SHAKO: Hearts and Heroes

February 14, 2021 at 11:37 pm Leave a comment

Valentine Hearts and George Washington.

The Purple Heart medal.

Sunday (February 14) is Valentine’s Day. Monday (February 15) will be this year’s official commemoration of George Washington’s birthday.

And while these two special February days seem to have little in common, here at 4GWAR we see a link between the romantic holiday, with its ubiquitous traditional symbol of the human heart, with the Founding Father of the United States — who also created the first U.S. military award for bravery: The Purple Heart medal.

American Valentine card 1910 (Via Encyclopaedia Britannica website)


February 14th, in Western Christianity, is the feast of Saint Valentine, and since the late Middle Ages, that day has also been commonly associated with “courtly love.”  The story of Saint Valentine is complicated because there was more than one. Click here to read more.

Reportedly, the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer linked romance with Valentine’s Day — which was believed in some circles to be the first day of mating season for birds. No record exists of romantic celebrations on Valentine’s Day prior to a poem he wrote around 1375, according to the HISTORY website. In his work, “Parliament of Foules,” Chaucer linked a tradition of courtly love with the celebration of St. Valentine’s feast day – an association that didn’t exist until after his poem received widespread attention.

By the middle of the 18th Century, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes in Europe to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes, and by 1900 printed cards festooned with hearts and cherubs began to replace written letters. Ready-made cards were an easy way for people to express their emotions in a time when direct expression of one’s feelings was discouraged. Cheaper postage rates also contributed to an increase in the popularity of sending Valentine’s Day greetings.

Americans probably began exchanging hand-made valentines in the early 1700s. In the 1840s, Esther A. Howland began selling the first mass-produced valentines in America, according to HISTORY.

Where does George Washington fit into all of this? For starters, America’s first president was born on February 22, 1732. That day became one of the first widely celebrated U.S. holidays. Congress made it a federal holiday in 1879. However, in 1968 Congress passed the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act.”The law sought to create annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays. The act was also created to provide federal employees with more three-day weekends. Under the new law, Washington’s birthday was celebrated on the third Monday of February. Over the years, that holiday came to be known as Presidents’ Day (since Lincoln’s birthday was February 12) but the U.S. government’s official name for the holiday is still Washington’s Birthday.

On August 7, 1782 — almost a year after the British defeat at Yorktown, but before the Treaty of Paris ended the war of Independence from Great Britain (1783) —  General George Washington, the commander in chief of the Continental Army, created  the “Badge for Military Merit,” a decoration consisting of a purple, heart-shaped piece of silk, edged with a narrow binding of silver, with the word “Merit” stitched across the face in silver.

“… The General ever desirous to cherish virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and encourage every species of Military merit directs 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 or silk edged with narrow lace or binding.” — Washington’s General Orders for August 7, 1782

This award was open only to enlisted men (Privates, Corporals and Sergeants) and granted them the distinction of being permitted to pass all guards and sentinels as could commissioned-officers. The names of the recipients were to have been kept in a “Book of Merit,” which has since been lost.

Gen. George Washington awards the “Badge for Military Merit” to three soldier in 1782.  (U.S. Army Center for Military History)

There are three verified recipients of the Badge of Military Merit: Sergeant Elijah Churchill, 2nd Continental Dragoons; Sergeant William Brown, 5th Connecticut Continental Line Infantry and Sergeant Daniel Bissel, 2nd Connecticut Continental Line Infantry, according to the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor.

Washington stated that the award was to be a permanent one, but once the Revolution ended, the Badge of Military Merit was all but forgotten until the 20th century. In 1932, to mark the bicentennial of Washington’s birth, General Douglas MacArthur, then the Army’s chief of staff, spearheaded an effort to revive the medal. It was designed to commemorate bravery, but also recognized soldiers with wounds.

Later, during World War II, the medal was changed into a recognition of combat injuries and deaths. Over time, the military has further modified the award, adding different types of injuries and different types of combat. For instance, soldiers wounded in acts of terrorism now qualify for the Purple Heart, as do soldiers injured in friendly fire, according to NPR.

In addition to aspects of Washington’s original design, the modern day Purple Heart also displays a bust of Washington and his coat of arms. The Order of the Purple Heart is the oldest American military decoration for military merit, according to the History Channel website.

To date, the military has awarded an estimated 1.8 million Purple Hearts to soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen. Their ranks have included future President John F. Kennedy, senators like John Kerry and Tammy Duckworth, future movie and television stars, James Garner, James Arness and Lee Marvin, writers Rod Serling and James Jones, as well as Medal of Honor winners like Audie Murphy and Daniel Inouye.

In 1942, 1st Lieutenant Annie G. Fox, chief nurse in the Army Nurse Corps at Hickam Field, became the first woman to receive a Purple Heart for her heroic actions during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. At that time the awarding of the Purple Heart did not require the service member to be injured. The requirements were changed after the December 7 attack and Lt. Fox was awarded the Bronze Star medal because she was not wounded in the attack. Army 1st Lieutenant Cordelia “Betty” Cook was the first woman to receive both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. In 1943, Cook, who served as a combat nurse during World War II, sustained shrapnel wounds while working at a forward area field hospital on the Italian front.

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SHAKO is an occasional 4GWAR posting on military history, traditions and culture. For the uninitiated, a shako is the tall, billed headgear worn by many armies from the Napoleonic era to about the time of the American Civil War. It remains a part of the dress or parade uniform of several military organizations like the corps of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York

Entry filed under: Army, Marine Corps, National Security and Defense, Navy, Photos, SHAKO, Traditions, women in the military, World War II. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

FRIDAY FOTO (February 12, 2021) FRIDAY FOTO (February 19, 2021)

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February 2021


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