Revolutionary War Historical Article

Medals and Awards of The Revolution

by Donald N. Moran

Editor's Note: Published by Permission From the SAR Headquarters Dispatch

The “GI Joe” and officers alike who served in the Revolutionary War were recognized for their valor with a variety of special decorations, as revealed in this enlightening account by Compatriot Donald Norman Moran.

It is not surprising that the first awards for valor presented to the common soldier were presented here in America. It had been a European practice to honor high-ranking officers who achieved a victory, but the thought of presenting medals or badges to the common soldier for courage or extraordinary service never occurred to the aristocracy.

Three New York militiamen were patrolling north of Tarrytown in an attempt to intercept Tories driving cattle to the British in New York. They were John Paulding (1), Isaac Van Wart (2) and David Williams (3). These three captured Major John Andre, Deputy Adjutant General of the British Forces in New York, who was returning from a clandestine meeting with Benedict Arnold. Andre tried every possible method to convince the Americans that he was on official business and then attempted to bribe them.

During Andre's trial, the amount of the bribe was mentioned as being 1,000 guineas (approximately $5,000 in hard currency). The militiamen refused the offer and turned him over to the authorities. Major Andre was tried, convicted of spying and was hanged at Tappen, New York. Best describing the patriotism of these three Americans is the inscription on the monument dedicated on June 11th, 1829 in the Presbyterian Cemetery at Greenburgh, New York to Isaac Van Wart: "Fidelity. On the 23d of September 1780, Isaac Van Wart, accompanied by John Paulding and David Williams, all farmers of the county of West Chester, intercepted Major Andre, on his return from the American Lines in the character of a spy, and, notwithstanding the large bribes offered them for his release, nobly disdained to sacrifice their Country for gold, secured and carried him to the Commanding Officer of the district, whereby the dangerous and traitorous conspiracy of Arnold was brought to light, the insidious designs of the enemy baffled, the American Army saved, and our beloved country free."

The medals (4) and copies of the Congressional resolution were presented in an impressive ceremony at the Army's headquarters by General Washington. The Commander-in-Chief also presented each of the trio with a brace of silver-mounted pistols. As far as is known, this was the first time a common soldier was awarded a medal! However, it should be noted that this medal commemorated a specific event, and was never intended to be a general award for valor or service.


Two years later, on August 7th, 1782, General George Washington issued orders establishing two decorations. He had long recognized the need to award those soldiers who distinguished themselves in honorable service and in combat. To that end he created these awards. As far as is known, these were the first decorations awarded to the common soldier on a regular basis. The first was the "BADGE OF DISTINCTION" and consisted of a strip of white cloth sewn above the left cuff of the soldier's regimental coat. The soldier received one strip for each three years of service. Today, 212 years later, this tradition is still practiced in the United States Armed Forces. We know them as hash marks.

The second award, “THE MILITARY BADGE OF MERIT”, was created to reward both soldiers and officers for “Singularly meritorious service, instances of unusual gallantry and extraordinary fidelity and faithful service”. General George Washington designed the award personally, specifying that it be “the figure of a heart in purple cloth, or silk, edged with narrow lace or binding”. It was worn on the left breast.

Those soldiers so decorated would have their names entered in the army's special "Book of Merit" (5) and soldiers wearing this decoration, regardless of rank, were permitted to pass all sentinels and receive salutes as if they were officers. In today's military, such honors are reserved for the famed Medal of Honor.

Eight months after the Badge of Merit was authorized, not a single one had been presented. Most of the officers asked about this explained that they had been too busy to write up the recommendations. It goes without saying that General Washington refused to accept their excuses. A week later, April 17th, a specially created Board of Officers convened at the New Windsor Encampment and selected two enlisted soldiers of the Connecticut Continental Line to be the first recipients. These were the first decorations awarded to the common soldiers.

The first recipient of the Badge of Merit was Sergeant Elijah Churchill of the 2nd Regiment of Light Dragoons and the second selected was Sergeant William Brown of the Fifth Regiment of Foot. The award ceremony took place on May 3rd, 1783 at Washington's Headquarters at Newburgh, with the 1st New York Regiment, the Commander-in-Chief Guard and other units in attendance. This presentation is beautifully illustrated by H. Charles McBarron's 1974 painting shown below.


