Honor and duty are a way of life for members of the United States military. These are traits that are both understood and expected. Some individuals, however, go above and beyond the call of duty. And for nearly 160 years, the Medal of Honor has been reserved for those personal acts of valor—undertaken during combat and risking life beyond the call of duty. The Medal of Honor is the highest military honor an individual can receive, and as such it is presented by the President of the United States.
To ensure the proper recognition for such acts of valor, in 1990, Congress designated March 25 as National Medal of Honor Day. This is the day we officially recognize all recipients, and it seems like a fitting occasion to take a look back at the history and tradition of this important award.
The story of the Medal of Honor stretches back to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. In 1861, Lincoln signed a measure into law for the awarding of the U.S. Army Medal of Honor, in the name of Congress, “to such noncommissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier-like qualities during the present insurrection.”
The first Army soldiers to receive this honor were six members of a Union raiding party in 1862. These men pushed their way into Confederate territory to disable a key transportation route, blowing up bridges and railroad tracks between Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia.
Did you know?
- Since its creation, more than 3,500 Medals of Honor have been awarded.
- More than forty percent of all Medals of Honor ever given were distributed during the Civil War– including the first Black recipients of the award, 16 Navy and 16 Army soldiers.
- Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, who served as a volunteer Army surgeon during the Civil War, is the only woman ever awarded the Medal of Honor. She initially received the medal in 1865, but it was rescinded in 1917 because she was a civilian. Her medal was reinstated in 1977.
- In 1863, the Medal of Honor was made a permanent military decoration available to all members of the military, including commissioned officers.
- Today there are three versions of the Medal of Honor: one for the Army, one for the Navy and one for the Air Force. Members of the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard are eligible for the Navy version.
We live in an amazing country, and it’s easy to begin to take our freedom for granted. National Medal of Honor Day, however, is a good occasion for us to focus our gratitude on those brave military members who fought for our freedom and continue to protect it today.
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