Valor Friday

| July 10, 2020


Major John André- did not receive an award.

Mason sends.

Today I’m going to discuss men who received our nation’s first, and thus highest, honors. I started this article last week before realizing that laying the groundwork for what these medals were and where they fit into the US awards and decorations system required its own article. For the primer, see last week’s article on awards history here; https://valorguardians.com/blog/?p=101734.

The first award presented to American servicemen was the Fidelity Medallion. It was awarded by an act of the Continental Congress in 1780.

Fidelity Medallion

In 1779 Major John André of the British Army became the Adjutant General in America and then took command of the British Secret Service in America, Britain’s intelligence organization. It was under these auspices that André would come to work with American General Benedict Arnold, whom he’d connected with through Arnold’s Tory-sympathizing wife.


General Benedict Arnold

Arnold had become disillusioned with the American cause and negotiated an appointment to the British Army as a brigadier general. His list of grievances were long, but Arnold turned traitor most likely because he was indebted to Congress and had lived a lavish lifestyle he was unable to afford. In exchange for his new generalcy, Arnold was willing to give up his command, the Continental Army’s strategic stronghold at West Point, NY. Arnold had been given the command of West Point as he was one of Washington’s most trusted generals.

September 1780 saw André clandestinely sneak to West Point to meet with Arnold. The ship he’d sailed up the Hudson River on was forced to retreat due to American Militia fire before André was able to return aboard.

André was spirited away through the woods of Upstate New York, provided with civilian clothing, papers in Arnold’s own hand showing how to take the fort, and a passport allowing André passage through American lines. On the morning of September 23rd at about 9am he was nearing Tarrytown, NY, about 30 miles south of West Point.

André came upon three men, one of whom was wearing a Hessian overcoat. The overcoat led him to think that the men were Tories, in other words, on his side. He asked them, “Gentlemen, I hope you belong to our party?” When asked which party that was, André replied “The lower party”, meaning the English. The men told him they were indeed. Unfortunately for André, they were New York Militiamen and played it cool.

It was then that André, wearing civilian clothing, explained he was a British officer carrying vital information and needn’t be delayed. The three men then informed André of their true allegiance and told him he was their prisoner.

The three men, Privates John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart, and David Williams, searched André and found the plans of West Point, though Arnold, one of Washington’s right-hand men, was not immediately suspected. Arnold would eventually escape to British lines and receive his general’s commission. His treachery was worth an annual salary of £360 and a lump sum of £6,000 (equivalent to more than $140,000 today). He led Tory troops against his countrymen (including a massacre very near where he grew up) and eventually retired to London after the war.

André attempted to bribe the American privates with his horse and watch if they would let him loose, but Paulding (the only one of the men who could read) had seen the plans and deduced André was a spy and they brought him in. Arnold’s deception was uncovered. André was tried by a military court and found guilty of espionage and hanged.

Congress recognized Paulding, Van Wart, and Williams with the Fidelity Medallion, the first official award of these United States. The medallion was a silver disc oval in shape. On the front is a heart surrounded by vines and leaves of laurel with the inscription “Fidelity”. On the reverse is “Amor Patriæ Vincit”, which means, “The love of country conquers.”

Only ever awarded to these three men for this single event, it became regarded as a commemorative decoration relatively quickly. It’s probably fair to consider it as similar to the award “The Thanks of Congress” which was a 19th Century award that eventually morphed into the Congressional Gold Medal of present day.

All three Fidelity Medal recipients received an annual pension from Congress in the form of $200 (roughly $5,500 today) and farmsteads from the State of New York. André impugned their character but all three men were celebrated as heroes during their lives and in the decades after.

They would all survive the war and live to 59 (Paulding), 65 (Van Wart), and 77 (Williams) and were lifelong residents of New York. Van Wart’s medal was thought to have been lost, but is in the hands of a descendent in Westchester County, NY. Both Paulding’s and Williams’ medals had been donated in 1905 to the New York Historical Society where they were on display with André’s watch. In 1975 the two medallions and the watch were stolen and have yet to be recovered.


