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25 May 2009

Medals and Ribbons

In the US, the last Monday in May is celebrated as a national holiday, Memorial Day. It is a day of official recognition of men and women who have died in military service to their country. In its early days this holiday was called Decoration Day and was originally instituted after the Civil War to honor soldiers who fought for the Union.

General Order #11 states that “The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but Posts and comrades will, in their own way, arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”

Since World War I Memorial Day has been recognized as a day to reflect on the loss of life in any military action or war. Memorial Day is often confused with Veterans Day, November 11th which recognizes all who have served in the Armed Forces. But I don’t know any vet who, when thanked for service on Memorial Day, makes the distinction clear.

Medals are another more personal form of recognition for service. The two US medals that are best known are The Congressional Medal of Honor and The Purple Heart. Both of these medals were instituted by George Washington. In 1782 Washington “directed that whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed” the soldier was authorized to wear the “figure of a heart in purple cloth or silk, edged with narrow lace or binding.”

The Purple Heart was one of the first medals to be made available to the enlisted as well as offices. In fact only three Purple Hearts were issued at that time, all
three to non-commissioned officers. Awarding of the Purple Heart (then called the Badge of Military Merit) fell out of use and was not re-instituted until the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth when the more familiar medal (at right) was designed and formalized.

Since it reintroduction in 1932 over 800,000 Purple Heart medals have been awarded, From 1932 until World War II, it was given not only for being wounded in action but also for meritorious service. The qualifications for the medal have changed since then and the criteria now focus on injury in action.

George Washington authorized the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1792 after the Revolution but it was not a popular award as many thought that such “decorations” were too royal a concept for the new democracy to accept. The medal came into use during the Civil War and is the highest military decoration awarded to this day.

While we are all familiar with the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart there are ten medals that precede the Purple Heart in importance with the Medal of Honor at the top, always at the top.

If you are interested in the medals and the criteria for awarding them this website does a nice job of presenting the details http://www.gruntsmilitary.com/army2.shtml.

The actual medals are worn on formal uniforms in order of importance. Ribbons that represent the owner’s medals are worn on a day-to-day basis.

The last picture shows the ribbon representing the medals of a typical senior officer of the late twentieth century. On meeting him anyone could tell a great deal about his career by “reading the ribbons.” The when and where of each ribbon is almost always a story worth hearing. The two most distinctive on this set are the Bronze Star earned in Vietnam as a Lieutenant and the Meritorious Service Medal which is a one inch representation of an amazing experience known as Hurricane Hugo.

I have always wanted to write about ribbons and medals and it seemed that Memorial Day was the perfect opportunity. I promise to return to Kedleston Hall and the Regency in my next blog post.

How did you celebrate this weekend? We had a grand time with our son and daughter-in-law. I hope you had as much fun as we did.

5 Comments:

Blogger Rhonda said...

Nice post Mary. I have one bit of information to add. The correct name for the Medal of Honor is “The Medal of Honor” not The Congressional Medal of Honor. I think this mistake is generated by a misspoken media and done so often now that the reality of what the medal is actually called sounds wrong. But it’s not. It’s the Medal of Honor…Congress has nothing to do with it as it is an Army Medal.

12:40 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Very interesting post, Mary.

My husband and I were in Fredericksburg for part of the weekend visiting my stepson. Although we were on our motorcycle, we were not part of the vast numbers of bikers who every Memorial Day weekend descend on Fredericksburg to gather at the cemetery where the fallen are buried from the famous Civil War battle there. Nor were we part of the bikers' "Rolling Thunder" pilgrimage to the Vietnam War memorial in D.C.

I believe there is such a thing as the Congressional Medal of Honor, but it's usually given to artists (e.g. writers, poets) who are being honored for a non-military service.

1:30 PM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Mary,
My father wore his "ribbons" on his uniform every day. They were so familiar to me but he never talked about them, ever. I learned more about his military service in the war from my uncle. My dad did do secret stuff most of the time. War gaming and things like that.

My post on Risky Regencies was about the origin of Memorial Day, too!

4:11 PM  
Anonymous kathrynn dennis said...

My father wore his ribbons on his uniform everyday, too, Diane. And he never talked about them either. He's long retired now, but I am motivated to go and ask him what there were all for, and write it all down!

12:24 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Mary! It makes me realize how many of the things we hear referred (the Congressional Medal, the Purple Heart), I don't know the history of.

I spent Memorial Day at a barbecue with friends. Which makes me wonder--how far back does the tradition of barbecuing on Memorial Day go?

10:21 AM  

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