The Story of...  the Purple Heart medal

George Washington, later to be America's first President, viewed what passed for the American army with alarm in 1775. The assembled crowd of farmers, merchants, and adventurers did not contain a professional soldier among them, and Washington, who had served in some deadly battles in earlier years, was keenly aware of their shortcomings.

Washington's tactical prowess is sometimes questioned, but his qualities as an inspirational leader are not. He led by example and prayed for them at night whilst his wife cooked and sewed to keep them well-fed and dressed. In 1781 the British surrendered to Washington's forces at Yorktown.

One area which Washington was particularly interested in was how to acknowledge exceptional performance in the field. This he initially rewarded with promotion - a double-reward as it brought not only status, but also a pay-rise.

For the latter reason, promotion was discontinued as reward when America hit a money crisis 1782. The country was struggling and failing to pay its soldiers at all, so Washington had to come up with something else.

Alongside a chevron to be worn on the left sleeve of any enlisted or non-commissioned veteran who had served for three years with "bravery, fidelity and good conduct" (effectively a service medal),  Washington created the Badge of Military Merit.

Badge of Military Merit
Washington's Badge of Military Merit

The idea was far ahead of military decorations in Britain and elsewhere which were exclusively for high-ranking officials and royalty. The first Victoria Cross would not be awarded until the Crimean War.

Although made from entirely different materials - cloth or silk and bordered with lace - the award was heart-shaped and purple in colour, a form immediately recognisable today, though in Washington's own time, only three were awarded.

It was only in the run-up to the double centenary of his birth in 1932 that General Charles Pelot Summerall and General Douglas MacArthur pressed to have the award resurrected with a new design by Elizabeth Will - with the President's image on purple enamel and edged in gold rather than lace.

Purple heart medal
America's modern Purple Heart medal

The medal is awarded for any example of "Being wounded or killed in any action against an enemy of the United States or as a result of an act of any such enemy or opposing armed forces" and as such is rarely valuable financially on its own as it is awarded reasonably often.

However, purple hearts are often coveted if the winners are famous for some other reason or if their form part of an important group, such as that of Alexander Gault MacGowan, who served in WWI and then became an acclaimed war correspondent ready for WWII.

Alexander Gault McGowan's medals
Alexander Gault MacGowan's medals

His many exploits included reporting from a 1943 attack on American and French positions at Jabel Mansour in North Africa. He was wounded and granted the Purple Heart by special order of President F D Roosevelt.

His group of medals sold at Dix Noonan Webb with an estimate of £1000-£1200, but achieved a more suitable £4,300, recognising the historical importance of his achievements.


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