General George Washington

Since the Fidelity Medallion was considered, even shortly after its issuance, as a commemorative decoration, the “first” military award is often considered to be George Washington’s Badge of Military Merit. As with the Fidelity Medallion, it was only ever awarded to enlisted soldiers, a sharp break with European traditions, whose aristocracy looked down on the common man.


George Washington’s Badge of Military Merit

The Badge of Military Merit, a purple colored cloth heart with “Merit” inscribed on it, was created by Washington in 1782 specifically to honor soldiers who displayed “not only instances of unusual gallantry in battle, but also extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way.”

Award of the badge would be done at the highest levels of the Army and only upon written testimony from a soldier’s commanding officers. Recipients would have their names recorded in a “book of merit” to be kept at the orderly office. They would also be entitled to pass any guards or sentinels in the same manner as officers were permitted to pass unchallenged.

Washington’s commitment to his soldiers down to the lowest man is legendary. He describes the Badge of Military Merit in a way that exemplifies that. In the general order creating it, he said “The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all” by not having the award tied to any requirements of rank.

History records at least three men to have received the badge. The first man, Sergeant WIlliam Brown, of the 5th Connecticut Regiment, received the Badge of Military Merit for participation in the Assault on Redoubt 10 during the Siege of Yorktown. No award citation survived to describe what Sgt Brown did during the battle to earn the accolade, but the attack on Redoubt 10 is a well documented American victory. The assault was led by a 26 year old lieutenant colonel whose name will be familiar to most Americans; Alexander Hamilton.

Redoubt 10 was a fortification holding 70 British troops. The Americans attacked the heavily fortified post with about 400 men. Charging with fixed bayonets, they panicked the British, while an American force encircled the outpost, preventing their retreat. The men chopped through the wooden abatis. Men stood on the shoulders of their comrades in the trenches to reach over the revetments and into the enemy.

As they charged forward through heavy British fire and hand grenade attacks, someone near the front emboldened the Yanks and said, “Rush on boys! The fort’s ours!” Despite attacking a defended position, the American forces that Sergeant Brown was among overwhelmed the enemy but suffered only nine killed in the battle and 25 wounded. With this and other redoubts captured, the Siege of Yorktown commenced in earnest. Yorktown became a significant military victory for the Americans and saw the surrender of nearly 7,800 British troops.

After the war, Brown moved to the newly settled town of Cincinnati, where he would remain for the rest of his life. Brown’s badge was thought lost until it was found in a barn in New Hampshire in the 1920s. A badge that’s purported to be Brown’s is on display in New Hampshire, but experts disagree if this is in fact Brown’s or another, undocumented recipient’s.

Elijah Churchill of Connecticut was 20 years old when he enlisted in 1775 as a private with the 8th Connecticut Regiment to participate in the War for Independence. The 8th Connecticut Regiment participated in the American victory of the Siege of Boston in 1775 and the American defeat at the Battle of Long Island the following year.

Churchill re-enlisted for the duration of the war in 1777 as a corporal in the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons. The 2nd Dragoons were one of the more professional, disciplined units of the Continental Army. Rarely employed as a large formation, elements of the 2nd Dragoons served as General Washington’s personal guard (their efficiency of protection foiled at least one British plan to kidnap him) and guarded Major John André after his arrest, during his trial, and eventual execution. The 2nd Dragoons, led by spymaster Major Benjamin Tallmadge, became “Washington’s Eyes” for their ability to intercept British supply lines and to infiltrate British units.

Participating in many of the battles the 2nd Dragoons were involved with, Churchill was cited for gallantry in action at Fort St. George, New York as a newly promoted sergeant in November 1780. Near Tarrytown, NY in July 1781 he was again cited for gallantry in action. He was cited a third time for gallantry at Fort Slongo (or Fort Salonga) on Long Island, NY in October 1781.

With his record of service and combat bravery, it’s no surprise that General Washington selected Elijah Churchill as one of the first two recipients of his new Badge of Military Merit on May 3rd, 1783 (William Brown received the other inaugural award).

After the war, Churchill moved to Massachusetts. He lived there for the rest of his life, until dying in 1841. He and his wife Elinor (m. 1777) had eight children from 1782 to 1798. As was unfortunately all too common at the time, one daughter died shortly after birth, his eldest son died at age 12, and another daughter died at age two. Five of his children survived to adulthood.

