Opinion: Why I Love Wilson’s Creek Battlefield

Yesterday as I perused my Twitter feed (@Hoghighlander for those who want to follow for more great history content!), the anniversary of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek was trending. Many of the historians, bloggers, and podcasters I follow were posting about the battle, outcomes, significance in the American Civil War, and the central character that died while leading the Union Army, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon. Some Civil War historians have overlooked this small battle (small from a military statistics perspective when compared to Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Chickamauga, Stones River, and others). However, the significance lies more with the impact it has on the Midwest and the Trans-Mississippi Theater. Missouri was precariously situated between free and slave state supporters and there was a race to tip the balance and solidly secure the state. On August 10, 1861, Confederate soldiers from Arkansas, Louisiana, and the Missouri State Guard (pro-Confederate Missouri soldiers) commanded by Sterling Price and Benjamin McCullough were attacked by a smaller Union army led by Nathaniel Lyon and Franz Sigel. The fierce fighting carried on for eight hours, but early on, a bullet ripped through Lyon’s chest, killing him almost instantly. By 4:00 pm, Union forces pulled from the battlefield and left the nearby town of Springfield to the Confederate army. However, due to the losses the Confederate army suffered at Wilson’s Creek, Price and McCullough were split on how to proceed. Price wanted to pursue the Union further north, but McCullough wanted to remain close to Arkansas to maintain supply lines. Springfield would occasionally shift allegiance, but Lyon’s determined stand would later cement Missouri for the Union.

This post isn’t about the battle itself (for a great discussion on the background, action, and aftermath of Wilson’s Creek, listen to this wonderful podcast from the Civil War Breakfast Club: Battle of Wilson’s Creek-CWBC. Instead I wanted to explain why I love visiting this battlefield, now a National Park. The park was created in 1960 with a small visitors center and some museum displays. While the park only preserves 1,750 acres, there’s a lot of natural and historic beauty in those acres. I was born in Springfield, Missouri, less than 15 miles from the battlefield and it was one of the first national parks I ever visited as a child. My fiery history passion was stoked by frequent visits, gift shop coloring books, re-enactments, and moonlight tours where actors portrayed various personalities in the battle’s aftermath. It didn’t dawn on me until high school that the actor playing the Union chaplain was my high school history teacher, Mr. Elkins, who works part-time for the National Park Service (lucky dog).

Split rail fencing is a common sight at Wilson’s Creek Battlefield. Many volunteers and park employees have painstakingly recreated the fences as they would have appeared back in 1861.

The museum underwent some amazing updates recently; new exhibits, historical items, an upgraded fiber optic map of the battle (that was my favorite attraction as a kid and it still is today), and an expanded Civil War research library. Anyone who wants to research the Trans-Mississippi Theater and the war in Missouri must find visit this library and take advantage of all the resources it offers. Upon passing through the gate, you come up to the first Confederate encampment and the small farm buildings run by the Sharps and Rays who were the local families when the battle broke out. The stunning rolling hills of corn and wheat are quite a sight in the fall. As a kid, I often imagined the two sides thrashing one another, even when I came to see historical re-enactments. The billowing smoke and bayonets shining in the hot August sun, it’s hard to forget such an impression.

The park may be small, but damn is it chock full of amazing things.

The Ray House is only original building on the battlefield featuring much of what would have been in the house. In fact the bed frame in there now is the same that was used to lay out General Lyon’s body. The house was used as a field hospital treating both Union and Confederate troops, and during the fight, the family hid in an underground cellar. The house is a popular place for tours and is the centerpiece of their moonlight tours. When you walk through there and see people in period dress, bloody rags laying everywhere and screaming men trying desperately to get rid of the pain, you feel as if you were right there in the thick of it. You’re transported back to that warm humid evening of August 10, 1861.

The Ray House is meticulously maintained to preserve its original condition. There are some modern features like climate control to preserve the artifacts, but visitors can see what the house was like during the Civil War.

What really draws me to Wilson’s Creek are the vast ranges of fields and forests that look so well maintained. Underneath it all is a bloody historical narrative though. Missouri witnessed intensely savage fighting during the war years with bands of roaming guerrillas and bushwackers slashing each other. The social and political divisions here ripped families apart and vendettas scarred relationships for decades after. To be a farmer in Missouri back then was an almost riskier occupation than a Union or Confederate soldier; you didn’t know if you would die today or by who’s hand.

