The Medal of Honor in the Civil War

Army Medal of Honor, 1862. From US Army Institute of Heraldry.

File:Army Medal of Honor.jpg

Current Army Medal of Honor

Last week, President Bush awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously to Woodrow W. “Woody” Keeble 26 years after his death. Keeble becomes the first full-blooded Sioux Indian to earn the award. Keeble’s case is interesting and illustrates how several veterans have been denied awards for year or forever because of paperwork, or other issues. It is even more interesting when one considers the number of Civil War recipients of the Medal of Honor, who probably did not deserve them.

The Medal of Honor was created in 1862 for the Army to recognize soldiers who distinguished themselves in action. One of the more famous Civil War recipients of the MOH was Joshua L. Chamberlain, who earned it because of his famous bayonet charge down Little Round Top (“BAYONETS!”). Another was William H. Carney, who rescued the American flag when the color sergeant was struck down, while a soldier with the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Carney was the first African American to earn the medal.

Unfortunately, there were some cases where the medal was awarded to persons who did not necessarily deserve the medal. For instance, Medals of Honor were awarded to the entire 27th Maine Infantry Regiment just for re-enlisting (all 864 men). In addition, medals were awarded to the men who served as Lincoln’s funeral guard, as well as civilians. Eventually, this wrong was corrected when an Army review board, led by Nelson Miles, met in 1916 to review all Army Medal of Honor cases. The board ultimately rescinded the medals awarded to the 27th Maine and the Lincoln funeral guards, as well as Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman to receive it (her award was reinstated by Jimmy Carter). One important thing regarding the Civil War Medal of Honor, do not confuse it with the member badge of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) seen below.

Grand Army of the Republic Membership badge. Note the differences between this badge and the Civil War Medal of Honor.

Grand Army of the Republic Membership badge. Note the differences between this badge and the Civil War Medal of Honor.

The Medal of Honor has always been a significant award, but the importance of the award was somewhat reduced by the situation created by the Civil War. It was the only medal authorized by the Army at the time and the government seemed intent on awarding more than it should have been. There were over 1,500 Medals of Honor awarded relating to actions in the Civil War. Since then, the importance of the medal has risen, as the criteria for earning it are much more stringent, as less than 25 percent of the total medals awarded were given to servicemen since the beginning of World War II. I have met one gentleman who earned the Medal of Honor in World War II and he passed the medal around my class (I was in 8th grade) and we all had a chance to hold it, and it is something that I will never forget. Medal of Honor recipients are to be honored, as there are fewer than 120 persons alive that earned the award, and many have died as a result of the actions that earned them the medal.

Here are a couple more images on the Medal of Honor in the Civil War:

From the Burn Pit, an American Legion site:
Civil War Medal of Honor

From the National Park Service:
Civil War MOH

8 thoughts on “The Medal of Honor in the Civil War

  1. I did not know that about the 27th Maine Infantry Regiment. Thanks for that tidbit. And you’re right, it’s easy to confuse the MOH with the GAR.

  2. The Jefferson County Historical Center in Brookville, Pennsylvania needs a photo of MOH recipient Alexander H. Mitchell, the only recipient from our Jefferson County. We are working up a series of exhibits commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. If you have such a photo please contact me at you for helping us honor our heroes.

  3. Should anyone read this, I have just received the medal that belonged to my G-Grandfather and would like to know when the medals for the “Grand Army of the Republic” were given to the veterans. He was with the Md. Volunteer Calvary, Potomac Heavy Brigade. I have a lot of his civil war papers but no mention of this medal. Found it in my fathers keepsakes. Lois Norris Graybill can contact at

  4. am also trying to find information on a Grand Army of the Republic civil war medal. the person I think was my great grandfather Thomas Word. He was in the Ill., 2 calvary. The #on the edge of the medal is 85478.

  5. The Grand Army of the Republic Medal has a date on the back of the clasp of 1886. I’m not sure if it was given out to members that same year or at some later date. My Great Grandfather also received that medal, and I now have possession of it. Unfortunately, this medal is shown in the upper left hand corner of the medals shown as “Civil War Medal of Honor” causing additional confusion for descendants that now are researching the medal that was handed down from a relative that served during the Civil War. Someone needs to remove that medal from that webpage and present it as a commemorative medal given to members of the Grand Army of the Republic.

    • Barry,

      Thanks for your comment and letting me know. Unfortunately, I can’t help that Google Images does that, as this post is one of my top posts on the site, so the first three images are the ones I placed in the original post. That said, when I clicked the “More Info” button on the image you speak of, I was redirected to the Google search for the Grand Army of the Republic.

      Please understand that I did not intend confusion, but to show readers the close resemblance between the two. I will not remove it, but will attempt to edit the image in question to see if it comes down on the search. Thanks again for letting me know.

  6. The medals that the members of the Grand Army of the Republic wore were given for membership in one of the Posts. Anyone who was a member of a GAR post was given one. They are still wonderful things to have. It was the GAR who worked so hard to establish pensions for people who survived the war and get them extended to widows and minor dependents. They also lobbied for the establishment of Memorial Day. The local one here in Oakland was Lyon Post, No. 8.

  7. I have a picture of Karl Timmerberg with the GAR on his suit. He was a great uncle who came from Germany and fought with the US (Union) Army and was the founder of my late dad’s, father’s family in Missouri. Thanks Uncle Karl, as the 6th generation of wounded American veterans, I love and appreciate this country.
    [I’m a 10 year Veteran of the US Navy, with several tours in Vietnam, another 3 with the US Army (Res) and 4 with US Air Force (Res) 2 years with US Merchant Marines and another 18 years with the US Civil Service. I retired after over 33 years of faithful service to this wonderful country.]

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