The Original Navy Medal of Honor
The Navy's Medal of Honor was the first approved and the first designed. The initial work was done by the Philadelphia Mint at the request of Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. The Mint submitted several designs for consideration, and the one prepared by the Philadelphia firm of William Wilson & Sons was the design selected.
The selected Medal of Honor design consisted of an INVERTED, 5-pointed STAR. On each of the five points was a cluster of LAUREL leaves to represent victory, mixed with a cluster of OAK to represent strength. Surrounding the encircled insignia were 34 stars, equal to the number of stars in the U.S. Flag at the time in 1862....one star for each state of the Union including the 11 Confederate states. The stars are also symbolic of the "heavens and the divine goal which man has aspired to since time immemorial" according to Charles Thompson, Secretary of the Continental Congress back in 1777.
Inside the circle of 34 stars were engraved two images. To the right is the image of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and war. On her helmet is perched an owl, representing WISDOM. In keeping with the Roman tradition, her left hand holds a bundle of rods and an ax blade, symbolic of authority. The shield in her right hand is the shield of the Union of our states (similar to the shield on our seal and other important emblems.)
Recoiling from Minerva is a man clutching snakes in his hands. He represented DISCORD and the insignia came to be known as "Minerva Repulsing Discord". Taken in the context of the Civil War soldiers and sailors struggling to overcome the discord of the states and preserve the Union, the design was as fitting as it was symbolic.
The ribbon that held the medal was originally a blue bar on top and 13 red and white stripes running vertically. The 13 represents the original 13 colonies. The color white represents purity and innocence, red represents hardiness, valor and blood, blue signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice. The stripes also represent the rays of the sun.
Since this time much of the symbolism in the Medal of Honor has not changed much. The Army MOH was created soon after the original Navy MOH in 1862. It included an Eagle, symbolizing the United States of America, was perched on a cannon and saber grasped in its talons.
In 1904 the Gillespie version of the MOH included a simple portrait of a helmeted Goddess of War to replace the "Minerva repelling discord" scene. The red, white and blue ribbon was replaced with a light blue and 13 white stars. The 13 is once again the original 13 colonies.
In 1919 the Tiffany Cross version of the MOH had a Maltese Cross instead of an inverted star. The Maltese Cross' eight points symbolize the 8 virtues of a knight. A cross itself also represents the four cardinal directions and the sun. This design was discontinued in 1942 due to its unpopularity.
In 1965 the Air Force MOH was created and it replaced the Minerva portrait with the head of the Statue of Liberty. Lady liberty has a pointed crown instead of a helmet. And she does stand for liberty although she is derived from the imagery of Semiramis, wife of Nimrod, and Queen of Babylon. Semiramis was famed for her beauty, strength, and wisdom and was said to have built the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon. She purportedly reigned for 42 years after taking control from Nimrod. She is a mythical figure who might be somewhat based upon a historical figure.