Finally, as you wind around the one-way roads, you make your way up steep elevation. Whenever I rode my bike, this was a struggle and ended up with me dismounting and just pushing the bike up the hill. But to the Civil War aficionado, this is the climax of visiting Wilson’s Creek; Bloody Hill. The bulk of Lyon’s army was situated on the hill controlling the high ground. They repelled four separate Confederate assaults and artillery pounded on their positions, trying to dislodge the Union from their position. Lyon himself led one charge which cost him his life unfortunately. Today a concrete marker stands in the spot where veterans say his fell.

The Lyon Marker sits at the bottom of Bloody Hill. While it’s quite a hike to get there, you can’t help but experience the transcendental feeling of being where men died and their remains could quite possibly be right under your feet.

Every few years, park employees or visitors find artifacts in the battlefield grounds. Stories are still popping up about who had ancestors that fought or died at the battle. In a recent discovery, I learned that my 5x great-grandfather Presley Beal was responsible for building a makeshift coffin for General Lyon in order to transport his body back to its final resting place in Connecticut. Who would have known? My Wilson’s Creek connection just got stronger. Even now that I live in St. Louis, I still try to visit the battlefield whenever possible. The draw is undeniable. The scenery is beautiful, the history is rich, and the people who keep it open for public enjoyment are the most endearing and educated history keepers I know. Wilson’s Creek will always hold a special place in my heart as I continue to travel the country seeing historic places. No matter how far I go, I’ll always know right where to come back; to a small, winding creek in southwest Missouri where the birds sing, the wheat shines, and the soil gives up the dead and tells a story of our nation’s struggle and reconstruction.

For more information about the battlefield and park, visit the NPS website: Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield

Eternal Remembrance: National Cemeteries for the U.S. Armed Forces

A calm breeze carries through wide, green, rolling hills. Blades of grass slightly bend as the fallen leaves rustle about on the ground. A handful swirl about, settling against a granite headstone and obscuring the epitaph. The words read: ‘Unknown – U.S. Soldier’ stamped in the shield relief. Stepping back from the marker, what comes into view is an entire field of unknown soldiers. They are not alone however. They are in the company of others who served honorably in the armed forces.

Unknown Soldier – this epitaph is used to denote service members who could not be properly identified after their death. The most notable use of the title is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery

The United States has an elaborate burial system for veterans and their families. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), National Cemetery System, Arlington National Cemetery, the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmens’ Cemetery, the American Battle Monuments Commission, and various cemeteries under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service all comprise the different methods for interring deceased service members. During the American Civil War as private cemeteries were unable to accommodate the increasing number of Union dead, Congress passed legislation authorizing the creation of national cemeteries. Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, who lost his son Lt. John Meigs, was pivotal in choosing locations. What resulted was arguably the most famous cemetery in the world. Robert E. Lee’s home, Arlington House, was occupied by the Union within weeks of the war’s opening. Generals used the mansion as a headquarters for three years and in June 1864, Meigs ordered the burial of soldiers in the Arlington grounds. Meigs heavily resented Lee joining the Confederacy and historians argue there were political motivations for establishing a cemetery on his property. Union soldiers were buried and monuments were erected in later years, rendering the mansion unlivable. The government originally purchased the land in an estate sale due to delinquent property taxes, but the Lee family argued that the tax sale was improper. In the 1882 Supreme Court case, United States vs. Lee, the court ruled in favor of the Lees and returned the grounds. The victory was short-lived however since the family never occupied the house again and sold the property back to the government for a large sum. Today, Arlington National Cemetery is maintained solely by the U.S. Army, along with the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Cemetery.

Veterans and their spouses are entitled to be buried in a national cemetery. Depending on the current regulations, spouses can choose to have a separate headstone or have their epitaph etched on the rear of the veteran’s marker.

Following both world wars, the VA worked diligently to implement an administrative system that oversaw the maintenance of military cemeteries. In 1973, administration of military cemeteries passed from the Department of Defense to the VA and they established the National Cemetery System. The NCS comprises of 147 military cemeteries, with 131 under the jurisdiction of the Veterans Administration. Another 14 of these are controlled by the National Park Service (the majority of which are battlefields). While the most famous is Arlington; Jefferson Barracks, Fayetteville, Fort Leavenworth, Quantico, and the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific all protect the remains of our deceased veterans. Veterans can interred at any active location (active defined as functioning and eligible for burials meeting environmental standards). Sites under the jurisdiction of the NPS are typically connected to Revolutionary War, Civil War, and Indian War battlefields and are preserved for historical purposes. These include ones like Gettysburg, Andersonville, Little Bighorn, and Yorktown. Modern veterans are not buried at these sites dues to environmental damage that affected any historical preservation efforts.

The above marker is the current style for military interments. Older headstones that have fallen into disrepair or destroyed by vandalism are replaced with this design.