The Board met a second time and awarded the Badge to Sergeant Daniel Bissell. The official record of his being honored is intentionally vague: " Sergeant Bissell of the 2d Connecticut Regt. having performed some important services within the immediate knowledge of the Commander-in-Chief in which the fidelity, perseverance and good sense of said Segt. Bissell were conspicuously manifested, it is therefore ordered that he be honored with the Badge of Merit".

After the war, when possible retaliation was no longer a threat, the full and incredible story of Sergeant Bissell's exploits was made known. He had volunteered to spy on the British Army in New York City. In August of 1781, when Washington was seriously considering an attack on the city, Sergeant Bissell, then 28 years old, dressed in civilian clothes and slipped into the city. After nearly a year, and now in the service of Benedict Arnold's Loyalist Regiment, he slipped away and was promptly captured by the American forces surrounding the city. In chains he was taken to Newburgh where General Washington personally vouched for him. From memory he drew maps of all of the fortifications and troop deployment on Manhattan and Staten Island — information vital to Washington.

The reason for the deliberate vagueness in his citation was the possibility of his being captured by the British; written evidence of his having been a spy would surely gain him the hangman's noose. Sergeant Bissell left the army and moved to Richmond, New York where he lived out his life. His tombstone in Allen's Hill Cemetery near Canandaigua, New York, reads: "In the memory of Daniel Bissell - Died August 5, 1824, Aged 79 years — He had the confidence of Washington and Served under him".


Sergeant Brown won his Badge of Merit at Yorktown; he was of the 5th Regiment of Foot, Connecticut Continental Line. In the late night attack on British redoubt Number 10, he led the "Forlorn Hope". This group of volunteers was comprised of Sappers and Pioneers, armed with their traditional military weapons and heavy axes. Their suicidal assignment was to move in advance of the attacking force and chop a hole in the abatis (sharpened stakes pointing away from the fortifications designed to keep attackers from scaling the walls of the redoubt (the Revolutionary War equivalent of barbed wire). Their title, "Forlorn Hope", was most appropriate as none of the members expected to survive the attack.

When Sergeant Brown's detachment arrived at the British fortification, Brown decided to push ahead of his men, climb over the abatis and attack the enemy in the redoubt with his unloaded musket and bayonet. The American infantry followed his lead and the redoubt fell with a minimum of American casualties. There is also reason to believe that he was presented a bronze plaque commemorating his gallantry, but that is strictly family tradition.

Sergeant Brown, as adventurous as ever, moved to the frontier and finally homesteaded a farm near present day Cincinnati. He lived there until his death in 1808.


Sergeant Churchill, 2nd Continental Light Dragoons, earned his Badge of Merit by leading two incredible raids. The first was against Fort George on Long Island, an important British supply depot. Fort George was defended by three wooden block houses, linked together by a substantial, 12-foot-high log stockade all surrounded by a deep ditch filled with sharpened stakes (abatis). On November 23rd, 1780 at 4:00 a.m. under the command of Major Benjamin Tallmadge, Sergeant Churchill led a charge against the main block house and fort gates. Completely surprised, the fort fell within minutes. Three hundred tons of hay for the British horses were destroyed and 54 British regulars were captured. Sergeant Churchill then fought a rear guard action with his detachment and allowed the main raiding party to escape. He and his men safely followed.

The second raid was on October 10th, 1781. While General Washington and the main army were besieging Lord Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Major Lemuel Trescott led a 150-man raid against the British Fort Slongo at Treadwell's Neck, also on Long Island. Sergeant Churchill was the senior non-commissioned officer. He and his fellow Connecticut Light Dragoons wreaked havoc on the British fort. Here again, Elijah Churchill led the surprise attack, storming the fort and capturing the entire garrison. When the American forces returned to the mainland, they brought numerous prisoners and a great deal of military stores with them.

This and the other raids helped to convince General Sir Henry Clinton, British Commander-in-Chief, not to deplete his own forces in an attempt to rescue Lord Cornwallis trapped in Virginia, or take the offensive in the New York area in hopes of forcing Washington to send part of his army north, thereby taking the pressure off Cornwallis. Cornwallis was abandoned to his fate; that decision sealed the doom of British control over North America.

