Today our nation recognizes the gallantry of those in the armed services with a variety of awards such as the Distinguished Service Medal and the Navy Cross. No such honors existed at the time of the Civil War. The Purple Heart, or Badge of Military Merit, had been instituted by George Washington in 1782, but few were awarded and it was not revived until the 20th century. The War Department traditionally regarded titles, decorations and medals as undemocratic because they were associated with European aristocracy.
That changed during the Civil War, when for the first time vast numbers of Americans from all walks of life entered combat. The U.S. Congress established the highest award this nation can bestow on a member of the military – the Medal of Honor – for acts of “conspicuous gallantry” performed in service to the Union. By 1863, all those in the Army or Navy were eligible for the award except naval officers, who became eligible in World War I.