U.S. service members are buried not only in the continental U.S., but overseas as well. The American Battle Monuments Commission administers and operates military cemeteries in countries like France, Belgium, Philippines, Italy, Luxembourg, and Panama. This independent government agency is responsible for maintaining overseas cemeteries and their activities such as wreath, remembrance, and memorial ceremonies. A handful were established as temporary cemeteries during wartime (i.e. Normandy), but many were converted into permanent locations through partnerships with the host country. The AMBC administers these sites, but the physical territory remains under the jurisdiction of the host country.

A military marker is simplistic and straightforward in design and function. The Department of Veterans Affairs confirms the name, date of birth, date of death, final rank at discharge, service branch, wartime service period, and personal awards. A religious designation symbol is placed at the top (if space allows, a personal description is allowed at the family’s request)

So how does a veteran become eligible for burial in a military cemetery? The basic criteria stipulates that a veteran must not have received a bad character of service discharge and provide the required paperwork (DD Form 214, Notice of Separation). A veteran who is killed while on active duty, especially in combat, are guaranteed a burial. National Guard and Reserve members must meet time-specific requirements or been mobilized at any point. What disqualifies a veteran from a military burial would be any of the following:

  1. Other than honorable discharge and lower; i.e. bad conduct or dishonorable.
  2. Convicted of capital crimes (murder, rape, child pornography, terrorism, etc.)
  3. Convicted of sex crimes
  4. Engaged in subversive activities against the United States
  5. Enlisted but never served (referred to as an Uncharacterized Entry Level Separation)

For more information on military burials, visit the VA Burials and Memorials Page.

These cemeteries are solemn, sacred places. Their symbolic value lies in with the soldiers who died serving the nation and are remembered for their deeds. As President Abraham Lincoln stated in his Gettysburg Address:

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

These cemeteries and the memorials built to honor the past and living memory of the deceased and the conflicts are in many ways immortal. People can come and go, but the names are etched, stamped, and emblazoned for eternity in hallowed grounds around the world.

The Bleeding Southwest: A Review of ‘The Civil War in the Western Territories’ by Ray C. Colton

Civil War historiography is saturated with biographies, retellings of grandiose military campaigns, and the political struggles to end the moral scourge of slavery in the United States. Civil War historians produce mountains of research on the causes, role of slavery, political debates in the high echelons of Washington D.C., military technology, evolving societal roles, and much more. Entire libraries can be filled with only Civil War publications. The most common knowledge of the Civil War is focused on what happened in the Eastern United States; great battles like Gettysburg, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Atlanta dominate the narrative. People imagine long battle lines filled with muskets, powder smoke, and huge colorful flags as soldiers shoot and melee each other until they capitulate. Smaller battles like Pea Ridge, Wilson’s Creek, and Prairie Grove are enshrined as well, mostly through the regional and local histories that preserve them so well. But what about the battles further west? The ones beyond the Great Plains and into the rugged territories of the American West? As pioneers moved west in search of new opportunities, federal laws were loosely enforced, making the territories of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah scenes of sporadic, but intense violence. Armies numbered in the hundreds, not thousands. Here in the West were untapped resources and a connection to the Pacific Ocean. Federal outposts and troops stationed there were more for protecting settlers from local Indian tribes; ill-equipped to halt an invasion of regular troops. The leaders of the Confederacy believed that if they could conquer and incorporate the western territories, they would have access to enormous wealth and be one step closer of having a nation stretch between the two oceans.

Map of the Arizona and New Mexico Territories, circa 1867. Two pivotal battles occurred here during the American Civil War. Battles with local Ute, Apache, and Paiute Indian tribes were also a focal point for Union troops stationed in the western territories.

Ray Colton’s ‘The Civil War in the Western Territories‘ chronicles the events of the New Mexico Campaign led by C.S.A. Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley, battles against Indian nations, and how the war shaped the western territories. Colton shines in delivering a detailed narrative filled with primary sources of military leaders, government dispatches, and personal diaries of enlisted men and pioneers. Where Colton lacks however is placing the conflict within the larger context of the American Civil War. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and C.S.A President Jefferson Davis were both heavily invested in the outcome of their army’s campaigns, but expanding on these implications of a successful Confederate invasion could have enriched the understanding of the reader’s idea of the West’s criticality. Despite this, Colton breaks down the narrative into specific stages of how the western conflict unraveled:

  1. Battles between the Union and Confederate armies.
  2. Skirmishes and attacks between the U.S. Army and local Indians
  3. The political and social impacts of the New Mexico Campaign

To provide some background on why the Confederacy endorsed an invasion into the U.S. territories, the plan had the potential to tip the balance of power on the continent. Jefferson Davis, his cabinet, and generals argued that the vast mineral wealth (particularly gold and silver in Colorado and New Mexico), access to the Pacific Ocean, and military pressure to divert Union troops away from the Eastern Theater were the major benefits. Confederate leaders also hoped that the Apaches and Paiutes would indirectly assist them in occupying Union troops while their own troops captured towns, forts, and supply lines.