The Certificate that accompanied the Badge of Merit received by Sergeant Churchill has survived. It reads: "Certificate for the Badge of Military Merit granted to Sergeant Churchill, 2d Light Dragoons to Sergeant Brown, 5th Connect. to Sergeant Bissell, 2nd Con. R. [ Connecticut Regiment].

It hath ever been an established maxim in the American Service that the Road to Glory was open to All, that Honorary Rewards and Distinctions were the greatest stimuli to virtuous actions, and that Distinguished Merit should not pass unnoticed or unrewarded; and; whereas a Board of Officers... having reported.... Now, therefore, Know Ye, That the aforesaid Sergeant Elijah Churchill hath faithfully and truly deserved, and hath been properly invested with the Honorary Badge of Military Merit, and is authorized to pass and repass all guards and Military Posts as fully and amply as any commissioned officers whatsoever, and is Hereby further recommended to that favorable Notice which a Brave and Faithful soldier deserves from his Countrymen."

In June, peace having been won, the army started to disband. All that remained to be done was the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Sergeant Churchill went home to Chester, Massachusetts to a waiting wife and lived there until his death on April 11th, 1841.


What happened to these historic decorations? Sergeant Bissell's Badge of Merit was lost when a fire destroyed his home in July of 1813. Sergeant Brown's Badge of Merit had been cherished by succeeding generations, but in 1924, his descendant, Bishop Paul Matthews of the Diocese of New Jersey reported it had disappeared (stolen?) from his home in Princeton. It was never recovered.

H. E. Johnson of Michigan, a great grandson of Sergeant Elijah Churchill had carefully preserved his ancestor's Badge of Merit. He contacted the National Temple Hill Association, which was restoring the New Windsor Cantonment, and offered them the badge for display in their planned museum. It was accepted and is now displayed in their museum and depicted herein courtesy of E. Jane Townsend of the New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site, Palisade Region, New York Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

As mentioned above, the Badge of Military Merit was awarded for actions "above and beyond" and is often compared to the present day "Purple Heart Medal". The Purple Heart takes its physical design from the Revolutionary War; it was established on the bicentennial of George Washington's birth, February 22, 1932.

However, the Badge of Military Merit is best compared to today's Medal of Honor. The exploits of these three recipients underscore that comparison.

It has always been a practice of all levels of governments to award their heroes. In Europe various "orders of Chivalry" have existed since ancient times. In the 18th century those awards still existed, but generally were reserved for the aristocracy. For the lesser known, the most common were of a promotional or monetary nature; decorative swords were favored and braces of pistols were commonplace. There is evidence that some of our senior officers who were recipients of such awards, including General Washington, often bestowed these honors on a subordinate.

On at least 11 occasions the Continental Congress authorized and had made medals that have come to be known as "Congressional Medals". These were not worn but were strictly decorative. Benson J. Lossing, the noted 19th century historian of the American Revolution included illustrated narratives on all 11 Congressional Medals. Those engravings are depicted below.


Lt. Col. Fleury (1749- ?) was one of the valiant French volunteers who arrived here shortly after the war started. He served the American cause well and on September 13th, 1777 he was the subject of a Congressional Resolution praising him for his gallantry during the Battle of Brandywine and giving him a horse to replace the one that was shot out from under him. He was one of the three officers honored with Congressional Medals for their extraordinary conduct at the Battle of Stony Point. He returned to France shortly thereafter.

His medal has as a devise a helmeted soldier standing against a destroyed fort. In his right hand he holds a sword, and in his left hand he holds a flag. The legend reads: "Virtutis Et Audaclae Monum Et Praemium. D. D. Fleury Equiti Gallo Primo Muros Resp. —A memorial and reward of valor and daring. The American Republic has bestowed on Colonel D. de Fleury a native of France, the first over the walls." On the reverse are two three-gun artillery battery, a fort on a hill and in front six ships of the line before the fort. The legend "Pt. Expung. , XI Jul.. MDCCLXXIX. — Stony Point stormed, 15th of Jul 1779".