Churchill’s descendent, a farmer in Michigan, wrote to the National Temple Hill Association after finding his ancestor’s badge. The badge is now owned by the Association and is on display at New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site.

On June 10th, 1783, the third award of a Badge of Military Merit was made to Daniel Bissell. His contributions to the Revolutionary War were considerable, and his personal bravery is impressive.

He started the war as a corporal, enlisting for the duration, with the 5th Connecticut Regiment in 1776. In September 1777 he was promoted to sergeant and was then with the 2nd Connecticut Regiment. In 1781, under orders from George Washington himself, Bissell posed as a deserter and sent to New York to spy on the British, who occupied the city.

Bissell knew that to get the intelligence Washington required, he’d have to enlist with the British Army. He joined and served for 13 months as a soldier in the British Infantry Corps, this corps being led by the traitor Benedict Arnold.

Memorizing all that he could, Bissell fled the city and returned to Continental lines. Arrested as a deserter, he passed his information to Washington. After verifying his intelligence, Bissell was released. He was able to draw detailed maps of British positions and provided other important information for the American cause.

He was the third verified recipient of the Badge of Military Merit. Bissell’s badge was lost in a house fire in 1813. After the War for Independence he returned to the civilian sector, but took a commission as a first lieutenant in the 16th Infantry Regiment for 15 months during the Quasi-War with France. He died in Richmond, NY in 1824. His tombstone reads, in part, “He had the confidence of Washington and served under him.”

While Washington created the Badge of Military Merit itself and the criteria for award, the idea for a purple cloth heart as the symbol of the badge came to Washington from Bissell. The story goes that Bissell and his future wife were dancing at a formal ball, with Washington in attendance. While dancing, Bissell stepped on the young lady’s purple dress, tearing a piece of fabric off. Picking it up, he folded it into a heart shape and told her to hold onto it. When this anecdote was relayed to Washington, inspiration struck and he chose the unlikely form of a purple heart as his new country’s first military award.

The Badge of Military Merit was likely awarded to more than these three men, but historical records haven’t survived. After the war, the badge was never again awarded, though it remained in the Army’s regulations as an authorized award.

In the 1920s, the Chief of Staff of the US Army  wanted to revive the badge, but the bill sent to Congress regarding it went nowhere. When Douglas MacArthur became Chief of Staff, he restarted the effort. Thus in 1932, the Purple Heart medal was created. It is the official successor decoration to the Badge of Military Merit. It was instituted on the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth. The Purple Heart, as most of you will know, is awarded to receiving wounds in combat. Despite the Purple Heart being awarded for completely different criteria than the Badge that it succeeded, it is officially the successor decoration of the Badge.

Hand Salute. Ready, Two!
Thanks again, Mason.

Category: Guest Post, The Warrior Code, Valor

Comments (17)

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  1. ninja says:

    Mason,

    Thank you for sharing the history of the Fidelity Medallion. Wonderful news that Van Wart’s descendents still have his Fidelity Medal. Sad to read that Paulding’s and William’s medallions as well as Andre’s watch were stolen.

    Also enjoyed reading on the history of the Badge of Military Merit.

    Thank You for taking the time as well as pouring your heart researching all of this and for keeping History ALIVE while others seek to destroy it.

    On a side note: Perhaps I have not had enough coffee this morning, but me thinks the portrait of Benedict Arnold you embedded im your article look a wee bit like Adam Schiff to include the hand gesture and the “facial mask” that is below the brown necktie/hankerchief he is wearing.
    😎😉

    • AW1Ed says:

      I take all blame for edit and graphics errors, as Mason sends his work for me to post. I don’t think I did too badly considering I was chopping on it at 0300L.

      So please send me a ninja blessed pic of Ben and I’ll fix the post.
      *grin*

      • ninja says:

        Ed: Your chosen picture of Benny is PERFECT considering (IMHO) our beloved nation has been oversaturated with Schiff and facial masks in a one year timespan.

