From the Archives

From Parameters, Autumn 2000, inside back cover.

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For Action Not Quite So Valorous?

The Medal of Honor is the highest award for valor that the United States bestows on the members of her armed forces. Americans today recognize it as symbolizing the greatest measure of bravery in combat. The medal was first given in the Civil War, and sometimes in its early years it was awarded for less extraordinary actions:

In the spring of 1863 the North seemed to be losing the Civil War. All that year victory after victory had gone to the Confederacy. The situation would change shortly with the successes at Gettysburg. But in May few had real confidence in the ability of the Union to win the war.

The seriousness of the North's position was dramatically illustrated by an extreme offer Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was forced to make to the 27th Maine Regiment. A week before Gettysburg the members of the 27th were scheduled to leave the army. But Stanton needed them to help defend the capital. Despairing that the men would not reenlist, Stanton, with the approval of Lincoln, promised that the government would award the Medal of Honor to any member of the regiment who reenlisted. Shortly thereafter, simply for reenlisting, 864 members of the 27th Maine Regiment received the prestigious medal.

In 1917 a committee called the Adverse Action Medal of Honor Board took up the cases of the 864 members of the 27th. After some consideration, the board decided that not one of the Maine soldiers should have received the famous award. The board argued that reenlisting in the army was not action "above and beyond the call of duty." And with that the board disqualified every single medal.

Sources: Richard Shenkman and Kurt Reiger, One-Night Stands with American History (New York: Quill, 1982), p. 111; American Heritage, October-November 1978, p. 112.

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Reviewed 15 August 2000. Please send comments or corrections to