Purple Heart of the American Revolution
On August 7, 1782, General George Washington issued the following general order:
“The General, ever desirous to cherish a virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and encourage every species of Military merit, directs that whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear on his facings, over his left breast,.the figure of a heart in purple cloth, edged with a narrow lace or binding. Not only instances of unusual gallantry, but also of extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way shall meet with due reward…
“Before this favor can be conferred on any man, the particular fact, or facts, on which it is grounded must be set forth to the Commander-in-chief accompanied with certificates from the commanding officers of the regiment and brigade to which the candidate for reward belonged, or other incontestable proof, and upon granting it,.the name of the regiment of the person with the action so certified are to be enrolled in the book of merit which will be kept at the orderly office.
“Men who have merited this last distinction to be suffered to pass all guards and sentinels which officers are permitted to do. The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus opened to all — this order is also to have retrospect to the earliest stages of the war.”
As far as is known only three men were ever awarded this Badge of Military Merit. They were Sergeant Elijah Churchill of Enfield, CT, a member of the 2nd Continental Dragoons, Sergeant Daniel Brown of Stamford, CT a member of the 5th Connecticut Regiment Continental Line, and Sergeant Daniel Bissell of East Windsor, CT, a member of the 2nd Connecticut Regiment Continental Line.
The first Badge of Military Merit (“a heart of purple cloth with a narrow lace or binding”) was awarded to 26 year old Sergeant Elijah Churchill of Enfield, Connecticut, a member of the Fourth Troop of the Second Continental Dragoons. They were led by Major Benjamin Tallmadge of Brookhaven, Long Island, a 1773 graduate of Yale College.
On the afternoon of November 21st, 1780, Sergeant Churchill accompanied Major Tallmadge with a party of 50 – 80 dismounted dragoons in a raid against a supply depot on Long Island. After crossing Long Island Sound at night in eight whaleboats they landed on a deserted shore but were held up by a storm. They marched to Fort St. George at Mastic, at dawn on the 23rd.
The fort was a triangular enclosure which held several acres. At two angles were fortified houses and at the third, a strong redoubt, 96 feet square with bastions, a deep moat, and an abatis. The fort was connected to the houses by 12-foot high stockades. Sergeant Churchill was in charge of one of the three attacking parties. At dawn the invaders rammed their way through the stockade. Shouting “Washington and Glory,” they ran across the parade ground and stormed the redoubt from 3 sides. The fort was quickly taken, 300 prisoners were captured, and the fort was destroyed. Several heavily laden vessels at the wharf were burned and over three hundred tons of hay were burned at a depot in nearby Coram.
On October 2nd 1781 Churchill took part in a second raid, crossing the sound from Compo Point in Westport with a force of 100 men from his 2nd Continental Dragoons and from the 5th Connecticut Infantry Regiment. Their objective was the British outpost at Fort Slongo, near present day Northport. Fort Slongo was an embankment forming a hollow 50-foot square, constructed of trees set perpendicularly and filled with earth. It was a notorious rendezvous for Tories and Loyalists, with a usual compliment of 80 – 140 men who frequently raided neighboring farms, seizing stores of produce and cattle. The successful attack resulted in the destruction of a quantity of artillery, small arms and ammunition. Sergeant Churchill was the only one wounded in the raid which captured 21 prisoners.
The order conferring the Badge of Military Merit to Sergeant Churchill reads in part:
General Washington Esquire
General and Commander in Chief of the Forces of the United States of America, etc., etc.
“That Sergeant Elijah Churchill of the 2nd Regiment of Light Dragoons, in the several enterprises against Fort St. George and Fort Slongo on Long Island, acted in a very conspicuous and singularly meritorious part; that at the head of each body of attack he not only acquitted himself with great gallantry, firmness, and address; but that the surprise in one instance, and the success of the attack in the other, proceeded in a considerable degree from his conduct and management;…”
“Now therefore Know Ye, that the aforesaid Sergeant Elijah Churchill, hath fully and truly deserved, and has 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 Officer whatever; and is hereby recommended to that favorable notice which a Brave and Faithful Soldier deserves from his countrymen.
The second award of the Badge of Military Merit was made to 20 year old Sergeant Daniel Brown of Stamford, Connecticut. Brown was a member of Captain Samuel Comstock’s Company of the Fifth Regiment, Connecticut Line. The affair for which Brown received his Badge of Military Merit occurred when he led a “Forlorn Hope” as the first party to storm the works of Redoubt No. 10 at Yorktown.
In the summer of 1781, British Lieutenant General Earl Cornwallis moved his force of about 8,000 British troops to Virginia. Ordered by British General Clinton in New York to establish a naval station on the James River, Cornwallis chose Yorktown where he constructed a strong defensive position. When Washington and Comte de Rochambeau learned of this entrenched position they moved the American army of about 3,500 men and the French Army of 4,500 to Virginia to oppose Cornwallis.
They had also received news that a large French fleet under Admiral comte de Grasse was coming to the Chesapeake Bay area to assist them. In a naval engagement known as “the Battle of the Virginia Capes,” A British fleet under Rear Admiral Thomas Graves was defeated by the French fleet, thus preventing any escape by Cornwallis by sea. Between October 6th and October 14th the American and French troops dug an extensive series of trenches in a semicircle around the British positions in the formal pattern of a traditional European Siege. Throughout nine days, cannon of both sides bombarded the area with thousands of bombs and shells.
