Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Birthday Present

Celebrating Washington's Birthday

Birthday Boy and Commander in Chief

King George III

Believe it or not, there was a time when George Washington's birthday was not a celebrated federal holiday. Wait a minute, that time would be... now! In this blogger's humble opinion, His Excellency is more than worthy of a day for him alone, and not shared with 40 something other chief executives. He was the first.  And the first is always (OK, usually) special. But Washington was more than special, he was the essential man of his age. With the exception perhaps of King George III and his inner circle, that was the considered opinion of most of the world (America and Europe). Later, even George III had some lauding comments on Washington  eschewing absolute power and kingship. In 1879, the US Congress honored our first president  by closing government offices in Washington, DC on  February 22nd. Curiously, this had nothing to the do with the budget. It was the first holiday honoring a particular American citizen and it was celebrated on his actual birthday, not the Monday of. Back then, holidays were about commemorating something meaningful, not just another 3 day weekend. In 1885, Congress expanded the holiday to include all federal offices and activities.

A Special Birthday Present

In 1931, the Chief of Staff of the Army Douglas MacArthur submitted a recommendation to Congress intended to present the first commander in chief with a very special 200th birthday present: the awarding of a "new" medal to recognize soldiers injured in combat. On February 22, 1932, Washington's 200th birthday, the U.S. War Department announced the creation of the "Order of the Purple Heart." 

General Order No.3 announced the establishment of the award, which would have a likeness of Washington:

"...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

But why was this so special after all? 

 The First Award

Biographers and students of George Washington know that he is the author of many firsts, both in the military and later in the presidential and political arena. The sobriquet, First in War, First in Peace, First in the hearts... was literally true. This was the logical result of Washington's place and time in our nation's  founding and the leadership he showed through eight years of war, the establishment of the US Constitution, and eight years of the world's first presidency. The list of things established by him in the military, civil and governmental spheres is impressive. One of these firsts, is the nation's first military award. The award,originally called the Badge of
Washington's Headquarters, Newburgh, NY
Military Merit, was established by Washington when he served as the commander in chief of the Continental Army as the  long war for independence was limping to a close. That order, issued from his headquarters at Newburgh, New York, stated  it would be a decoration consisting of a purple, heart-shaped piece of silk, edged with a narrow binding of silver, with the word Merit stitched across the face in silver. The badge was to be presented to soldiers for "any singularly meritorious action" and permitted its wearer to pass guards and sentinels without challenge! I like that last  perk - wonder if cutting the line at TSA counts?

On August 7, 1782, this general order established the Badge of Military Merit:

"... 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."

Original Badge of Merit Replica

The honoree's name and regiment were also to be inscribed in a "Book of Merit." As it turns out, only three Revolutionary War soldiers are known to have received the Badge of Military Merit: Sergeant Elijah Churchill, 2nd Continental Dragoons; Sergeant William Brown, 5th and Sergeant Daniel Bissel, 2nd Connecticut Continental Line Infantry. Possible Yankee Doodle Spies connection: 2nd Continental Dragoons included Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge's unit - Washington's spies. Unknown if Sergeant Churchill was a member of that element but it is likely.

The Legacy

It did not take long for the Purple Heart to evolve in scope and purpose. On May 28, 1932, 138 World War I veterans were conferred their Purple Hearts at Temple Hill, in New Windsor, NY. Temple Hill was the site of the New Windsor Cantonment, which was the final encampment of the Continental Army in the winter of 1782-1783. At first, the Purple Heart was exclusively awarded to Army and Army Air Corps personnel but in 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt allowed the Navy to award the Purple Heart to Sailors, Marines, and Coast Guard personnel. Later that year, the Purple Heart was made available for posthumous award to any member of the military killed on or after December 7, 1941. The original Purple Heart was awarded for meritorious service. But with the creation of the Legion of Merit in 1942, the award of the Purple Heart for meritorious service was discontinued and is now awarded to any member of the Armed Forces who has been wounded or killed in designated combat activities.

Today's Purple Heart

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