Lt. Col. Edward Canby, Union commander of the Department of New Mexico, got wind of the coming invasion and on July 23rd, 1861 (two days after the First Battle of Bull Run, the first major engagement of the Civil War) Lt. Col. John Baylor and the Texas 2nd Mounted Rifles entered the New Mexico Territory. From here, Colton does a phenomenal job of writing a line-by-line description of the two sides chasing and slashing at one another. The writing sometimes takes on a commentary feel as Colton infuses the action with personal writings from the commanders and soldiers. The Confederates from the beginning had the advantage. Union troops scattered between Fort Craig and Fort Fillmore struggled against the larger column of Southern troops. Baylor seized the town of Mesilla and following a successful repulsion of Union attacks, Baylor proclaimed the Confederate Arizona Territory on August 1, 1861. While Union commanders struggled to regroup from the loss at Bull Run, Confederate commanders were expanding the boundaries of the Confederacy.

Mesilla served as the capital for the Confederate Arizona Territory. The first step in the conquest of the American West and the goal of stretching the Confederacy to the Pacific.

Between August 1861 and February 1862, Baylor’s Texans skirmished with Union forces in the surrounding lands outside Mesilla. Small Confederate victories (small in numbers of casualties) inched the Southerners further west. Meanwhile, Lt. Col. Canby was hastily assembling his army to push the Confederates out of Arizona and New Mexico when in February 1862, Gen. Sibley’s column entered the territory. Their forces came to ahead first at the Battle of Valverde where Sibley was victorious, but Union cavalry broke Confederate supply lines and captured many of the wagons and pack animals. Rather than engage Canby again, Sibley kept moving north to Santa Fe and Mesilla were supplies were waiting. On March 26, 1862 the two armies met again in the Battle of Glorieta Pass. For two days the armies savaged one another in a back-and-forth melee and sporadic fighting in numerous spots made it difficult to determine the frontline. Sibley needed a victory here; Union control of the West and the Rocky Mountains could be broken and the Confederacy would stretch unobstructed to the Pacific coast. Despite their desperate situation, Union troops defeated the southerners, forcing them back to Santa Fe. This loss, coupled with the approaching California Column (a volunteer outfit of infantry and cavalry regiments) proved too much for the Confederate Army of New Mexico. By August 1862, the last of Gen. Sibley’s outfit staggered back across the Rio Grande into Texas and the Confederate flags were torn down and replaced with the Star Spangled Banner.

Colton doesn’t overlook what happened next in the story of the Western Territories. Even though the Confederates were purged from Arizona and New Mexico, Union forces in the region took to the next task; protecting settlers and subduing local Native American tribes. Almost half of the book’s text is dedicated to this subject since for the remainder of the Civil War and beyond, whites constantly clashed with Indians and it was the Army’s primary duty to intervene. The gravity of the invasion was not lost on many of the Native American warriors. The two armies attacking each other was an opportunity to strike back. Apaches, Kiowas, Comanches, and more increased the regularity of their raids on white settlements. Kit Carson was tasked to lead a detachment of Union cavalry to retaliate against Indians throughout New Mexico and from these fights came more stories to add to his almost legendary status. Volunteers from the California Column also engaged various tribes and white civilians contributed as much as was possible to stop the raids.

Colorado saw the majority of the Indian fighting. Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Utes attacked settlements across Colorado and inflicted substantial damage on the local economies. Calls for more troops and peace talks abounded between Colorado and Washington D.C. The violence climaxed on November 29, 1864. Despite repeated warnings to not engage the Cheyenne however, Col. John Chivington of the 3rd Colorado Cavalry swooped down on an encampment near the Big Sandy Creek and proceeded to kill everyone [Chivington fought at the Battle of Glorieta Pass and spent another two months attacking Confederates in New Mexico]. The chief, Black Kettle, had flown a U.S. and white flag from his lodge showing that he was following the terms of peace and to deter any more U.S. soldiers from attacking. Chivington ignored this display, resulting in the Sand Creek Massacre. Colton pulls no punches in outlining the lead-up and fallout from the massacre. While overshadowed by the greater specter of civil war, unforgettable atrocities against Native Americans were committed during the years of unchecked violence.

