Published: September 14, 2004
A special exhibition titled “Gallantry … Above and Beyond The Call of Duty” is on display in a small room just off of the main foyer of the West Point Museum. While the room and the display may be diminutive in size, the contents and the meaning behind the exhibition are anything but.
On view, for example, is the first Medal of Honor ever presented to an American soldier.
Prior to the Civil War, there was not yet in place a system or medal for honoring soldiers for their acts of gallantry. George Washington was the first to be awarded a gold medal for valiant duty in 1776 by Congress. Others followed from the Revolutionary War. Washington then created a cloth badge called the Badge of Military Merit in 1782, ultimately presented to three enlisted soldiers. During the Mexican War, honorary ranks were given to officers, while enlisted men received a Certificate of Merit and a small cash bonus for their deeds of honor.
A resolution calling for a “medal of honor” for United States Army enlisted men who distinguished themselves “by their gallantry in action” became law in 1862. The first Medals of Honor presented by the Army went to survivors of the Andrews Raid, a raid conducted behind enemy lines to disrupt the Confederate railroads. The first Medal of Honor to be presented was awarded to Private Jacob Parrott in March 1863. This medal, having recently been donated to the West Point Museum by a descendant, Mary Parrott Frackleton, is the high point of the exhibition.
Some 1,200 Medals of Honor were given out during the Civil War; 23 went to graduates of West Point.
Imitation, sometimes the purest form of flattery, resulted in design changes for the medal in 1896. It was redesigned twice thereafter, once in 1909 and again in 1944, resulting in its current configuration.
Not only was the medal redefined, but so were the qualifications for those who received one. Since the Civil War, slightly more than 1,300 additional medals have been awarded, the numbers presented to West Point graduates now stands at 75.
Also on view are other Medals of Honor presented to graduates of West Point, along with numerous other medals and decorations received by them, including Alexander Stuart Webb, 1855; Guy Vernon Henry, 1861; Charles H. Tompkins, 1851; and John Porter Hatch, 1845.
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