detail of a Medal of Honor ribbon

Medal of Honor

Since its establishment during the Civil War, the Medal of Honor has become the nation’s highest award for valor in combat.

The medal recognizes individual gallantry at the risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty. It is customarily presented by the president of the United States in the name of the Congress. Established in 1861, it has been granted to fewer than 3,500 servicemen.

The Medal of Honor is the only American military decoration worn around the neck rather than pinned to the uniform.

Each of the three principal services has a unique design for its medal. The army and navy awards center on the figure of Minerva, Roman goddess of war and wisdom. The air force award features the head of the Statue of Liberty.

The look of today’s navy medal is closest to the original medals of the Civil War era; the other two have 20th-century designs. The neck ribbon for all medals includes 13 stars, symbolizing the thirteen original states of the Union.

The Meaning of the Medal of Honor has evolved since its establishment during the Civil War.


History of the Medal of Honor

Created in 1861 to ‘Promote the efficiency of the Navy,” the Medal of Honor now ranks as the highest award any service member can receive for valor in combat.

In the early days of the Civil War, Congress established the Medal of Honor first for the navy and then for the army. Criteria for the award were lax and nominations required little review. More than 2,400 medals were eventually granted for Civil War service, although more than 900 of them were later revoked.

By the early 20th century, requirements were more stringent. Between 1918 and 1963, the medal was restricted to well-documented and carefully reviewed acts of distinguished service. In 1963, a further provision limited the award to heroism in combat.


Related Artifacts