It was on this day in 1862 that President Abraham Lincoln approved legislation authorizing the preparation of 2,000 Medals of Honor to “be presented, in the name of the Congress, to such non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier-like qualities.” The Medal of Honor had been initiated the previous year as an award given by the U.S. Navy. Today it is the highest award given to U.S. military personnel in the line of duty.
Since then, more than 3,400 people have received this medal. Some have been dubious, such as the soldiers who were awarded the medals for their actions in the tragic 1890 “Wounded Knee” massacre. But, in the recent Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, the medals have taken on new significance and enhanced value. Recipients almost have to die to get one. These aren’t perfect attendance awards! In an ideal world, no such awards would be given because war wouldn’t occur. But alas, this isn’t a utopian universe. Regardless this is my personal salute to all MOH recipients and all military personnel.
Henry Louis Stephens, untitled watercolor (c. 1863) of a man reading a newspaper with headline “Presidential Proclamation / Slavery.”
On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln took a break from greeting guests as part of a New Year’s tradition, and slipped into his office to sign a controversial document that ultimately would become a cornerstone in America’s continuing battle for democracy: the Emancipation Proclamation. In the midst of the bloody Civil War, where southern states fought hard to protect their right to enslave the Negro people, this lengthy item declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”
It had its limitations. It applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, but it exempted border states and any part of the Confederacy that had fallen into northern control. More importantly, it depended upon a Union victory.
The document didn’t actually end slavery in the United States. No piece of paper – even one signed by the President – can obliterate decades or centuries of cultural tradition. That only happens over time and through education. People change and so do the societies in which they live.
But, on the sesquicentennial of this significant declaration, it’s equally critical to remember that human life is valuable. It can’t be sold and it can’t be bought. No country really needs a document telling them that. But sometimes, people have to be reminded how important we all are.