For Conspicuous Gallantry – 13 Amazing Facts about the Medal of Honor

America's first permanent military decoration, more than half of all 3,400 Medals of Honor ever bestowed were awarded during the Civil War.

More than half of all 3,400 Medals of Honor ever bestowed were awarded during the Civil War. It was America’s first permanent military decoration.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK Obama awarded a 34-year-old former army captain the Medal of Honor in Washington D.C. on Tuesday. The White House ceremony marked the eighth time the citation has been bestowed to a veteran of the Afghanistan War.

William Swenson was awarded the Medal of Honor this past Tuesday at the White House.

William Swenson was awarded the Medal of Honor this past Tuesday at the White House.

According to the Pentagon, medal recipient William D. Swenson “braved intense enemy fire, and willfully put his life in danger… multiple times in service of his fallen and wounded comrades” during a protracted firefight in Kunar province. The Seattle-native darted through a hail of enemy bullets repeatedly during the Sept. 8, 2009 battle to rush wounded and dead soldiers to a waiting helicopter. Five American and 10 allied troops were killed in the clash. Interestingly enough, much of the drama was captured by the chopper pilot’s helmet cam. Part of the footage shows Swenson kissing the forehead of a dying squad mate.

“I was just trying to keep his spirits up,” he told CNN in a recent interview. “I wanted him to know that he had done his job, but it was time for him to go.”

Swenson is just one of more than 3,400 servicemen to have been awarded America’s highest decoration since the honour was established 150 years ago. Here are some other fascinating and lesser-known details of the Medal of Honor.

America had almost no history of granting military citations for bravery prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. In fact, when a senior War Department official first suggested the such a decoration in 1861, the Union army’s top general at the time, Winfield Scott, vetoed the idea arguing that such awards were somehow un-American. After the aging general stepped down, navy secretary Gideon Welles revived the concept. President Lincoln also approved and the Medal of Honor was born.

The federal mint in Philadelphia initially struck 175 of the iconic inverted-star, bronze citations for the U.S. Navy. In early 1862, the award was widened to include army gallantry — 2,000 additional medals were soon ordered. Originally, the award was reserved for enlisted personnel and non-commissioned officers only, but in 1863, eligibility was expanded to include officers.

The first Medals of Honor ever awarded went to six survivors of the Andrews’ Raid on March 25, 1863. The band of Union volunteers were famous for commandeering a rebel train in 1862 and driving it north across Georgia and into Tennessee ahead of pursuing Confederate cavalry while sabotaging railroad tracks and telegraph lines en route.

The Medal of Honor was the U.S. military’s only citation during the Civil War. More than 1,500 were handed out during the conflict — nearly half of all ever awarded. By way of comparison, a total of 124 were bestowed during World War One, while 464 were offered during the Second World War. Korea and Vietnam vets won 136 and 247 Medals of Honor respectively. The balance were distributed for outstanding conduct during various American military operations throughout the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

The Medal of Honor is awarded by the president in the name of the U.S. Congress. As of 1963, only American military personnel engaged in combat against an enemy of the United States are eligible for the decoration, and only then if the individual has “distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” Recipients can be recommended by superior officers or even nominated by Congress.

Winners of the Medal of Honor are entitled to a number of benefits including: a $1,259 monthly allowance along with a 10 percent military pension bonus, the right to a burial plot at Arlington National Cemetery, a lifetime standing invitation to all presidential inaugurations, various travel perks, permission to wear the medal with civilian clothes after discharge and even salutes from superior officers.

There have been nearly a dozen design variants of the medal since its creation, including one cross-style configuration. To this day, the army, navy and air force bestow different versions of the decoration.

An Army Medal of Honor.

An Army Medal of Honor.

Nineteen recipients have received more than one Medal of Honor. Five of these went to First World War veterans like Matej Kocak. The 35-year-old Slovakian-born marine won both navy and army versions of the citation posthumously for bravery on the Western Front in July, 1917.

Mary Edwards Walker is the only woman to have ever been awarded the decoration. The 39-year-old Oswego, New York native volunteered to serve as a surgeon during the Civil War. She treated the wounded after the battles of Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Chattanooga (and did so without pay!) A staunch abolitionist, Walker even volunteered to spy for the north and was captured by the Confederacy for espionage but later released. She is one of only eight civilians to have won the Medal of Honor.

Other civilian recipients of the citation include private scouts and Indian fighters like Billy Dixon, Amos Chapman and Buffalo Bill Cody. All of these civilian medals were later taken back by an act of Congress when more stringent requirements for the honour were established in 1917. Cody’s and Mary Edward Walker’s were restored in 1989 and 1977 respectively.

More than 900 Medals of Honor have been revoked – 864 of these were taken back from members of the 27th Maine regiment. In June of 1863, more than 300 volunteers to the unit were eligible for discharge following the expiration of their enlistment periods. Following entreaties from officers to remain in uniform, the soldiers agreed to stay to defend Washington during the Battle of Gettysburg in exchange for the coveted decoration. After the crisis, unit commanders were unsure exactly which men they promised the medals to so they simply awarded the commendation to the whole company. Another 29 medals were later taken back from the ceremonial guards from President Lincoln’s funeral.

Charles Lindbergh was famously awarded the decoration for his 1927 trans-Atlantic flight. Although a member of the army reserves at the time, many in Congress protested his induction into the order because the aviator’s feat, considerable as it was, wasn’t combat-connected.

