What is the Medal of Honor?
Patrick DeLacy's Medal of Honor
Photo © The Roche Family.

The Medal of Honor is the highest decoration that can be awarded to a soldier in the armed forces of the United States for valor in combat.

The most prestigious of military honors (Harry S Truman said he would gladly exchange his presidency for one), the Medal cannot be “won.” It only can be earned. Those who receive it never set out to capture it–as was the case with Patrick DeLacy in the Civil War. They were doing their duty as they saw fit, with boundless courage under fire.

Prior to the Civil War, the United States–still a young country–did not institute national medals for valor on a grand scale because it smacked too much of the entitlement of nobility found in Great Britain and too little of new American ideals. But some generals, such as George Washington, realized that some recognition by the new nation for its warriors was in order. Washington created the Badge of Military Merit–the forerunner of today’s Purple Heart–given to a soldier who is wounded or killed in action against an enemy of the United States.

In its beginnings during the Civil War, the Medal was created to keep Union soldiers’ morale up–and to encourage them to stay in the fight by either re-enlisting or not deserting. The typical soldier during the Civil War was not a trained military man. He had volunteered. And most soldiers, once exposed to the horrors of war and the high casualties, needed a reason to stay. The Medal of Honor provided such an incentive.

Since its creation, the Medal of Honor has become much more than a “carrot” to lure soldiers to stay with the army. It has been bestowed on more than 3,400 soldiers in all branches of the armed forces–the “bravest of the brave” whose stories inspire generations of Americans.