Adjacent to the museum, the Medal of Honor Gallery pays tribute to all of the National Guardsmen who received this distinguished award for personal acts of valor. Their names are engraved on a wall and are grouped by the state with which each recipient served. Recipients date back to the Spanish-American War. A series of dioramas depicting various acts for which the Medal of Honor was awarded surround the wall. In the center of the room stands a case containing the four different versions of the Army Medal of Honor as well as the Air Force Medal of Honor created in 1960.
The highest military award for bravery that can be given to any individual in the United States of America, the Medal of Honor arose out of a need to recognize extraordinary acts of bravery. George Washington had recognized this need for honoring brave soldiers when he instituted the Purple Heart. A “Certificate of Merit” was authorized in 1847, due in part to the public attention focused on the Mexican War. The certificate was just that and did not provide for a medal. The Purple Heart was used to honor soldiers for “singularly meritorious action.” Something more was needed.
Senator James W. Grimes of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Naval Committee in 1861, introduced a bill to create a Navy Medal. It passed and was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on December 21, 1861. The law authorized a Medal of Honor for enlisted Navy men, the first decoration formally authorized by the American government to be worn as a badge of honor.
Two months later, on February 17, 1862, Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts introduced a Senate resolution providing for presentation of “medals of honor” to enlisted men of the Army and Voluntary forces who “shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier-like qualities.”
The resolution was signed into law by Lincoln on July 12, 1862 and amended the following year to include officers and making it retroactive to the start of the Civil War. Although the Navy medal was authorized some eight months prior to the Army medal, the Army was the first to make a presentation by about a week, on March 25, 1863.
This legislation was the basis of the award of the medal until July 9, 1918, when it was replaced by a new statute.
In their provision for judging whether an individual is entitled to the Medal of Honor, each of the armed services has set up regulations which permit no margin of doubt or error. The deed of the person must be proved by incontestable evidence of at least two eyewitnesses; it must be so outstanding that it clearly distinguishes gallantry beyond the call of duty from lesser forms of bravery; it must involve the risk of life; and it must be the type of deed which, if it had not been done, the individual would not be subject to any justified criticism.
Aside from the great honor which it conveys, the recipient can, under certain circumstances, obtain free military air transportation. A veteran who has been awarded the medal for combat in any war is eligible for a special pension of $200 per month, starting from the date of application for the pension (Title 38 § 1562).
When awarded, the Medal of Honor is presented by a high official “in the name of the Congress of the United States.” That’s how it has also become known as the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Six soldiers were awarded the first Army Medals in a joint ceremony on March 25, 1863. They were the only ones left from a group of 22 volunteers to escape from behind enemy lines after carrying out a real “cloak-and-dagger mission,” designed to cut the entire state of Tennessee off from the Confederacy by sabotaging a vital railway supply line for Confederate forces in Tennessee. If successful, these forces would be cut off from their southern supply base long enough for the Army of the Cumberland to attack and take Chattanooga.
Shortly after beginning their mission, all were caught and imprisoned. Eight men, including their leader, were tried and executed. Another eight managed to escape.
The six remaining prisoners were paroled by the Confederates on March 17, 1863, and it was to these men that the first Medals of Honor were given.
So just who was the first person to perform a deed that earned him the Army Medal of Honor?
He was Col. Bernard J. D. Irwin and the deed occurred before the medal was created. In what is now Arizona, on February 14, 1861, and before the outbreak of the Civil War, Irwin volunteered to lead a small party to rescue members of the Seventh Infantry Regiment surrounded by Cochise, chief of the Chiricahua. An assistant surgeon, Irwin treated the wounded and then helped destroy the Indian village of Cochise.
It was almost 33 years, January 21, 1894, before he was awarded the medal for this historic deed.
Today, the distinguished service and the recommendation for official recognition has to be made and supported by sufficient evidence within two years after the distinguished service.
No more than one Medal of Honor may be awarded to a person. However, for each succeeding act that would otherwise justify the award of such a medal, the president may award a suitable bar or other device to be worn as he directs.