More than 800 non-Americans have won the Medal of Honor, including 65 Canadians. One of these recipients, Douglas Munro who served at the Battle of Guadalcanal, was also the first Coastguardsman to earn the medal.

13 comments for “For Conspicuous Gallantry – 13 Amazing Facts about the Medal of Honor

  1. 18 October, 2013 at 6:40 am

    Your blog topics often pique my interest, and this one is no exception.

    It is obvious that the qualifications for an award of the Medal of Honor have been progressively tightened during the approximately 150 years since its inception. American Civil War awards were so prolific that they almost might indeed have been “sent up with the rations”. That is probably because there was no other medal available at the time. But also due to the financial and other perquisites that accompanied the medal award. By WW2, it had become very much more difficult to win a Medal of Honor.

    The same restrictive progression can be observed in awards of Britain’s slightly older Victoria Cross – and probably for much the same reasons. Over time it became more and more difficult to win either the VC or the MoH.

    By contrast, by WW1 it had become easier and easier for German soldiers to receive the still older Iron Cross award (admittedly, not truly comparable to the VC or MoH). Records were destroyed in the course of WW2 Allied bombing raids, but it seems that in WW1 Germany awarded over 200,000 1st Class Iron Crosses; and over 5 million 2nd Class Iron Crosses; a certain Gefreiter Hitler got both.

    However, I was most interested to read about the 19 double awards of the MoH. Matej Kocak was one of 5 WW1 Marines awarded both the Navy MoH and the Army MoH for the same deed. The other double awardees received separate MoH for their bravery on different occasions.
    And then, in a series of Congressional decisions from July 1918 to February 1919, it became prohibited for any person to receive more than one MoH, even for repeated acts of valor. Only lesser awards could be given to an MoH holder, no matter what he/she did. So, if Sergeant John Doe got the MoH for having single-handedly captured an enemy platoon on March 1st … but then captured an entire regiment on August 1st … his second and still greater achievement would get a lesser award than the first.

    That makes no sense to me. I think that the British system, whereby a Bar (meaning a 2nd VC) can be added to an existing VC, is much better. Having said that, however, there have been only three VC and Bar awards in British history. And two of those went to doctors who repeatedly rescued wounded men under fire. Hardly seems fair, does it? A double VC, and you get to golf behind the lines every Wednesday too.

    Some useful links on these topics: –

    • 18 October, 2013 at 7:53 am

      Thanks for that Manxjack. I’m curious — do you have a blog of your own?

      • 18 October, 2013 at 9:45 am

        Heck no! I don’t have a blog of my own. Two reasons: [1] I’m so opinionated, I’d probably get lots of hate mail, which would be bad for my sensitive soul. [2] I have more fun following and sniffing leads in lovely blogs like yours. In other words, I think I prefer hunting with the hounds than running with the hare.
        BTW, on the topic of that last nasty WW2 battle / massacre on the Yugoslav frontier with Austria, I have now begun to read Marcia Kurapovna’s book, “Shadow on the Mountain”. It has to be assessed cautiously, because it attempts to unravel the truth behind fights and atrocities that still impact the peoples of that unhappy region to this day … and for that matter continue to stir tribal antipathies between their descendants living far away in places such as North America. And strong, not necessarily objective, opinions on what truly happened are to be found not only amongst the South Slavs and their kin, but also amongst ideologically influenced historians: because there is considerable evidence that both the British and the American leaders were deliberately misinformed by Communists in their service, in order to steer decisions to favor Tito and his Partisans. Anyway, when I finish the Kurapovna book, and after I have tried to figure out how much trust to place in it, I will try to post something further on the Battle of Poljana.

  2. 18 October, 2013 at 7:47 am

    With reference to the award of the Victoria Cross, to be awarded the action is today, deemed to have a 50/50 chance of surival by the recipient. Amazingly, of the three “double VC’s” only one recipient did not live to receive it, and that was Captain Noel Chavasse of the Royal Army Medical Corps. Of the other two Surgeon Captain Martin Leake won his first VC in the South African War and had to wait for his bar until The Great War. The third recipient of the double award was Captain Charles Upham of the New Zealand Army, in peace time a shepherd, an occupation he returneds to after WW2, to avolid the publicity his award attracted.

  3. Eric Guideng
    11 November, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    This should be 14 amazing facts about the MOH. Fact #14: Sergeant Jose Calugas was awarded the MOH for action at Culis, Bataan on January 6, 1942. He was the first WWII recepiant of the MOH. He was a Philippine citizen at the time and was enlisted as a cook. He was in the safest area of the battlefield at the time when he noticed fleeing. That’s when he decided to run half a mile to the front line to a slaughtered American gun position and inspired others to return to the fight.

    • admin
      11 November, 2013 at 2:22 pm

      Great stuff, Eric. Thanks for adding that!

  4. 25 November, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    Sorry for my absence but daily life called… Perhaps I should be eligible for the Congressional Gold Medal (not the CMH)… but two of my family are recipients. 🙂

    You presented some very unusual behind the scene aspects of the CMH… I had read of Mr. Munro’s heroism under fire but did NOT know he was Canadian!

    If I may, under “the U.S. military’s only citation” bullet point, the word “won” is used. I believe the term should be something along the lines of “bestowed”.

    While not directly in concert with the theme of your good story, a number of DSC’s or Silver Stars posthumously awarded to Japanese-American soldiers were presented in the internment camps. Sadly, it was prohibited to “pin” the medal on the deceased soldier’s mother if she was Japanese. The medal would be pinned on a surviving sibling provided they were born in the US. They in turn would pin it on their mother.

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