The Purple Heart
Purple Heart, c. 1785. From the American Independence Museum’s Collection
The American Independence Museum’s Purple Heart is one of only two known still in existence. This silk heart with an embroidered edge and floral pattern on the front measures just over two inches tall and is sewn to a blue wool fabric.
It was discovered by William L. Willey, a member of the Society of the Cincinnati, while on a drive around the countryside of New Hampshire in the 1920s. It has been on display at the Museum since its opening in 1991.
So why is this small, silk heart so important?
According to the Military Order of the Purple Heart, an organization for combat-wounded veterans, the medal is “the oldest military decoration in the world in present use and the first award made available to a common soldier”.
The Purple Heart was established by General Washington in 1782, originally called the ‘Badge of Military Merit’. The Badge was available to soldiers of all ranks, unlike European military decorations which were for officers only. It could be issued by General Washington’s subordinates, as appropriate, “for any singularly meritorious action”. Washington’s order for the Badge states that the medal should be made out of purple silk or fabric, in the shape of a heart, and it was to be worn over the left breast. The original record book of all those who received the award has been lost, and only Connecticut kept their own list, noting three of their men receiving the award from Washington.
The Badge of Military Merit fell out of use soon after and was dormant for over a hundred years.
Reviving the Purple Heart
In 1927, an unsucessful attempt was made to revive the Badge of Military Merit. The project was reopened in 1932 by General Douglas MacArthur which has resulted in today’s Purple Heart Medal.
The new design, featuring General Washington’s profile, was officially revived by an Executive Order on the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth, February 22, 1932. Today, it is awarded in the name of the President to members of the United States military wounded or killed in action.
The modern Purple Heart was designed by Army heraldic specialist Elizabeth Will (1900-1975). Will was an instructor at Walter Reed Army Hospital in the therapy program and joined the heraldic office for the Army in 1926. She also designed the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Vice President’s flag, and numerous other seals and badges for the Defense Department. Her design was sculpted by John R. Sinnock, who designed the Roosevelt dime we use today.
Did You Know? Facts about the Purple Heart Medal
When the Purple Heart was revived in 1932, veterans who had been wounded in earlier conflicts, including the Civil War, were eligible to apply for the medal. The exact number of Civil War veterans who applied for the medal is unknown, but some estimates believe that 15 Purple Hearts were awarded. To research more into the Civil War Purple Heart recipients, please visit the Civil War Talk website.
Henry Johnson served during World War I and was the first American Soldier during the war to receive the French Croix de Guerre medal. During the battle at Argonne he suffered 21 wounds while combating an enemy raid and rescued a fellow soldier. He was discharged back home to Albany, New York, but the report contained no record of his numerous injuries. He died 11 years later, and was not rewarded the Purple Heart until 1996. To read more on Henry Johnson, please visit Smithsonianmag.com.
The first woman to receive the Purple Heart was Lieutenant Annie G. Fox (1893-1987), chief nurse in the Army Nurse Corps at Hickham Field during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. At this time it was not necessary to be wounded to receive the Purple Heart. Fox was awarded the medal for her outstanding performance as head nurse during the bombardment of Pearl Harbor, working under extreme conditions, and embodying calm and courage. To read more about Lieutenant Annie Fox, please visit the National Woman’s History Museum.
The first woman awarded the Purple Heart who was wounded in action was Rita G. Palmer (1918-2002). Rita was a young nurse from Hampton, New Hampshire who joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1940. She served in the field hospitals in the Philippines until the Americans surrendered in 1942 when she was wounded and taken prisoner. She was a prisoner in Santa Tomas for three years until the American liberation in 1945. To find out more about Rita Palmer, visit Lane Memorial Library’s website.
The Purple Heart stamp was first issued in 2003 and became a Forever stamp in 2011. Before 2011, every time the price of postage increased, letter campaigns were undertaken to keep the Purple Heart stamp. The Purple Heart stamp joined the Liberty Bell stamp, which had been the only Forever stamp up to that point, as symbols of freedom, sacrifice, and remembrance.
The first African American Marines to be awarded the Purple Heart were Staff Sargent Timerlate Kirven and Corporal Samuel J. Love. They were wounded during the Battle of Saipan in 1944. To read more about Kirven and Love, please visit Semperfiparents.com.
The Modern Purple Heart was originally for the Army only. It wasn’t extended to all service branches until 1942.