Although it ranks seventeenth in the order of precedence of U.S. military medals, the Purple Heart has the official distinction of being the oldest military award to still be issued. Established by General George Washington in a General Order issued August 7, 1782 from his headquarters at Newburg-on-the-Hudson in New York, the award originally had no name. Washington simply described it as “the figure of a heart in purple cloth, or silk, edged with narrow lace or binding,” and specified that it was to be issued in recognition of “any singularly meritorious action,” as well as “extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way.”
Remarkably, Executive Orders outlining award guidelines for the Purple Heart have referred to its original title as the “Honorary Badge of Distinction,” but this was clearly a different award issued to non-commissioned officers and enlisted soldiers in two degrees—one for three years of service, another for six or more—that Washington also established in his 1782 General Order.
Those same Executive Orders, along with entries on the Purple Heart at The Institute of Heraldry, also call it the Badge of Military Merit, but that phrase seems to have been crafted out of Washington’s reason for establishing the award: “to foster and encourage every species of Military merit.” Nonetheless, this title accurately reflects the actual design seen in the only remaining award from that era—a purple, heart-shaped embroidery emblazoned with the word “MERIT” encircled by laurel leaves—and serves as a handy reference to the honorific. (The only other known original badge did not have this inscription). Just three soldiers earned Washington’s Badge of Military Merit; all three were Sergeants and received their awards in 1783.
The Badge of Military Merit was never officially disestablished or abolished following the Revolutionary War, but it also was never awarded again under that title. According to the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, the idea of “reviving” the honor—or at least establishing some type of merit-based award—was first advocated in 1918 by General John J. Pershing; in October, 1927, Army Chief of Staff General Charles Summerall helped introduce a bill in Congress to bring back the Badge, but it was withdrawn just a few months later.
Summerall’s successor, General Douglas Macarthur, began work behind the scenes to re-establish the award in 1931. On February 22, 1932—the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth—the award was reintroduced as the Purple Heart in the War Department’s General Orders No. 3. The orders specified that the medal was to be awarded in the name of the President upon request to soldiers who previously been awarded the Meritorious Service Citation Certificate or who had been authorized to wear wound chevrons after April 5, 1917, the day before the U.S. declared war on Germany and entered World War I. The first recipient of the newly named Purple Heart was Macarthur himself.
Since that time, several Executive Orders (Eos) have modified the qualifications for the awarding of the Purple Heart. These include EO 9277 extending the award to all branches of the military, EO 10409 authorizing posthumous awards of the medal, and EO 12464 designating that personnel wounded or killed due to acts of terror or while serving in a peacekeeping force were eligible. Other changes include awarding the medal to POWs who die in captivity (DoD memo, 2008) and those who suffer wounds or death due to friendly fire (U.S. Code, Title 10, Section 1129).
Broadly speaking, the Purple Heart is awarded U.S. military personnel wounded or killed while serving, but there are a variety of conditions that must be met before the application for the award is approved. The guidelines for Purple Heart entitlement and eligibility are found in Army Regulation 600–8–22, Military Awards, and 670-1, Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia; Department of the Army Pamphlet 670–1; and the Department of Defense’s Manual of Military Decorations and Awards (Volumes 1-3).