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Above & Beyond: The Medal of Honor

by Greg Waters, Curator

The Medal of Honor is the most prestigious award given to members of the United States Armed Forces, awarded to those that go “above and beyond” the call of duty through extreme acts of courage, bravery, and valor. Today the Medal of Honor has come to represent the highest ideals of our armed forces and the individuals that wear it are recognized for their bravery and selflessness.

The medal has a long and interesting history that goes back to the beginnings of the Civil War. In 1861 Congress and President Abraham Lincoln came together to create a new military award that would be given to those who displayed courage and valor in combat. Prior to the creation of the Medal of Honor there were very few official medals or awards in the United States Military. This is partially because military medals were seen as an English tradition and, being a bit contrarian, early Americans were hesitant to adopt medals of their own.

The early regulations that governed the Medal of Honor were far less strict than they are now. For example, individuals that participated in the Civil War could nominate themselves to receive the award. It was also awarded occasionally as a special honor to those that didn’t actually take part in Civil War battles. Members of the honor guard during President Lincoln’s funeral procession, for example, were all awarded the Medal of Honor.

As time went on, however, Congress and the branches of the armed forces continually raised the requirements to be considered for the medal. This led to fewer and fewer of these medals being awarded, thus increasing the prestige of the medal. In 1917 a special review board was created to go through the list of all individuals awarded the Medal of Honor and determine if they met these heightened standard. As a result, 911 individuals had their names removed from the list of recipients, causing much controversy.

Since the Medal of Honor was created in 1861 there have been 3,506 Recipients. Of this number, 1,522 were awarded during the Civil War. The individuals that have received this medal are among the greatest heroes that our military has produced. Many have become celebrities, including Audie Murphy, John Basilone, and Desmond Doss.

There were eight men from New Jersey that were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions during Vietnam. Six of them were killed in action and their medals were posthumously awarded to their families. Four of the eight lost their lives by jumping on hand grenades during firefights, sacrificing themselves to protect the lives of their fellow soldiers.

We are honored to have five of these Medals of Honor on display as part of our new exhibit, Above and Beyond: The Medal of Honor. The exhibit explores the history of the medal and shares the personal stories of these eight heroes from New Jersey.

The exhibit is open now and will close November 16, 2019.

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