History of the Purple Heart

The Purple Heart is one of the most recognizable and well-known decorations that can be awarded to a U.S. military service member. While the Purple Heart was formally introduced in its current form in 1932, the history of the medal dates all the way back to George Washington’s time as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. General Washington established what was then-known as the Badge of Military Merit on August 7, 1782, during his general orders to the Continental Army at the Headquarters in Newburgh. The purpose of the Badge of Military Merit was to recognize “instances of unusual gallantry in battle, but also extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way.” General Washington presented the Badge of Military Merit to 3 soldiers. 

Over the years, lore of the award grew, but it was never presented beyond those 3 soldiers. The award was neither abolished, nor was awarding it to any service member proposed. That all changed in 1932, when the Purple Heart was formally established. Army General Douglas MacArthur spearheaded the campaign to revive and update the medal, especially on the heels of the bicentennial of George Washington’s birthday. With that in mind and Washington’s crucial part in creating the Badge of Military Merit, the Purple Heart was designed with the profile of Washington on it. 

At the time of the redesign and renaming, the Purple Heart was designated as a combat decoration, meant to recognize commendable action by soldiers, as well as those who were killed or wounded in combat. However, that connection to the Badge of Military Merit disappeared in 1944, when the Purple Heart’s qualifications changed to only qualify those who were wounded or killed in enemy action. 

Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur also became the first service member who received the modern-day Purple Heart. A host of well-known names have also received the Purple Heart for their service, including actors Charles Bronson and James Garner, writers Kurt Vonnegut and Oliver Stone, athletes Warren Spahn and Pat Tillman, and politicians John Kerry, John McCain, Colin Powell, and Tammy Duckworth. There have even been a few military animals who have been given the Purple Heart, including Sergeant Stubby the dog, and Sergeant Reckless the horse. In addition, there are a host of soldiers who have been awarded multiple Purple Hearts. Currently, the most Purple Hearts awarded to a service member stands at 10, with 3 service members each having been awarded 10. 

Though there isn’t an approximate count of Purple Hearts given, there are estimates. As it stands, estimates put the total number of Purple Heart medals given to be around 1.9 million. The largest quantity of Purple Hearts given out during a conflict was World War II, when over one million were given. Following WWII is the Vietnam War, World War I, the Korean War, the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War, and finally the Persian Gulf War, where less than 1,000 were given. Though the Purple Heart is not a rare medal to encounter, the service it takes to receive one is not something that you see everyday.


Posted on August 5 2019 in Blog

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