Casualty estimates between 50 to 500 Cheyenne were killed at Sand Creek. The majority of these victims were women and children. Soldiers later testified of the grotesque manner of how they killed or maimed many of the victims (scalping, beheading, and removal of fetuses)

The third section of Colton’s book examines how western territories adapted politically during the Civil War, such as Arizona and New Mexico coping with secessionists and re-incorporation into the Union. Loyalty and allegiance oaths are the over-arching theme since a majority of settlers were seen as anti-government and susceptible to causing havoc. For one group, their relationship with the U.S. government, but opposition to slavery, made their role in the Civil War more critical than historians initially give them credit. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and its president Brigham Young built their new Zion near the Great Salt Lake in Utah. A vital mail route, the Overland Trail, ran through the territory and throughout the war’s duration, Union troops remained stationed near Salt Lake with the mission of protecting the route. Brigham Young and the church were not wholly convinced of their altruistic mission, given their checkered history with state and federal governments. However, the church’s condemnation of slavery was crucial as many Union supporters thought that they would also join the Confederacy; on the assumption that Utah would want to safeguard the institution of polygamy. New territorial governors and political appointees to the Utah territory were constantly at odds with Brigham Young and their Mormon constituents. This exacerbated an already volatile situation with Union troops camped not far from Salt Lake City. Governor John Dawson vetoed a bill authorizing delegates to a constitutional convention (which would have led to statehood) was just one of the many political conflicts unfolding in Utah. One accusation made against Brigham Young was the depreciation of the national currency and using a new metals standard. These political tensions almost came to a head when federal troops drilled for a potential occupation of Utah. By 1864, General Irvin McDowell ordered all federal troops to leave the Salt Lake area and remove themselves from interfering in any legislation or economic ventures in Utah. Protecting the Overland Mail Route was their first and only duty. A serious armed conflict with the potential of creating another internal split in the West was averted and the Church looked forward to more years of peace.

Patrick Edward Connor, Union commander of the District of Utah. Conner clashed repeatedly with Brigham Young and other church leaders during the Civil War. His troops were always precariously positioned on the Overland Route, making many residents uneasy.

The Civil War in the Western Territories‘ was a strong, well-researched manuscript, but lacked in some greater contextual research. Colton makes no exception when evaluating the importance of the Trans-Mississippi Theater. Despite that, there are only a few references in establishing connections between the Eastern and Western Theaters. If there is documentation that generals like U.S. Grant, William T. Sherman, James Longstreet, or Albert Sidney Johnston, were actively watching and taking events in New Mexico into account, that would have increased the geographical importance of the Western Territories. When researching the American Civil War, we must remember to take all theaters and battles into account with their role, position, and relevance in the wider conflict. What if Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah elected to join the Confederacy? What if Gen. Sibley punched a hole through to the Pacific? These questions were being asking in 1861 and so we ought to ask them today.

Distinguishing Service: Requesting U.S. Army Medals (2 of 4)

For as long as the United States Army has existed, there have been awards and decorations that were given for acts of valor and heroism.  Since the American Revolution, such awards were not specifically regulated until World War I, but ones like the Badge of Military Merit were forerunners to the Purple Heart. The Medal of Honor, established during the American Civil War, was the first to be regulated following Congressional legislation and was accompanied by benefits. At the turn of the 19th century, the Spanish-American War resulted in the first use of campaign medals and the creation of retroactive medals like the Civil War and Indian War campaign medals. It wasn’t until World War I and during World War II that the Department of the Army, Congress, and the White House began instituting more types of medals for its service members.

Sgt. William Harvey Carney, the first African American soldier to receive the Medal of Honor. He was decorated for his courage under fire and valor in saving the regimental colors during the Battle of Fort Wagner in the American Civil War. He didn’t receive the medal for at least 37 years after the battle (Photo courtesy of James Reed, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University)

Since 1917, there have been dozens of new medals and updated version of obsolete ones. We’ve seen the creation of the Purple Heart, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Distinguished Service Cross and Medal, the Soldier’s Medal, and the Army Commendation Medal and Army Achievement Medal. These don’t even include the large number of service awards like the Army Service Ribbon, NCO (Non-commissioned Officer) Professional Development Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon. It still doesn’t even account for all the Army Reserve awards either or even the Weapons Qualifications badges either. Unit awards are a whole other category as well with the Presidential Unit Citation, Valorous Unit Citation, and much more. Within the Department of the Army (DOA), there are civilian-grade awards as well for public service and meritorious achievement which are given to civilian employees within the Army. In summary, the U.S. Army has exponentially grown its list of personal awards and even more so with each conflict that the U.S. Army engages with the enemy overseas. This article continues from the previous post (Gallantry and Valor) by describing various types of U.S. Army medals, what medals belong to which conflict, retroactive awards, and how veterans can request their medals through the National Personnel Records Center. Because of the immense catalog of awards and decorations, more in-depth research can be done privately on the history of Army awards and so here we’ll highlight some of the most common facets and types of medals.

