The history of medals and awards in the U.S. Armed Forces has expanded and contracted as much as the size of the military over the past century. Awards creation exploded during World War II and in the post-WWII era as the country experienced the largest military establishment since the Civil War. Medals for meritorious service, personal valor, heroism, and campaign ribbons for conflict around the world became routine in the 20th century. This wasn’t always the case though. As our military changed and adapted, so did our honors systems for our veterans.
During the austere years of the young American republic, medals and decorations were considered almost luxuries (and reminiscent of the awards and honors worn by European nobility). Personal valor and heroism was enshrined more through dispatches and certificates, citing the actions of soldiers and sailors. The Continental Congress established the first military award, the Fidelity Medallion, and then George Washington pushed for establishing the Badge of Military Merit, but it was never formally ratified (the Fidelity Medallion was only issued once to four men who captured Benedict Arnold’s accomplice John Andre). Medals, awards, and decorations were not at the foremost of needs in the War Department or Congress in the antebellum period either. This can be largely attributed to the notion that the United States was isolationist on the world stage in the early and mid-19th century and things like overseas ribbons and campaign medals were unnecessary. The U.S. peace-time army numbered less than 100,000 troops and even they were posted on the western frontier to fight Native American tribes. Isolationist attitudes changed at the beginning of the 20th century when the United States began to adopt a more internationalist (some would argue imperialist) role in world affairs. Commemorative and retroactive service medals were issued at first, but then campaign medals became commonplace as the United States became engaged in more conflicts.
From 1890 to 1930, Congress authorized the creation of several new service awards and campaign medals for the Spanish-American War, World War I, and other military expeditions in the Western Hemisphere. Many of these medals were established later and applied retroactively following the conflict. The War Department also authorized the creation of service medals for the Army and Navy, but only on rare occasion. Today the federal government considers these awards obsolete because they were superseded by another award or inactive as the time period for current awarding has passed. A surviving veteran who served during a conflict with an inactive campaign ribbon can still receive it though, which are issued by the various service departments. For example, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal from WWII is labeled ‘inactive’ because now that the conflict has ended, the medal is now awarded to recipients who qualify from that time period. Obsolete awards are considered those that were replaced with another award or were only given a limited issuance. Obsolete criteria also applies to those medals where there are literally no more veterans from that time period and thus no one can claim those medals for their military service. For example, the previously mentioned Badge of Military Merit was succeeded by the Purple Heart. Despite not begin formally adopted by Congress, its heart shape and purple color were incorporated to create the modern Purple Heart medal in 1917; making the Purple Heart one of the oldest military decorations still awarded.
Below is the most comprehensive list of inactive or obsolete campaign and service awards from the Armed Forces:
- Certificate of Merit Medal
- Civil War Campaign Medal
- Indian Campaign Medal
- Spanish War Service Medal
- Spanish Campaign Medal
- Army of Cuban Occupation Medal
- Army of Puerto Rican Occupation Medal
- Philippine Campaign Medal
- Dewey Medal
- Sampson Medal
- Texas Cavalry Medal
- China Campaign Medal
- Mexican Service Medal
- Mexican Border Service Medal
- Army Wound Ribbon
- Marine Corps Brevet Medal
- Specially Meritorious Service Medal
- West Indies Campaign Medal
- Dominican Campaign Medal
- Nicaraguan Campaign Medal
- Second Nicaraguan Campaign Medal
A unique trait with awards like the Dewey Medal and the Texas Cavalry Medal share is that a limited of number were issued to service members. Additionally, many soldiers who would have qualified for retroactive awards died before they could be claimed in their lifetime, e.g. the Civil War medal was established 40 years after the war ended when many veterans were deceased.
One question that gets asked most often regarding these awards: does the federal government still issue these medals? Yes and no, to be honest. Because of the rarity of these medals, hardcore collectors of military antiques searched for these medals. Medals from the Spanish-American War period are highly sought after and are not issued by the federal government anymore. Because the service branches rely on personnel records to confirm the recipients entitlement to an award and records from this time period rarely mention them, service branches don’t re-issue obsolete medals. Inactive awards however are still issued upon request when there’s a matching service record providing evidence of the veteran’s active duty.
Unless you’re overly lucky as a collector of military memorabilia, you’ll most likely see many of these obsolete medals in a museum. No veterans of the Civil War, Spanish-American War, or World War I are alive anymore and so their medals are falling away into obscurity. These come from a formative time in our nation’s history as we injected ourselves more into global affairs and sent expeditionary forces into international conflict. More ribbons and medals will be created as conflicts arise, adding onto the vast repository of awards already amassed by the United States. But as we go forth, we cannot forget how far we’ve come as a nation, and remember all that we’ve done.