In April 1850 a medal identical to this one was found by a boy at Princeton, New Jersey. Congress had been in session in Princeton and perhaps the "first" medal was lost. Andre Lasseray in his Les Francais sous les treize etoiles 1775-1783 says that four years later Benjamin Franklin had a medal made by Benjamin Duvivier, of Paris, and sent it to Fleury with a letter dated 15 August 1783.


Congress awarded a medal to Major General Horatio Gates for his victory at Saratoga. The front of the medal has a profile of Gates and a legend that reads:" Horatio Gates Duci Strnuo Comitia Americana — The American Congress to Horatio Gates, the valiant leader."

On the reverse side, a depiction of British General Burgoyne surrendering his sword to Gates. Behind them is the British army laying down their arms, while the American army watches. The inscription reads "Salis Regionus Septentrional " a paraphrased translation: "Safety of the northern region or department" and below the illustration is the inscription "Hoste Ad Saratogam In Dedition, Accepto Die XVII Oct. MDCCLCCVII — Enemy at Saratoga surrendered October 17th, 1777".



The medal presented to Major General Nathaneal Greene was for his victory at Eutaw Springs. On the front is a portrait of General Greene, in profile. the legend reads: "Nathanieli Greene Egregio Duci Comitia Americana — The American Congress to Nathaniel Greene, the distinguished leader".

On the reverse side is the figure of Victory landing on earth, and stepping upon broken weapons and a shield. The inscription reads: "Salus Regionum Australium — The Safety of the Southern Department," and the exergue reads: "Hostibus Ad Eutaw Debellatis Vlll Sept. MDCCLXXXI — The Foe conquered at Eutaw, 8th of September 1781".


Lt. Col. Howard (1752-1827) was awarded a Congressional Medal for his heroic actions during the Battle of Cowpens.

The medal depicts a mounted officer with sword in hand in pursuit of a fleeing enemy with victory descending in the background. It is inscribed: "John Eager Howard, Legionis Peditum Praefecto ComitiaAmericana—The American Congress to John Eager Howard, Commander of a regiment of Infantry". The reverse is inscribed: " Quod In Nutantem Hostium Aciem Subito Irruens, Praeclarum Bellicae Virtutis Specimen Dedit In Pugna. A.D. Cowpens, 17th January 1781 — Because, rushing suddenly on the wavering line of the foe, he gave a brilliant specimen of martial courage at the battle of Cowpens, January 17th 1781."


The front of the Congressional Medal presented to Commodore Jones (1747-1792) has a relief of him, said to be an excellent likeness, and the inscription: " JOHANNI PAULO JONES, CLASSIS PRAEFECTO COMITIA Americana —The American Congress to John Paul Jones, Commander of the Fleet".

On the reverse a naval battle is depicted with the words: " Hostium Nauibus Captis Aut Fugatis Ad Orum Scotia XXIII Sept. MDCCLXXVIII — The ships of the enemy having been captured on the coast of Scotland, 23 September 1779".


Congress awarded Col. Henry Lee a medal for his victory at Paulus's Hook. On the front of the medal is a profile engraving of Col. Lee.

The legend reads: "Henrico Lee Legionis Equit. Praetec. Comitia Americana —The American Congress to Henry Lee, Colonel of Cavalry”. On the reverse is inscribed within a wreath the legend: “ Non Obstantib Flumunubus Vallis Astutia Virtute Bellica Parva Manu Hostes Vicit Victosq. Arms Humanitate Devinxit In Mem Pugn, Ad Paulus Hook Die XIX Aug. 1779 — Notwithstanding rivers and intrenchments, he with a small band conquered the foe by warlike skill and prowess, and firmly bound by his humanity those who had been conquered by his arms. In memory of the conflict at Paulus Hook, Nineteenth of August 1779".


The Congressional medal presented to General Morgan (1736-1802) was for his extraordinary leadership and tactics he employed at the Battle of Cowpens. The victory he attained in that engagement was the precursor of the final battle, Yorktown. The medal has the following devises and inscriptions: An Indian queen with a quiver on her back, crowning an officer with a laurel wreath; his hand is resting upon his sword.

