The Purple Heart's Humble Hudson Valley Origins

Our military’s notable badge of honor had its beginnings here in the Hudson.


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George Washington created the Badge of Military Merit, the precursor to today’s Purple Heart (left). Purple Heart photo by the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor; Washinton photo, Marist Archive and Special Collections.


Behind the 18th-century Dutch doors of Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh, in Gen. George Washington’s office where his actual desk stands, is the origin of one of this nation’s most recognizable pieces of military memorabilia, the Purple Heart. Originally created to pacify rebellious troops, the award — remembered each year on Purple Heart Day, August 7 — is a respected honor.

The precursor of the Purple Heart was called the Badge of Military Merit. It was the first military award in the history of both Continental and British armies that was given to soldiers regardless of their rank.

The badge was established by Washington on Aug. 7, 1782. By this time, the Revolutionary War was winding down, but soldiers in New Windsor were agitated by a lack of pay after years of battling the British army with sometimes nothing more to subsist on than old shoes. To encourage loyalty and meritorious action, Washington created the badge to venerate those who performed extraordinary duties.

The Badge of Military Merit was awarded to three men in 1783: Sergeants William Brown, Elijah Churchill, and Daniel Bissel. Churchill’s can be seen on display at Temple Hill, the site of the New Windsor Cantonment — the final encampment of the Continental Army in the winter of 1782-1783.

The award fell into disuse soon afterward. But in 1932, an order by Gen. Douglas MacArthur revived it as the Purple Heart: an award that shared the shape and color of the Badge of Military Merit. It was given to 137 WWI veterans in a ceremony at Temple Hill. When the Legion of Merit was created in 1942, the Purple Heart became reserved for combat-related injury or death.

 

Washington’s Headquarters
State Historic Site
Open Wednesday–Saturday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m., Sunday 1–5 p.m.
Newburgh; https://parks.ny.gov/historic-sites/17/details.aspx

 

New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site/National Purple Heart Hall of Honor
Open Tuesday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Sunday 1–5 p.m.
New Windsor; https://parks.ny.gov/historic-sites/22/details.aspx

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