        Thank You for a Friday smile. 😎😊

        gabn (please tell me there WILL be an Army/Navy game in 2020. Along with KoB and others, we need to get that Goat).

  2. Fish says:

    Interesting aside, Arnold was a relative, through his mother to one of my direct ancestors. His mother and my ancestor were siblings.

    • ninja says:

      Fish:

      Wow…that is interesting.

      Thank You for sharing that part of your Family tree!

      • Fish says:

        That part of my lineage is traced back to 1640 Plymouth, Mass. Includes a founder of Norwich CT, and a humorous rapscallion who was publicly punished for fornication out of wedlock.

        • Mason says:

          When I was a kid my dad said he’d make me smoke a whole carton if he caught me smoking. Was the punishment for your ancestor similar?

        • Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH B Woodman says:

          “Bailiff, whack his pee-pee”

  3. Pointyhead says:

    I am proud to admit that I am from the county in Georgia that was named after Pvt John Paulding. Back in the early 1800’s the people could recognize a true hero. Paulding county is 30 miles west of Atlanta.

  4. Poetrooper says:

    For those interested, Netflix has a series called TURN that deals with Arnold and Andre. It’s a bit of a soap opera but the inside look at how our history transpired makes it worth watching–for the most part–the melodrama does get a bit tedious.

    • ninja says:

      Poe:

      Thank You for sharing this.

      The ninja family just starting subscribing to Netflix after being burned out on COVID-19, the commercials associated with COVID-19, the riots, the attempted destruction of destroying our Nation’s history by those who probably never took any American or World history course or hard sciences, but still wanted a Bachelors Degree by taking courses such as “The Feminist Movement” or “The Studies of the Beatles Movement and How It Affect The Music Industry”.

      I kid you not.

      Looking forward in watching

      • Mason says:

        It’s a good show. Dramatized of course, but good.

      • Martinjmpr says:

        I concur. TURN is a lot of fun to watch.

        Speaking of Arnold, the wife and I toured West Point in 2015. Part of the tour includes the old chapel. The chapel is filled with plaques that bear the names of all the general officers that served during the War of Independence – all but one:

        There is a plaque that shows the rank of “Major General” but then the name is deliberately blanked out. You can probably guess who’s plaque that was!

  5. 5th/77th FA says:

    Outstanding article Mason, and many Thanks for your efforts. They are muchly appreciated. Too bad that the Blood of the Patriots of Connecticut and Noo Yawk has been watered down so much.

    Battery Gun Salute for these Heroes of the American Revolution…PREPARE…FIRE!!!!!!

    To follow up on Pointyhead’s comment, here’s a linky to the City of Dallas, in Paulding County. There was a Town of Van Wert (Wart) back yonder but it is a footnote now. Paulding County’s website has washed all of the WBTS History from their site, but Dallas was the location of several very bloody battles as ‘Cump and the boys were trying to take Atlanta. The New Hope Church site is still very haunted by the Spirits trapped there. 20-25 years ago as we were trying to save part of the Battlefield from development, Wally World paid off the right County Commissioners to start construction. Trackhoes dug up dump truck loads of that field, including the bodies of men (from both sides) that were killed and buried where they fell. The clandestine videos we shot of that help force the State General Assembly to finally try to protect these sites.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dallas,_Georgia

  6. Andy11M says:

    What kind of a turd breaks into a state historical society and steals three incredibly unique items? 40+ years on and no sign of them, I guess they are lost forever.

  7. Charles says:

    QUOTE: “André was tried by a military court and found guilty of espionage and hanged.”

    LESSON ONE: Why can’t our military courts at Guantanamo Bay be as efficient.

    LESSON TWO: When engaged in E & E, consider keeping one article of military uniform handy, perhaps a hat, to claim prisoner of war status when capture is imminent and unavoidable. (A lesson taught to the U-Boat borne saboteurs put ashore in New Jersey during WWII. An interesting twist under the Laws of War).

    LESSON THREE: General George Washington later expressed regret that he had not granted Major Andre’s request to be shot as a soldier, instead of hung as a spy. “Alas, said Andre, it will be but a momentary pang.”
    Since the wagon he was standing on was driven away from under his feet with the noose around his neck, it was not a clean neck-breaking trapdoor fall, I doubt it was “a momentary pang.”

