On August 7, 1782, in Newburgh, New York, General George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, created the “Badge for Military Merit”, a decoration composed of a piece of purple silk in the shape of a heart, bordered in a narrow silver binding, with the word Deserved sewn on the face in silver.
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The badge was to be presented to soldiers for “any singularly meritorious deed” and allowed its wearer to pass guards and sentries without challenge. The honored person’s name and regiment also had to be entered in a “Book of Merit”.
Washington’s “Purple Heart” was only awarded to three well-known soldiers during the Revolutionary War: Elijah Churchill, William Brown and Daniel Bissell, Jr. The “Book of Merit” was lost and the decoration was largely forgotten until 1927, when General Charles P Summerall, the Chief of Staff of the United States Army, sent an unsuccessful bill to Congress to “revive the badge of military merit.”
In 1931, Summerall’s successor, General Douglas MacArthur, took up the cause, hoping to re-establish the medal in time for the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth. On February 22, 1932, Washington’s 200th anniversary, the US Department of War announced the creation of the “Order of the Purple Heart.”
In addition to aspects of the original Washington design, the new Purple Heart also displays a bust of Washington and his coat of arms. The Order of the Purple Heart, America’s oldest military decoration for military merit, is awarded to members of the United States armed forces who have been killed or wounded in action against an enemy. It is also awarded to soldiers who have suffered ill-treatment as prisoners of war.