As previously stated in ‘Gallantry and Valor‘ awards are divided into categories such as personal decorations, service, campaign, weapon badges, and unit awards. There are those a veteran receives for meritorious and heroic actions, for participating in a campaign during wartime, for personal achievement, and for serving with a specific unit that is decorate as a whole. Within each category, there’s a system of appurtenances to denote multiple issuance of the same award (oak leaf clusters, service stars, numerals, devices, etc.). These are used by all the service branches of the United States Armed Forces.

Lt. Gen. James H. Doolitte pictured with his awards and appurtenances. Doolittle became famous for the raids on the Japanese home islands following the attack on Pearl Harbor. They became known as the ‘Doolittle Raids’ (photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

A new award is established primarily by these methods:

  1. The DOA establishes criteria for a new award or decoration.
  2. Congress authorizes an award by passing specific legislation.
  3. The President signs an executive order creating a new award.
  4. The Department of Defense (DOD) establishes criteria for a new award.

Medals and awards are not normally established during peacetime. Between the Spanish-American War and World War I, there were practically no new medals and even fewer recipients because the peace-time army was so small. It’s only during wartime that you can see the explosion of new medals and decorations. These are created to recognize the type of conflict and whether or not a person directly participated in combat actions or served in another capacity. Service members can receive awards automatically for being on active duty.

The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) and DOA follow a specific criteria for determining an Army veteran’s medals, which is pulled directly from their Official Military Personnel Folder. Technicians review records thoroughly and cross-check it with lists and ledgers from the DOD to ensure that they are eligible for unit awards. Here’s a breakdown of automatic medals eligible to veterans by directly participating in a campaign overseas against an enemy:

World War I

The World War I Victory Medal (the medal was affixed with battle clasps denoting the battle the soldier fought in as well)

World War II

From left to right, top to bottom: American Defense Service Medal (active duty before December 7th, 1941), American Campaign Medal (service in the American Theater), Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal (service in the Pacific Theater), European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal (service in the European Theater), World War II Victory Medal (active duty between December 7, 1941 to December 31, 1946), Army Occupation Medal (for serving in the occupation forces in WWII Axis countries).

Korean War

National Defense Service Medal (active duty during an armed conflict), Korean Service Medal (active duty service in South Korea between June 27th, 1950 and July 27th, 1954), United Nations Service Medal (international award issued with KSM), Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation (retroactive unit award issued by the Republic of Korea for veterans that participated in conflict)

Vietnam War

National Defense Service Medal (active duty during an armed conflict), Vietnam Service Medal (active duty in the Republic of Vietnam from July 4, 1965 to April 30, 1975), Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation (foreign medal awarded retroactively to all U.S. Army veterans with Vietnam service), Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device (foreign medal awarded retroactively to all U.S. Army veterans with Vietnam service)

Desert Storm / Gulf War

National Defense Service Medal (active duty during an armed conflict), Southwest Asia Service Medal (active duty service in Southwest Asian region between August 2, 1990 and November 30, 1995), Kuwait Liberation Medal (Saudi Arabia version, active service in the Persian Gulf), Kuwait Liberation Medal (Kuwait version, participated in Operation Desert Storm)

Global War on Terrorism (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, etc.)

From left to right, top to bottom: National Defense Service Medal (active duty during an armed conflict), Afghanistan Campaign Medal (service in Afghanistan from October 24, 2001 to present day), Iraq Campaign Medal (service in Iraq from March 19, 2003 to December 31, 2011), Inherent Resolve Campaign Medal (direct participation in Syria combat actions from June 15, 2014 to present day), Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal (deployed overseas against terrorism from September 11, 2001 to present day) Global War on Terrorism Service Medal (supported operations to counter terrorism from September 11, 2001 to present day),

Medals and other awards can also be issued retroactively if a veteran fits certain eligibility. A large number of awards requests submitted to the NPRC are for retroactive awards that a veteran wants or needs for things such a admission to a VFW or American Legion or VA benefits. Here are some common instances of retroactive Army awards that are given based on certain qualifications:

  1. World War II veterans that received the Combat Infantryman Badge or the Combat Medical Badge are also eligible for the Bronze Star Medal.
  2. Service members who were stationed in South Korea since July 28th, 1954 qualify for the Korea Defense Service Medal. The KDSM was established in December 2002 and is the most requested retroactive Army award.
  3. Service members that served in specific countries within a set time frame are eligible for the Armed Force Expeditionary Medal (criteria set and approved by the Department of Defense.
  4. Veterans of the Korean War that served on active duty in South Korea were eligible to wear the Korean War Service Medal. This is a foreign award that initially was declined by the DOA to wear. In 1999, the Army finally authorized the wearing of the medal.