In the background is a variety of military equipment. The inscription reads: "Daniel Morgan. Duce Exercitus Comitia Americana — The American Congress to General Daniel Morgan". On the reverse side: A mounted officer leading his troops in a charge against a fleeing enemy. In the foreground, hand-to-hand combat between a dismounted dragoon and a foot soldier. In the background a fierce battle. The inscription reads: "Victoria Libertatis Vindex —Victory, the protector of Liberty". On the bottom: "Fugatis, Caper Aut Caesis Ad Cowpens, Hostibus, 17th January 1781 — The foe put to flight, taken or slain, at Cowpens, January 17th, 1781".


On the front is an Indian Princess (representing America ) presenting a palm branch to Major Stewart. Her left hand is resting on the American Shield. The legend reads: "Joanni Stewart Cohortis Praefecto, Comitia Americana — The American Congress to Major John Stewart".

On the reverse side is a fortress. In the foreground an American Officer cheering on his men who are following him over the enemy's abatis. The inscription reads: " Stony Point Oppugnatu, XV Jul. MDCCLXXIX — Stony Point attacked 15th of July 1779". Major Stewart was one of the key officers in the attack on Stony Point and was awarded this medal for said gallantry.


The medal presented to General Washington was for his victory over the British in Boston. The front of the medal depicts General Washington, in profile, and the legend says: "Georgio Washington, Supremo Duct Exercituum Adsertori Libertatis Comitia Americana — The American Congress to George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of its armies, the assertors of freedom".

On the reverse: A mounted George Washington and his staff overseeing the British evacuating Boston while the American troops enter the city. The legend says: " Hostibus Primo Fugatis — The enemy for the first time put to flight". The exergue under the devise reads: "Bostonium Recuperavium XVII MARTH MDCCLXXVI — Boston recovered, 17th March 1776".


Col. Washington (1752-1810) was awarded a Congressional Medal for his gallantry in leading a decisive cavalry action at the Battle of Cowpens. The medal is inscribed: "Gulielmo Washington Legionis Equitum Praefecto Comitiaamericana — The American Congress to William Washington, Commander of a regiment of Cavalry."

On the reverse side: "Quod Parva Militum Manu Irenue Prosecutus Hostes Vitrutis Ingenitae Praeclarum Specimen Dedit In Pugna A.D. Cowpens, 17th January 1781 — Because, having vigorously pursued the foe with a small band of soldiers, he gave a brilliant specimen of innate valor in the battle of Cowpens, 17 January 1781".


The medal awarded to Major General Anthony Wayne was for his victory at Stony Point. On the front side of the medal is the representation of a crowned Indian Queen, with a quiver on her back, and wearing a short feather apron making two presentations to General Wayne. With her right hand she is presenting him a wreath of victory; in her left hand a mural crown. Over the figures is the legend: "Antonio Wayne Duci Exercitus" and beneath "Comitia Americana — The American Congress to General Anthony Wayne".

On the reverse of the medal is a depiction of the fort on Stony Point. It shows the troops storming the fortification. The inscription reads: "Stony Point Expugnatum , XV, Jul. MDCCLXXIX — Stony Point captured July 15, 1779".


(1)John Paulding was born on October 16, 1742. He had been captured by the British and escaped just prior to the Andre capture. It was recorded that he was wearing a Hessian coat at the time, hence could have led to Major Andre's being caught off guard. Paulding died on February 18, 1818 and was buried with full military honors at St. Peter's Church near Peekskill, New York. A 13-foot-tall monument was erected on the site in 1827.

(2) lsaac van Wart (1760-1828). He died on May 23, 1828 and was buried with full military honors at the Presbyterian Cemetery at Greenburgh, New York, near Tarrytown. A monument was erected on the site in 1819 by the citizens of Westchester County.

(3) David Williams was born in Tarrytown, New York on October 21, 1754. He enlisted in the army in 1775 and served under General Montgomery at St. John's and Quebec. He continued in the militia until 1779. He was not in the regular service when he helped capture Major Andre. He died in Broome on August 2, 1831 and was buried at Livingstonville, New York.

(4) Two of these medals are displayed by the New York Historical Society.

(5)The "Book of Merit" has never been found.

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