The Medal of Honor has achieved prominence in American history like few other awards have. It’s a symbol for the very values its recipients displayed in the moments that mattered, an honor bestowed upon only the most honorable. But before it garnered such distinction, it started as a simple idea from Iowa Senator James W. Grimes—a bill authorizing the production and distribution of “medals of honor” to be presented to enlisted seamen and marines who “distinguish themselves by gallantry in action and other seamanlike qualities” during the American Civil War.
Since then, the Medal has undergone numerous legislative, design and presentation changes while still retaining what makes it truly special—its status as the United States' highest award for military valor in action.
The first military action to earn a Medal of Honor is performed by Bernard J.D. Irwin, who voluntarily led troops to rescue 60 soldiers in Apache Pass, Arizona. However, the Medal of Honor had yet to be proposed, and Irwin wouldn’t actually be presented with his Medal until January 24, 1894—over 30 years after the deed itself.
Iowa Senator James W. Grimes introduces legislation in Congress to "promote the efficiency of the Navy" through the creation of "medals of honor" that will be presented to enlisted seamen and marines who "distinguish themselves by gallantry in action and other seamanlike qualities" during the American Civil War.
President Abraham Lincoln signs the legislation creating the Navy's Medal of Honor.
Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson introduces a bill in Congress to create an Army Medal of Honor, specifically for "non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier—like qualities" during the American Civil War.
President Abraham Lincoln signs the legislation creating the Army's Medal of Honor.
Army officers are made eligible for the Medal of Honor by Congressional legislation. Naval officers will remain ineligible until 1915.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton presents the first Medals of Honor to six of the surviving members of the Andrews' Raiders, a group of Army men who attempted to hobble a railroad supply line in Georgia. Private Jacob Parrott is first person to ever receive the Medal of Honor.
Robert Williams, Signal Quartermaster of the USS Benton, becomes the first member of the Navy to be presented with the Medal of Honor for his December 1862 actions during the Yazoo River Expedition in Mississippi.
Corporal John F. Mackie becomes the first member of the Marine Corps to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions on board the USS Galena on May 15, 1862.
The ribbon of the Army's Medal of Honor is altered from the original flag-inspired design to vertical stripes of red, white and blue. The rest of the design elements (the star and suspension bars) are kept the same.
New standards for awarding the Medal of Honor are created: there must be eyewitness statements, someone other than the recipient must make the recommendation, and the recommendation must be submitted within one year of the action.
The Army's Medal of Honor is again redesigned. Called the "Gillespie," after its designer General George Gillespie, the five-point star is surrounded by a green laurel wreath and is suspended from a light blue ribbon bearing thirteen stars.
President Theodore Roosevelt signs an Exective Order decreeing that the Medal of Honor must be presented in a formal ceremony. Before this, Recipients could recieve the Medal through the mail or at military muster.
The Navy alters the ribbon on their Medal of Honor to the same blue-with-white-stars pattern of the Army's Medal of Honor.
Naval and Marine Corps officers become eligible for the Medal of Honor; until this point, the award was reserved for enlisted personnel.
Congress establishes the Army and Navy Medal of Honor Roll and a special monthly pension for Medal of Honor recipients who are over 65 years old and who were recognized for gallantry in conflict.
An Army board reviews every Army Medal of Honor award, ultimately removing 911 Recipients from the Medal of Honor Roll as cases where the Medal was erroneously bestowed.
The “Pyramid of Honor” is established, outlining the key differences between the Medal of Honor and other military valor awards, such as the Silver Star and Purple Heart.
The Tiffany Cross, a new design for the Navy Medal of Honor, is introduced. The updated medal is intended specifically for naval heroism in combat situations. The star design is retained for non-combat heroism.
The Navy discontinues the Tiffany Cross and reverts back to a single Medal of Honor design, the original five-pointed star.
Signalman First Class Douglas A. Munro becomes the first and only member of the Coast Guard to be awarded the Medal of Honor when it is posthumously presented to his mother by President Franklin Roosevelt. Munro was recognized for his heroism at Guadalcanal in September 1942.
The U.S. Air Force obtains Congressional authorization to create their own Medal of Honor design.
President Dwight Eisenhower signs the Congressional Charter creating the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
New guidelines for awarding the Medal of Honor are approved by Congress, stating that the medal can be awarded “while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States,...while engaged in military operations involving a conflict with an opposing foreign force,...or while serving with friendly forces in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.”
The Air Force introduces their own distinctive Medal of Honor design featuring the Air Force Coat of Arms and the head of the Statue of Liberty, as opposed to Minerva.
Major Bernard Fisher is the first to receive the new Air Force design of the Medal of Honor. Recognized for his actions in Vietnam in March 1966, the Medal is presented by President Lyndon Johnson at the White House.
The special Medal of Honor pension is increased to $1,000 per month with annual cost of living increases. All Recipients receive this pension, no matter their age or occupation.
Congress sets the current time limits for the Medal of Honor: recommendations must be made within three years of the valorous action and the Medal must be presented within five years.