Badge of Merit

 Jesse Brauner
Badge of Merit

An 18th century military commendation established by George Washington.

One of the most recognizable military service awards in the United States is the famed Purple Heart, awarded to members of the armed forces who have been killed or wounded by enemy combatants (for full details, see the symbol for ‘Military Order of the Purple Heart (medal)’). The origin of the Purple Heart, at least its physical appearance, can be traced back to the early days of American history.

In 1782, the bloodshed of the American Revolution was largely over, but soldiers in the army were hardly jubilant; not only had Congress ignored their need for supplies and payment, but also ranking officers had been stripped of the proper authority to honor the courage of soldiers by awarding them commendations. As a result, the sacrifices that the soldiers had made seemed to be going unacknowledged, and there was strong talk of mutiny among them. To help diffuse the situation, George Washington established a “homemade” commendation of sorts that came to be known as the Badge of Merit; soldiers that had served in the army for six years or more were recognized for their contributions with a heart-shaped badge of purple silk embroidered with the word “Merit”, along with a pair of decorative borders.

In terms of meaning, the Badge of Merit is actually closer to the significance of the modern-day Medal of Honor (which recognizes courage in combat) than to the Purple Heart, but the design of Washington’s silk patches formed the aesthetic basis for the latter award.