Today in 1862, a Congressional resolution providing for a Medal of Honor was signed into law. It was and remains the highest decoration awarded to military personnel in the service of the United States. In it's most current form, the Medal of Honor is bestowed upon a service member who distinguishes himself or herself "…conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his/her life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States…"
It was George Washington who first put into practice the recognition of individual gallantry among American soldiers by awarding the Badge of Military Merit. After the Revolutionary War, however, this award faded into obscurity and it was not until the Mexican-American War in 1847 that another award was created for soldiers who showed bravery and sacrifice on the battlefield. What began as the Certificate of Merit was later made into a medal, appropriately named the Certificate of Merit Medal. Once again, the end of the war meant the end of the medal. A little over a decade later, the United States found herself in the midst of another war, a conflagration more costly than those which she had fought in before or since: the Civil War.
General Winfield Scott, whose long Army career was coming to an end as the Civil War began, was against the idea of a medal for individual valor. The Navy, however, supported the plan and the Navy Medal of Valor was approved by President Lincoln in December, 1861. General Scott resigned his position as Commanding General of the United States Army in November, 1861, thus removing any opposition in the Army for the medal. On July 12, 1862, the Medal of Honor came into being for the Army, with the Navy Medal of Valor soon taking the name as well. The medal was, at first, only awarded to enlisted men; Army officers were included in 1891 and Navy officers, including Marines, in 1915.
More Medals of Honor were awarded during the Civil War than any other war in which Americans have fought. One of the reasons is because, at that time, there was no other authorized military award for bravery. As a result, Medals of Honor were issued for actions that today seem less notable. Another reason for the high number of medals presented is outright abuse of the honor. For example, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton promised a Medal of Honor to every man in the 27th Regiment, Maine Infantry who extended his enlistment beyond the agreed upon date. Many stayed only four days extra. Stanton awarded a Medal of Honor to all 864 men in the regiment.
In order to maintain the validity and honor associated with the Medal of Honor, the Army convened a board of five generals in 1916 to review every Army Medal of Honor ever awarded. The reviews were blunt; in the end, the Army rescinded 911 medals, including one to Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, a woman and a civilian, and Buffalo Bill Cody. It also rescinded all 864 medals given to the 27th Maine and the 29 given to the men who served as Abraham Lincoln's funeral guard. Dr. Walker's medal was restored to her posthumously in 1977, even though the medal was intended for military members only. Buffalo Bill Cody's award was reinstated in 1989 because, even though he was a civilian at the time of his actions, he was in the employ of the Army and was a veteran.
After the Civil War and until the beginning of the United States' involvement in the Second World War, the Medal of Honor was awarded for peacetime acts of bravery as well as actions during wartime. The Navy even went so far as to issue two different versions of the medal to distinguish between peacetime and wartime awards. This practice stopped in 1942. Since that date, the Medal of Honor has only been awarded for extreme bravery beyond the call of duty while engaged in combat against a known enemy. As a result, more than 60% of the medals issued between 1942 and the present day have been awarded posthumously. In the past 65 years, only one man has been awarded the Medal of Honor for actions not taken in the face of the enemy. This was Commander William McGonagle, captain of the USS Liberty which was attacked by Israeli forces on June 8, 1967. Israel was and is an ally of the United States and the attack was ruled a friendly fire accident. McGonagle's medal was awarded at the Washington Navy Yard by the Secretary of the Navy in a closed ceremony. Normally, the award is presented by the President.
Recent studies by the various branches of the Armed Forces have shown that racial discrimination played a role in who received a Medal of Honor. As a result, in 1997 President Bill Clinton awarded seven of the medals to Americans of African descent who served during the Second World War. In 2000, he awarded 21 Medals of Honor to Americans of Japanese descent who served during that war. In 2005, President George W. Bush awarded the medal to Tibor Rubin, a Jewish Korean War veteran who was overlooked because of the anti-semtic beliefs of one of his superiors.
All told, 3,463 Medals of Honor have been awarded to 3,444 people; 19 men have received the award twice. There have been nine medals awarded under classified circumstances, presumably to Special Forces operatives. The most recent recipient of the medal is retired Lt. Col. Bruce Crandall, for his actions in Viet Nam in 1965 while serving as an Army helicopter pilot. Crandall's exploits are shown in the film 'We Were Soldiers', in which he is portrayed by actor Greg Kinnear.
Two Medals of Honor have been awarded during the war in Iraq, both posthumously.