of Military Merit, as they were known, were awarded on May 3, 1783 to Sergeants Elijah Churchill and William Brown. Churchill, of the 2nd Regiment, Light Dragoons, earned his badge for conduct while leading two raids on Long Island in November 1780 and October 1781. Brown, of the 5th Connecticut Regiment, led an attack against Redoubt 10 at Yorktown in October 1781.
One other badge was known to be awarded during the Revolutionary War. Washington declared on June 8, 1783, that Sergeant Daniel Bissell, of the 2nd Connecticut Regiment, would receive a badge. Bissell had spied behind enemy lines from August 1781 to September 1782 in New York City.
The Badge of Military Merit stalled on its course of glory until being officially "revived" on February 22, 1932, the 200th anniversary of Washington's birth. General Douglas MacArthur, as US Army Chief of Staff, brought back the Purple Heart "out of respect to his [Washington's] memory and military achievements."
Regulations stipulated that a Purple Heart could still be awarded for "any singularly meritorious act of extraordinary fidelity or essential service," but now also for "a wound, which necessitates treatment by a medical officer, and which is received in action with an enemy of the United States . . . [which] may, in the judgment of the commander authorized to make the award, be construed as resulting from a singularly meritorious act of essential service." Later, the award was made retroactive to World War I.
Though the criteria for receiving the Purple Heart have changed since its inception, the path to today's Heart clearly began with George Washington in 1782. Near the end of his order establishing the Badge of Military Merit, Washington wrote, "The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus opened to all." In Washington's time, the glory went to those who performed exceptional action. Today, the glory of the Purple Heart goes to those who bear wounds for their country.