    LESSON FOUR: Where was he first buried, where was he reburied?

    LESSON FIVE: That’s what happens when staff officer turns operator :).

    • Mason says:

      Andre was buried here, under the gallows from which he was hung (essentially discarding his remains). His remains ended up back in Britain after the war. He was buried with Kings at Westminster Abbey.

      One thing that’s very interesting in reading about Andre is the way he was treated after his arrest. He was still treated as an officer and fed from Washington’s own plate. He was surprised at the gentlemanly conduct the Yanks showed to their captor.

      He wanted to be shot, as befitting a soldier, which I can respect. This first hand account of his death is an amazing read;

      October 2d.– Major André is no more among the living. I have just witnessed his exit. It was a tragical scene of the deepest interest. During his confinement and trial, he exhibited those proud and elevated sensibilities which designate greatness and dignity of mind. Not a murmur or a sigh ever escaped him, and the civilities and attentions bestowed on him were politely acknowledged. Having left a mother and two sisters in England, he was heard to mention them in terms of the tenderest affection, and in his letter to Sir Henry Clinton, he recommended them to his particular attention. The principal guard officer, who was constantly in the room with the prisoner, relates that when the hour of execution was announced to him in the morning, he received it without emotion, and while all present were affected with silent gloom, he retained a firm countenance, with calmness and composure of mind. Observing his servant enter the room in tears, he exclaimed, “Leave me till you can show yourself more manly!” His breakfast being sent to him from the table of General Washington, which had been done every day of his confinement, he partook of it as usual, and having shaved and dressed himself, he placed his hat upon the table, and cheerfully said to the guard officers, “I am ready at any moment, gentlemen, to wait on you.” The fatal hour having arrived, a large detachment of troops was paraded, and an immense concourse of people assembled; almost all our general and field officers, excepting his excellency and staff, were present on horseback; melancholy and gloom pervaded all ranks, and the scene was affectingly awful. I was so near during the solemn march to the fatal spot, as to observe every movement, and participate in every emotion which the melancholy scene was calculated to produce.

      Major André walked from the stone house, in which he had been confined, between two of our subaltern officers, arm in arm; the eyes of the immense multitude were fixed on him, who, rising superior to the fears of death, appeared as if conscious of the dignified deportment which he displayed. He betrayed no want of fortitude, but retained a complacent smile on his countenance, and politely bowed to several gentlemen whom he knew, which was respectfully returned. It was his earnest desire to be shot, as being the mode of death most conformable to the feelings of a military man, and he had indulged the hope that his request would be granted. At the moment, therefore, when suddenly he came in view of the gallows, he involuntarily started backward, and made a pause. “Why this emotion, sir?” said an officer by his side. Instantly recovering his composure, he said, “I am reconciled to my death, but I detest the mode.” While waiting and standing near the gallows, I observed some degree of trepidation; placing his foot on a stone, and rolling it over and choking in his throat, as if attempting to swallow. So soon, however, as he perceived that things were in readiness, he stepped quickly into the wagon, and at this moment he appeared to shrink, but instantly elevating his head with firmness he said, “It will be but a momentary pang,” and taking from his pocket two white handkerchiefs, the provost-marshal, with one, loosely pinioned his arms, and with the other, the victim, after taking off his hat and stock, bandaged his own eyes with perfect firmness, which melted the hearts and moistened the cheeks, not only of his servant, but of the throng of spectators. The rope being appended to the gallows, he slipped the noose over his head and adjusted it to his neck, without the assistance of the awkward executioner. Colonel Scammel now informed him that he had an opportunity to speak, if he desired it; he raised the handkerchief from his eyes, and said, “I pray you to bear me witness that I meet my fate like a brave man.” The wagon being now removed from under him, he was suspended, and instantly expired; it proved indeed “but a momentary pang.” He was dressed in his royal regimentals and boots, and his remains, in the same dress, were placed in an ordinary coffin, and interred at the foot of the gallows; and the spot was consecrated by the tears of thousands…

      – Dr. James Thatcher, surgeon in the Continental Army