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The Military Order of the Purple Heart

History of the Medal

The second recipient of the Badge of Merit was Sergeant William Brown from the 5th Connecticut regiment. George Washington honored Sergeant Brown for his extraordinary heroism at the Battle of Yorktown. There, on the night of 14 October, Sergeant Brown led the advance party of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton’s troops against British Redoubt No 10, one of two key strongholds protecting the British inner defense line at Yorktown. Without waiting for the sappers and pioneers to clear away the sharpened trees designed to impale attacking troops, Sergeant Brown led his men on what could easily have been a suicide mission. To help ensure silence and surprise they attacked with unloaded muskets. Armed only with bayonets, Sergeant Brown and his advance party ran over a quarter of a mile climbed over the sharpened trees and charged the redoubt. Despite a murderous hail of musket fire, they and the remainder of Hamilton’s troops overcame the defenders in ten minutes of intense fighting.

The third recipient of the Badge of Merit whose exceptional heroism can be documented was Sergeant Daniel Bissell of the 2nd Connecticut regiment, one of George Washington’s bravest and most successful spies. In August 1781, acting under direct orders from the Commander in Chief, Bissell posed as a deserter and joined Benedict Arnold’s Corps of loyalists in New York City. From 14 August 1781 to 29 September 1782, Bissell served as a quarter master sergeant for Arnold. He used his position to gather a vast amount of information on British troop strength and deployments in and around New York. He recorded these in a series of notes and memoranda that he planned to send or bring to Washington. Every moment of every day for over a year, Bissell’s life hung by a thread. One wrong move, one mistake and he would have been executed as a spy.
When British military intelligence began to suspect that there were American sleeper agents in their midst, the British commander in chief ordered that any soldier found with military documents would be regarded as a spy. Bissell destroyed all of his memoranda but only after committing every detail to memory.

When he escaped from New York and reached headquarters in Newburgh, he was able to dictate his intelligence to Lieutenant Colonel David Humphreys, Washington’s aide de camp. If Washington had decided to attack the British in New York rather than at Yorktown, Bissell’s intelligence would have been vital.

We know for sure that Sergeants Churchill, Brown and Bissell received the Badge of Military Merit. Recent research by the Military Order of the Purple Heart's National Americanism officer, Ron Siebels, shows that Peter Shumway, John Sithins and William Dutton, three other soldiers in Washington's Continental Army, also received the Badge of Military Merit. But we do not yet know the exceptional acts of courage for which they were honored. It is possible that there were other candidates and other recipients. But we will never be sure unless the “Book of Merit” (in which all of the recipient’s names and heroic deeds were to be recorded) is found. But it has been missing for over two centuries.


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