Requesting awards and decorations from the NPRC can be a lengthy process depending on the nature of the request. If a veterans wants all awarded and eligible medals, the technician reviews documents citing awards such as the DD Form 214, DA 20 Chronological Record, orders, and DOD unit awards lists. Once this is completed, the technician submits the information to the Army TACOM in Philadelphia, which oversees the heraldry office that re-issues medals. All the submitted information is verified and if there’s any conflicting item, the Army Human Resources Command at Fort Knox gives the final say in determining a medal. The NPRC’s only role is providing documentation; the awards come from the Army itself. In the case of the Army, only the next-of-kin can request medals and can be issued multiple times under certain conditions. Awards information can also be obtained by the public through a FOIA request, but the physical medals won’t be; the NPRC only sends a list.

That was a lot to read! But let’s give a sample scenario:

A U.S. Army veteran requests his medals and gives these criteria (and let’s assume that the record contains all supporting documentation):

  • He served in Vietnam from 1 July 1966 to 30 June 1968
  • His MOS was Infantry
  • He was wounded in combat twice
  • There are citations for a Bronze Star Medal with “V” device
  • He served with the 4th Infantry Division the entire time overseas
  • He was briefly captured by the North Vietnamese Army and has bonafide documentation as a prisoner of war

  1. The veteran received the Combat Infantryman Badge for his combat role.
  2. Bronze Star Medal with “V” device because of in-record citation.
  3. Purple Heart with a bronze oak leaf cluster because of being wounded twice in combat.
  4. Prisoner of War Medal for being a captive of enemy forces.
  5. National Defense Service Medal for active duty during an armed conflict.
  6. Vietnam Service Medal with four bronze service stars for time in country.
  7. Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation (automatic award for all U.S. Army veterans who served in Vietnam).
  8. Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device (automatic award for all U.S. Army veterans who served in Vietnam).
  9. Presidential Unit Citation with bronze oak leaf cluster because unit received award twice while attached to the 4th Infantry Division.

Hopefully this information has been helpful! Check back for the next chapter that will focus on the U.S. Air Force awards and decorations, eligibility, and request process.


Gallantry and Valor: Requesting Military Medals (1 of 4)

In the 1970 film ‘Patton’, George C. Scott, who portrays the titular character, clicks his heels and salutes as the bugler sounds off the Third Army call. In multiple camera shots, you see the general coated in numerous awards, decorations, and badges. People have always had a fascination in seeing the brightly colored ribbon bars and see it as a sign of an accomplished veteran. Those awards are kept with them throughout their lifetime, but as well all know, the uncertainties of life can interfere. Things get lost in a move, a natural disaster claims our valuables, or are simply lost to time and never found again. Fortunately, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) provides a valuable service to veterans along with giving them access to their records; requesting their service awards and decorations.

Doris Miller received the Navy Cross for his heroism and courage during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was the first African-American to be awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest award in the Navy (Photograph of Doris Miller Showing Navy Cross Received in Ceremony at Pearl Harbor, 12/7/1941, General Records of the Department of the Navy, 1804 – 1983, NARA)

The Department of Defense and the Armed Forces have specific criteria on who and what is eligible for receiving a veterans’ awards and because that criteria is so varied and lengthy, this is the first of a four part article on how to request awards from each of the service branches. This post will discuss the research process and determination of awards, decorations, and badges. There are a plethora of private vendors selling decorations, but requesting them through the National Personnel Record Center is a bonafide way of receiving authentic and the correct awards.

Military decorations can be broken down into the following categories:

  1. Personal decorations: awards for gallantry, distinguished service, heroism, commendation, achievements, and meritorious service.
  2. Unit awards: given to all members of a military unit who participated in action within a specific time frame.
  3. Service awards: given to those with exemplary actions and personal achievement during active duty service.
  4. Campaign awards: given those that participated in a designated military action within the duration of a campaign against a hostile enemy force.
  5. Training ribbons: awarded to individuals that excelled in basic training courses and graduated from training schools with honors.
  6. Marksmanship badges: awarded to individuals based on their proficiency with a variety of weapons.

