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Collection Charles Wellington Reed Papers, 1776 to 1926

The Medal of Honor

Charles Wellington Reed received the Medal of Honor in 1895 for gallantry in action on July 2, 1863, during the battle of Gettysburg. Despite sustained firing on his position near the Trostle farm, Reed mounted his horse and led to safety another mount carrying the wounded Captain John Bigelow, thereby saving Bigelow's life. In June 1895, John Bigelow wrote to the adjutant general of the United States, recommending Reed for the Medal of Honor for his actions that day. Eyewitness testimony corroborated Bigelow's account of events, and the secretary of war approved the nomination in August 1895. Why Reed received the Medal of Honor over thirty years after the fact, and why the Charles Wellington Reed Papers contain two different Medals of Honor is explained by the early history of the Medal of Honor itself.

Often referred to as the Congressional Medal of Honor because it is awarded in the name of Congress, the Medal of Honor was first awarded during the Civil War. Prior to the Civil War, the federal government conferred various badges, medals and certificates for meritorious military service, but only a limited number of military personnel received such honors. Furthermore, the types of awards given often did not provide the serviceman with a way to display the honor in public. During the Civil War, efforts by Senator James Grimes and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to inspire sailors to valorous service led to the creation of the Medal of Honor in December 1861. Legislation authorizing a similar medal for soldiers in the army followed in 1862. The United States federal government issued more than 1,500 Medals of Honor for meritorious service in the United States Army and Navy during the Civil War, the majority of those recipients having served in the army.

The nomination procedures for the Medal of Honor differed by service branch. The navy instituted an application process for the Medal of Honor in July 1862, and made the recommendation of a commanding officer mandatory. The army's requirements for nominating a soldier for the medal were open to greater interpretation. This ambiguity led to the award being bestowed on individuals not regularly enrolled in the military, or for actions not in line with the "above and beyond the call of duty" spirit of the Medal of Honor. Additionally, soldiers could nominate themselves or others long after the Civil War ended, and for actions difficult to document with the passage of time. Regulations adopted in the 1890s refined the qualifications for the medal, but the army's past criteria for awarding the Medal of Honor continued to stir controversy. As a result, beginning in 1916 an army review board evaluated all of the Medals of Honor previously awarded and in 1917 removed more than 900 recipients from the Medal of Honor list. Included on the list of revoked medals was that awarded to contract surgeon Dr. Mary Edwards Walker in November 1865 by President Andrew Johnson in recognition of her medical service during the war. Dr. Walker refused to return her medal, and she wore it proudly until her death in 1919. (President Jimmy Carter restored her medal in 1977. Dr. Walker remains the only woman awarded the Medal of Honor.) To forestall similar problems in the future, in 1918 Congress established clear rules for awarding the Medal of Honor, including a time limit during which recommendations would be considered. The creation of additional medals for different levels of distinguished military conduct further helped to set the Medal of Honor apart.

First design of the Army’s Medal of Honor, awarded to Charles W. Reed

The design of the Medal of Honor awarded to Civil War soldiers and sailors also changed over time. Working with the U. S. Mint in Philadelphia, the William Wilson & Son Company of Philadelphia designed the medal, which was approved by Secretary Welles. The initial design featured a five-pointed star, containing clusters of laurel and oak leaves in the points. Often used as symbols on military awards and memorials, the laurel represents victory and the oak represents strength. Thirty-four stars, one for each state in the United States in 1862 (including those that considered themselves to have seceded from the Union), unite the points in the center. Within the circle stands Minerva, goddess of wisdom and war, using her shield to strike down a snake-wielding foe, which represented the Union triumphing over secession. On the reverse of the medal was inscribed information about the soldier or sailor, and the action for which the award was given. The medal hung from a red, white and blue ribbon. Differentiating the navy from the army medal was the anchor used in the emblem above the star in the navy medal, and the eagle and crossed cannons on the army's version.

Second design of the Army’s Medal of Honor, awarded to Charles W. Reed

Over time, however, the design of the first Medal of Honor was widely copied as the model for other medals, rendering the actual Medals of Honor less unique. The pattern of the ribbon was changed in the 1890s from thirteen alternating vertical stripes of red and white with a horizontal blue bar at the top, to a center stripe of white flanked by blue and red stripes (as seen in Charles W. Reed's medal above). Awardees could also purchase fabric rosettes or knots to be worn only by Medal of Honor recipients. The army's Medal of Honor was redesigned in 1904 to preserve its distinctiveness as the highest honor awarded to soldiers. The second design retained the five-pointed star and a representation of Minerva in the center. Oak leaves remained in the points of the star, but the laurel leaves now formed a wreath uniting the points, and all the leaves display green enamel. The words "United States of America" replaced the ring of stars in the center. The metal attached to a bar inscribed "Valor," topped with an eagle clutching both an olive branch and arrows in its talons. The red, white, and blue suspension ribbon gave way to a light blue ribbon featuring thirteen white stars, representing the original thirteen colonies. The second design also included a longer blue ribbon to facilitate wearing the medal around the neck. To forestall copying of this second design, General George Gillespie secured a patent for the design in 1904, which was then transferred to the secretary of war. Congress passed a law in 1923 prohibiting the reproduction of medals and badges issued by the War Department, which provided further security for the Medal of Honor. The navy similarly altered the ribbon for its Medal of Honor in 1913, but kept the original design of the medal itself.

Initially Medal of Honor recipients were required to surrender their old medals in exchange for the new design. Perhaps not surprisingly, many veterans felt a sentimental attachment to their original medals, and successfully protested the new rule. Congress reversed the policy in 1907, and allowed Medal of Honor recipients to receive new medals without having to part with their old ones. Recipients in possession of both designs of the Medal of Honor were prohibited from wearing both medals at the same time. Thus, thanks to the 1904 redesign of the Medal of Honor and the 1907 congressional legislation allowing veterans to keep both medals, Charles W. Reed retained his original 1895 Medal of Honor as well as the redesigned version, both of which are part of the Charles Wellington Reed Papers at the Library of Congress.


Broadwater, Robert P. Civil War Medal of Honor Recipients: A Complete Illustrated Record. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2007.

Campbell, Eric A., ed. A Grand Terrible Dramma: From Gettysburg to Petersburg: The Civil War Letters of Charles Wellington Reed. New York: Fordham University Press, 2000.

The Congressional Medal of Honor: The Names, the Deeds. Forest Ranch, Calif.: Sharp & Dunnigan, 1984.

Congressional Medal of Honor Society,

Lang, George, Raymond L. Collins and Gerard F. White, comp. Medal of Honor Recipients, 1863-1994. Volume I: Civil War to 2nd Nicaraguan Campaign. New York: Facts on File, 1995.

Schafer, Elizabeth D. "Medal of Honor." In Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social and Military History, edited by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, 1301-1303. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.