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It is interesting to note that the name of each of these great American naval victors is now borne by a destroyer of the United States Navy engaged in the present war and that their victories of over a century ago still live in the hearts of the gallant young Americans aboard these little warships that are maintaining the “Freedom of the Seas " against the deadly menace of the Hun U-boat.
After General Grant had won the Battle of Chattanooga, November 23, 24, 25, 1863, a gold medal with the thanks of Congress was presented to him in commemoration of the great victory, regarded by many students of military strategy as the turning point of the Civil War.
None of these medals were designed as decorations, however; that is, they were not intended to be worn upon the person of the recipient, but were more in the nature of tokens commemorating the victories for which the higher honor, the "thanks of Congress," was extended.
The first medal authorized by the government of the United States to be worn upon the person as a war decoration was the nával medal of honor, provided for in the act of Congress of December 21, 1861, to be “bestowed upon such petty officers, seamen, landsmen and marines as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and other seamanlike qualities during the present war.” The terms of the law did not permit of the bestowal of this medal upon commissioned or warrant officers, but limited the reward to enlisted men. One thousand dollars was appropriated in the act for the purchase of 200 of these medals of honor.
This medal was struck from bronze metal taken from captured cannon. In form it is a five-pointed star with a circular central medallion, the points of the star being of trefoil shape. On the central medallion is a design representing Minerva standing with her left hand resting upon a fasces and with a shield in her right hand warding off the figure of Discord, the design being surrounded by a circle of 34 stars, one for each state of the Union as it existed in 1861. The rays of the star are decorated with oak and laurel leaves. The medal is suspended by means of a bronze anchor from a clasp made up of bound fasces, having a single five-pointed star at the center; this clasp being suspended in turn by a ribbon from a similar clasp at the upper end for attachment
to the coat, the upper clasp having no star. The ribbon worn with this original medal had 13 vertical stripes of alternate red and white with a band of blue across the top.
This was followed on July 12, 1862, by a resolution of Congress authorizing the President to cause two thousand medals of honor to be prepared with suitable emblematic devices, and to direct that the same be presented, in the name of Congress, to such non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldierlike qualities, during the present insurrection.” The medal adopted for this purpose was the same as that above described for the navy medal of honor and the same distinctive ribbon was used at first, but the suspending clasps were of different design.
The lower clasp consisted of a trophy of arms, two cannon crossed, a sword, and cannon balls, all surmounted by an eagle with wings lifted; and the upper clasp bore a design of a shield of the United States with a cornucopia on either side.
The reverse side of both the naval and military medals of honor is plain, with the name, rank and regiment or ship of the recipient and the place and date of the act for which the award was made.
The act of Congress of July 16, 1862, contained a proviso reading as follows: "Seamen distinguishing themselves in battle, or by extraordinary heroism in the line of their profession, may be promoted to forward warrant officers, or acting masters' mates, as they may be best qualified, upon the recommendation of their commanding officer, approved by the flag-officer and the department. Upon such promotion they shall receive a gratuity of one hundred dollars and medal of honor to be prepared by the Navy Department.”
Thus we see that for both the naval and the military services the award of the medal of honor was still confined to enlisted men. For the army this was changed by the act of Congress of March 3, 1863, which empowered the President to award the medal of honor to officers as well as to enlisted men, the act reading as follows: “And be it further enacted, That the President cause to be struck from the dies recently prepared at the United States mint for that purpose, “Medals of Honor' additional to those authorized by the act (resolution) of July twelfth, eighteen hundred and sixty-two, and present the same to such officers, non
commissioned officers and privates as have most distinguished or who may hereafter most distinguish themselves in action.”
It will be noted that while the former laws on the subject authorized the award of the medal for acts performed in action during the Civil War, the act of July 16, 1862, provided for the award at any future time to enlisted men of the navy, and that the act of March 3, 1863, made a like provision for the award of the medal to officers and enlisted men of the army.
The acts of Congress referred to as applying to the naval service were embodied in section 1407 of the Revised Statutes, and in 1900 this statute was construed to mean that only enlisted men holding the specific rating, or rank, of " seaman” in the navy were eligible to receive the medal of honor. In order to effectuate the real intent of the original lawmakers, an act was passed by Congress and approved on March 3, 1901, providing, “ That any enlisted man of the navy or marine corps who shall have distinguished himself in battle or displayed extraordinary heroism in the line of his profession shall, upon the recommendation of his commanding officer, approved by the flag-officer and the Secretary of the Navy, receive a gratuity and medal of honor as provided for seamen in section fourteen hundred and seven of the Revised Statutes."
Although the law of March 3, 1863, authorized the award of the medal of honor to officers of the army as well as to enlisted men, it was not until March 3, 1915, that authority was given the President to award it to officers of the navy and marine corps, that law reading as follows: “ The President of the United States is hereby empowered to prepare a suitable medal of honor to be awarded to any officer of the navy, marine corps, or coast guard who shall have distinguished himself in battle or displayed extraordinary heroism in the line of his profession."
An act of Congress approved May 4, 1898, authorized the Secretary of the Navy to issue to any person in the naval service to whom a medal of honor has been awarded or may hereafter be awarded a rosette or knot to be worn in lieu of the medal and a ribbon to be worn with the medal. This resulted at first in the issue of a knot of red, white and blue ribbon to be worn by holders of the medal of honor when wearing civilian clothes, and later in the issue of a red, white and blue rosette button for the same purpose.