Requesting medals through the National Personnel Records Center ensures that a veteran will receive all medals that they are entitled to, as they could be a recipient of a retroactive award (e.g. service members who served in Korea since 1954 are eligible for the Korea Defense Service Medal, which was established in 2002). Unlike most requests for military records, medals requests are only allowed by the veteran, spouse, and next-of-kin. John Q. Public can’t write in asking for their friend’s Sgt. John Doe’s medals as a surprise birthday gift; it’ll get denied faster than an overdrawn debit card at the liquor store.

Once the request is submitted, NARA technicians research the record by looking at specific documents listing awards; DD Form 214, DA-20, general orders, citations, etc. Additionally, NARA cross-checks the veterans service dates and foreign service against lists of unit awards to see if they’re eligible. These lists break everything down by division, battalion, regiment, and company so reviewing these documents can be time consuming. The payoff though is entirely worth it as the veteran can get every decoration and award they’re entitled to for sure. In those cases when there’s a problem verifying a medal or the veteran claims they were awarded a certain medal, the service branch has the final say in such a matter. When the research is done, the information is submitted to the appropriate service branch for verification. NARA doesn’t manufacture the medals, only supplies the information to the service branch.

Ribbon rack of a U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam. From top to bottom, left to right: Silver Star, Soldier’s Medal, Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with three bronze stars, Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device (created for educational purposes only, not from an OMPF)

Along with the medal ribbons are what are called appurtenances. These are small bronze, silver, or gold shapes affixed on the ribbons to indicate multiple issues of said award or special recognition. These include, but are not limited to the following:

  1. Oak leaf clusters: placed on personal awards like a Purple Heart or Achievement Medal. If a veteran was wounded twice, they receive the Purple Heart and a bronze oak leaf cluster. Bronze clusters indicate one award and silver indicates five awards.
  2. Service stars: indicate the time spent in a campaign in a hostile area. If a veteran served in Iraq or Kuwait between August 1990 and April 1991, they receive two bronze stars on their Southwest Asia Service Medal. Bronze stars indicate one award and silver indicates five awards.
  3. Numerals: similar to the oak leaf cluster, numerals are used to indicate multiple issuance of a specific award.
  4. “V” device: indicate acts of valor during combat. If a veteran acted with valor during combat and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, they also receive a “V” device.
  5. Loops: indicates multiple issuance of the Good Conduct Medal.
  6. Arrowhead device: awarded to service members who participated in an assault, combat jump, or first amphibious landing.

Ribbon rack of a U.S. Navy veteran that served in the Korean War. From top to bottom, left to right: Combat Action Ribbon, Navy Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Korean Service Medal with two bronze service stars, Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation, United Nations Service Medal (created for educational purposes only, not from an OMPF)

Awards aren’t only for gallantry, heroism, and personal achievement, but also for marksmanship abilities. Each service branch uses a system of evaluating a person’s proficiency with a weapon and is given a corresponding badge. There are three commonly used levels; marksman, sharpshooter, and expert. Underneath that is a small bar reflecting the type of weapon with that proficiency level. If a soldier scored high enough marks with an M-16 and .45 pistol, they’d receive that badge and a Rifle and Pistol bar attachments.

U.S. Army marksmanship badges; Expert, Sharpshooter, and Marksman, plus a weapon bar.

Commonly, veterans request their medals for personal usage, such as creating a shadowbox or passing them onto their children or grandchildren. In addition, veterans routinely request their awards upon hearing that they qualify for awards retroactively. This happens when a new award is created by the service branch, DOD, or Congress or eligibility of an existing award is expanded.

Combat Infantryman Badge

A famous example is the issuance of the Bronze Star Medal to World War II veterans. If a veteran received the Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB) while serving a theater of operations during World War II, they are immediately eligible for a Bronze Star Medal. As the World War II generation continues to shrink daily, more and more medals requests like these are becoming commonplace. Another routinely requested award is the Combat Action Ribbon for Navy and Marine Corps service members. The Department of the Navy maintains a strict accounting of every ship and Marine Corps unit that engages in combat and when those ledgers are updated, veterans can apply to see if they’re eligible for the CAR.

This all seems overwhelming, doesn’t it? While the process seems daunting on the surface, the real nitty-gritty occurs with the technicians who need to be 100% accurate in their research. Not just the NARA techs, but the service members who verify and approve the information. All it takes is one mistake or miscommunication to render a veteran’s award application ineligible. This is why it’s so terribly important to be as detailed and truthful through every stage of the medals process.

This has been a basic (and I mean VERY basic) introduction to U.S. military awards and decorations. For more information, you can visit the different heraldry offices for the Armed Forces and read about every award that is currently issued. The next chapter will look exclusively at Army medals, how to request them, and see how they’ve changed through the United States’ involvement in global conflicts.

George C. Scott as General Patton, standing in front the U.S. flag, the iconic image from the 1970 film ‘Patton’