1780: The Fidelity Medallion was a small medal worn on a chain around the neck, similar to a religious medal, that was awarded only to three militiamen from New York state, for the capture of John André, a British officer and spy connected directly to General Benedict Arnold during the American Revolutionary War. The capture saved the fort of West Point from the British Army.
1782: Badge of Military Merit: The first formal system for rewarding acts of individual gallantry by American soldiers was established by George Washington when he issued a field order on August 7, 1782, for a Badge of Military Merit to recognize those members of the Continental Army who performed "any singular meritorious action". This decoration is America's first combat decoration and was preceded only by the Fidelity Medallion, the Congressional medal for Henry Lee awarded in September 1779 in recognition of his attack on the British at Paulus Hook, the Congressional medal for General Horatio Gates awarded in November 1777 in recognition of his victory over the British at Saratoga, and the Congressional medal for George Washington awarded in March 1776. Although the Badge of Military Merit fell into disuse after the American Revolutionary War, the concept of a military award for individual gallantry by members of the U.S. Armed Forces had been established.
1847: Certificate of Merit: After the outbreak of the Mexican-American War (1846–1848) a Certificate of Merit (Meritorious Service Citation Certificate) was established by Act of Congress on March 3, 1847 "to any private soldier who had distinguished himself by gallantry performed in the presence of the enemy". 539 Certificates were approved for this period. The certificate was discontinued and reintroduced in 1876 effective from June 22, 1874 to February 10, 1892 when it was awarded for extraordinary gallantry by private soldiers in the presence of the enemy. From February 11, 1892 through July 9, 1918 (Certificate of Merit disestablished) it could be awarded to members of the Army for distinguished service in combat or noncombat; from January 11, 1905 through July 9, 1918 the certificate was granted medal status as the Certificate of Merit Medal (first awarded to a soldier who was awarded the Certificate of Merit for combat action on August 13, 1898). This medal was later replaced by the Army Distinguished Service Medal which was established on January 2, 1918 (the Navy Distinguished Service Medal was established in 1919). Those Army members who held the Distinguished Service Medal in place of the Certificate of Merit could apply for the Army Distinguished Service Cross (established 1918) effective March 5, 1934.
Medal of Valor
Medal of Honor (without the suspension ribbon) awarded to Seaman John Ortega
in 1864 (back view of medal)
The only military award or medal at the beginning of the Civil War (1861–1865) was the Certificate of Merit, which was awarded for the Mexican-American War. In the fall of 1861, a proposal for a battlefield decoration for valor was submitted to Winfield Scott, the general-in-chief of the army, by Lt. Colonel Edward D. Townsend, an assistant adjutant at the War Department and Scott's chief of staff. Scott, however, was strictly against medals being awarded, which was the European tradition. After Scott retired in October 1861, the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, adopted the idea of a decoration to recognize and honor distinguished naval service. On 9 December 1861, U.S. Senator (Iowa) James W. Grimes, Chairman on the Committee on Naval Affairs, proposed Public Resolution Number 82 (Bill 82: 37th Congress, Second Session, 12 Stat. 329) "to promote the efficiency of the Navy" which included a provision for a Navy Medal of Valor which was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on December 21, 1861 (Medal of Valor had been established for the Navy), "to be bestowed upon such petty officers, seamen, landsmen, and marines as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry and other seamen-like qualities during the present war." Secretary Wells directed the Philadelphia Mint to design the new military decoration. On May 15, 1862, the United States Navy Department ordered 175 medals ($1.85 each) with the words "Personal Valor" on the back from the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia.
Medal of Honor
Senator Henry Wilson, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, introduced a resolution on February 15, 1862 for an Army Medal of Honor. The resolution (37th Congress, Second Session, 12 Stat. 623) was approved by Congress and signed into law on July 12, 1862 ("Medals of Honor" were established for enlisted men of the Army). This measure provided for awarding a medal of honor "to such non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and other soldier-like qualities during the present insurrection." During the war, Townsend would have some medals delivered to some recipients with a letter requesting acknowledgement of the "Medal of Honor". The letter written and signed by Townsend on behalf of the Secretary of War, stated that the resolution was "to provide for the presentation of medals of honor to the enlisted men of the army and volunteer forces who have distinguished or may distinguish themselves in battle during the present rebellion." By mid-November the War Department contracted with Philadelphia silversmith William Wilson and Son, who had been responsible for the Navy design, to prepare 2,000 Army medals ($2.00 each) to be cast at the mint. The Army version had "The Congress to" written on the back of the medal. Both versions were made of copper and coated with bronze, which "gave them a reddish tint".
1863: Congress made the Medal of Honor a permanent decoration. On March 3, Medals of Honor were authorized for officers of the Army (37th Congress, Third Session, 12 Stat. 751). The Secretary of War first presented the Medal of Honor to six Union Army volunteers on March 25, 1863 in his office.
1890: On April 23, the Medal of Honor Legion is established in Washington, D.C.
1896: The ribbon of the Army version Medal of Honor was redesigned with all stripes being vertical.
1904: The planchet of the Army version of the Medal of Honor was redesigned by General George Lewis Gillespie. The purpose of the redesign was to help distinguish the Medal of Honor from other medals, particularly the membership insignia issued by the Grand Army of the Republic.
1915: On March 3, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard officers became eligible for the Medal of Honor.
1963: A separate Coast Guard medal was authorized in 1963, but not yet designed or awarded.
1965: A separate design for a version of the medal for the U.S. Air Force was created in 1956, authorized in 1960, and officially adopted on April 14, 1965. Previously, members of the U.S. Army Air Corps, U.S. Army Air Forces, and the U.S. Air Force received the Army version of the medal.