Stupid Question ™
June 28, 2004
By John Ruch
Q: What is the origin of the Purple Heart? Why that design?
—anonymous, from the Internet
A: The Purple Heart, the American military’s decoration for receiving a combat wound, is not as morbid as its bloody, internal-organ symbolism might first suggest.
It’s a complex decoration—both a revival of and a tribute to an award invented by George Washington in the twilight of the Revolutionary War.
In 1782, Washington was leading American forces that were both antsy with their all-but-concluded victory and angry about the lack of pay—especially the bonuses due for the promotions Washington handed out like candy as rewards—from the essentially bankrupt Continental Congress.
Historian James Thomas Flexner noted in his “George Washington in the American Revolution (1775-1783)” that Washington was “himself susceptible to the pleasures of dressing up” and tried to boost morale by ordering the wearing of fancy hats and the sprucing up of military tents.
In this atmosphere, Washington hit upon the genius stroke of creating two military decorations for enlisted men—something unheard of at the time. They were both flashy and honor-laden.
One was a chevron, or V-shaped sleeve stripe, that a soldier was entitled to wear for three years of honorable service.
Much more remarkable was the Badge of Military Merit, a kind of cloth medal worn over the left breast. In Washington’s own words, it was “the Figure of a Heart in Purple Cloth or Silk edged with narrow Lace or Binding.”
The Badge was for “any singularly meritorious Action” involving “not only instances of unusual gallantry, but also of extraordinary fidelity and essential service.” Which is to say, it was not just for combat wounds. There are only three known instances of it being awarded and the exact reasons in all cases are unclear, though one soldier had served as a deep-cover spy.
The recipient also got his name inscribed in a Book of Merit, which has not survived if it ever existed. And, perhaps most importantly, the wearer of the Badge could enter areas reserved for officers, making the award a sort of brevet promotion to boot.
“The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all,” Washington said of his new decoration. Only he could award it, and he made eligibility retroactive to the start of the war.
Washington did not explain the Badge’s symbolism. The heart presumably symbolizes loyalty and love of country (it was worn over the traditional position of the heart). Army historians have pointed out the royal connotations of the color purple (especially purple silk). Another pretty ridiculous speculation is that it had something to do with “purple heart wood,” a reputedly strong wood used at the time in building caissons.
The Badge may even have been professionally designed. Several amateur sources attribute the design, without citation, to Pierre (Peter) L’Enfant, an artist, engineer and companion of Washington’s who later planned the city of Washington, D.C. It seems likely this is a confusion with L’Enfant’s designing of a medal for the Society of the Cincinnatus, a post-war veterans’ group that Washington rather reluctantly headed. Prof. Kenneth Bowling of George Washington University, the only reliable biographer of L’Enfant, told me the Badge-designing tale “may be true,” but that he has never seen any source indicating such a thing.
In any case, the Badge didn’t last long, disappearing after the war to become utterly forgotten. That was at least partly due to American suspicion of medal-wearing, which evoked European monarchy and aristocracy.
Around 1927, Washington’s Badge orders were rediscovered by archivists preparing for the 1932 bicentennial celebration of Washington’s birth. The Army, which had been kicking around the idea of creating a minor merit decoration for about a decade, seized the opportunity to revive the Badge.
The effort stalled until 1931, when the famously pushy Gen. Douglas MacArthur really got the ball rolling on a revived Badge that became known, both in slang and officially, as the Purple Heart. It was indeed activated in 1932, in time for the bicentennial.
(With the richest of irony, that was the same year MacArthur led Army troops against poverty-stricken World War I vets who, much like Washington’s Revolutionary troops, were squatting around Washington, D.C., demanding back pay and a promised bonus that never came; MacArthur burned their huts and drove them out of the city at gunpoint.)
The Purple Heart is a gold-colored heart with purple enamel on the front, over which is a profile bust of Washington. At the top is Washington’s coat of arms, attached to a purple ribbon. Inscribed on the back is, “For Military Merit.”
What that means—besides a tribute to Washington—has changed over the years.
While Washington’s Badge was forgotten, the general idea of merit awards was not. A Certificate of Merit was invented in 1847 for the Mexican-American War and lasted through WWI. The Civil War also saw a profusion of higher merit awards such as the Medal of Honor.
The chevron idea stuck around, too. At the time the Purple Heart was invented, there was a meritorious service chevron soldiers could get for about three months’ overseas, and a “wound chevron” specifically denoting the honor of taking a hit in the line of duty.
Originally, the Purple Heart tied together all of these meanings. It could be (and was) awarded for both meritorious service and combat wounds. (All the aforementioned awards could be exchanged for a Purple Heart; even some Civil War soldiers got retroactive Purple Hearts.)
It was in 1942 that the Purple Heart became a combat-only decoration, the idea being that getting wounded by the enemy is essentially meritorious. (That year, it was also expanded to cover all branches of the military.) Less tangible forms of merit, such as bravery under fire, were pushed onto higher awards like the bronze and silver stars and the Medal of Honor.
Since then, the tendency has been to broaden the reasons for granting the decoration while limiting who can get it. For example, soldiers are now eligible for the Purple Heart if they’re passively wounded in a terrorist attack or while serving as a peacekeeping force. And while regular civilians were eligible for a time under combat and terror situations, they no longer are.