On the evening of October 14th American troops under Colonel Alexander Hamilton attacked Redoubt No. 10 on the extreme right of the British line of defenses. A Connecticut soldier, Private Joseph Plumb Martin of the Corps of Sappers and Miners told of the attack on Redoubt No. 10 some years later:
“We arrived in the trenches a little before sunset… The Sappers and miners were furnished with axes and were to proceed in front and cut a passage for the troops through the abatis, which are composed of the tops of trees, the branches cut off with a slanting stroke which renders them as sharp as spikes. At dark the detachment was formed and advanced beyond the trenches and lay down to await the signal for advancing to the attack… We had not lain here long before the expected signal was given. Just as we arrived at the abatis the enemy opened a sharp fire upon us… As soon as the firing began our people began to cry: “the forts our own” and it was “rush on boys.” The sappers and miners soon cleared a passage for the infantry who entered it rapidly”
Sergeant Brown had not waited for the passage to be cleared, however, but had carried his men over the obstructions and into the redoubt capturing the fort in 10 minutes. With these defenses compromised, and all hope of retreat cut off Cornwallis decided to surrender. He sent a drummer boy to beat the Call to Parlay, and the last major military engagement of the American Revolution was over.
When the second Badge of Military Merit was awarded to Sergeant Brown his citation read in part: “That Sergeant Brown of the 5th Connecticut Regiment in the assault on the enemies left redoubt at Yorktown, in Virginia, on the evening of the 14th of October 1781,… conducted a forlorn hope with great bravery, propriety, and deliberate firmness, and his general character appears unexceptionable.”
The third and possibly the last award of the Badge of Military Merit was presented one month after the first two to 28 year old Sergeant Daniel Bissell of Windsor, Connecticut. Sergeant Bissell was a member of Captain David Humphreys’ Company of the Second Connecticut Regiment of the Continental Line.
His citation reads:
“Sergeant Bissell of the 2nd Connecticut Regt. having performed some important service within the immediate knowledge of the Commander-In-Chief in which the fidelity, perseverance, and good sense of the said Sergeant Bissell were conspicuously manifested, it is therefore ordered that he be honored with the Badge of Merit. He will call at headquarters on Tuesday next for the insignia and certificate to which he is hereby entitled.”
A seven-page document found on microfilm in the George Washington papers in the Library of Congress provides the missing story. The first four pages of the manuscript are in the handwriting of Captain David Humphreys of Derby Connecticut, Washington’s Aide-de-Camp from June 23rd, 1780 to the end of the war.
The manuscript begins:
Substance of information given by Sergeant Bissell of the 2nd. Connecticut Regiment who was sent into NY for the purpose of obtaining intelligence in the month of August 1781 and made his escape from Staten Island on the 27th of Sept. 1782. “He reports that on his arrival into the city, there being a hot press to man the King’s ships and finding no other means to avoid it or to escape but by entering into the land service, he enlisted in Arnold’s Corps and never has had the opportunity of getting off until Tuesday last, that he frequently made efforts to effect it.
“In the mean time he has exerted his utmost care and ability in obtaining information of the strength and state of the enemy’s force…”On Staten Island –
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Bissell’s dictated narrative continues to describe in minute detail the strength and fortifications on Long Island. Then, in Bissell’s own hand writing there is a detailed description of two British forts which begins: “The main fort on Staten Island is from east to west about one hundred and forty feet through and about one hundred feet from the North side to the South…” He describes in great detail where each of the cannon are placed and where the best place would be to attack the fort. It closes with a sketch of a fort with the 24-pound cannons clearly marked.
Washington himself endorses the report:
“Sergeant Bissell’s account of the enemies force and works at New York, etc.”
Bissell had arrived in New York City, posing as a deserter, on August 13, 1781. On the following day, Washington received word that Cornwallis had been cut off at Yorktown, and he moved most of his troops to the South. Bissell discovered that General Clinton had ordered that deserters were not to be protected. Press gangs were rounding up reluctant recruits for the British Navy. To avoid this Bissell joined Benedict Arnold’s Loyalist army but became ill and lost his chance for escape. He later became a quartermaster sergeant, moving supplies to various British units. While on a foraging mission the following September he was finally able to make good his escape.
Sergeant Daniel Bissell was formally presented with his Badge of Military Merit on June 8, 1783, at the Headquarters in Newburgh, New York. In his application for a pension he explained that he had lost his badge in a house fire in 1813 in Ontario County, New York.
The records of the first Purple Heart awards were lost following the end of the Revolution and were not found until the 1920s. The Orderly Book in which these records were to have been recorded has never been found. Sergeant Churchill’s badge is the only one of the original badges know to survive. Churchill’s badge was preserved in his family and is now on display at Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh, New York.
On February 22, 1932, the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth, President Herbert Clark Hoover revived the Purple Heart medal by issuing the following General Order:
“By order of the President of the United States, The Purple Heart established by General George Washington at Newburgh, August 7, 1782, during the war of the Revolution, is hereby revived out of respect to his memory and military achievements.
The decoration is authorized to be awarded to persons who, while serving in the army of the United States, perform any singularly Meritorious act of extraordinary fidelity or essential service. A wound received in action may be construed as resulting from such an act.”
There is an excellent photograph of the original Badge of Military Merit awarded to Sergeant Elijah Churchill on page 97 in the book: “The Story of America, a National Graphic Picture Atlas”, 1992.
“Pictorial Field-book of the Revolution”, Benson Lossing, p. 627 – 628.
“The Story of the Purple Heart”, Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine, February, 1922.
Some examples of other soldiers who were awarded the “Badge of Merit” for faithful service, according to their discharges: