The Medal of Honor

A Senate Resolution of 17 Feb 1862, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln on 12 Jul 1863, provided for the presentation of ‘Medals of Honor’ “In the name of Congress, to such non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and other soldier-like qualities, during the Civil War.”

On 3 Mar 1863, Congress changed the law to include officers and to make the only qualification “Gallantry in Action”. On 2 May 1896, Congress authorized a change in the ribbon. On 23 Apr. 1904, Congress authorized a new design and on 20 Sept. 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered “The recipient of a Medal of Honor will, whenever practicable, be ordered to Washington and the presentation will be made by the President.”

In May 1863, the War Department created the Bureau of Colored Troops to handle recruitment. The United States Colored Troops (USCT) were created at this time, but all officers were still to be White.

Black soldiers were paid considerably less than White soldiers, until January 1864, when equal pay was achieved.

Over 180,000 Blacks served in USCT units–10 percent of the total Union strength. Another 200,000 Blacks served in service units. Fewer than 100 served as officers. Thirteen Black Non-Commissioned Officers received Medals of Honor for action at Chapins Farm, Virginia, where they assumed command of their units and led assaults after their White officers had been killed or wounded.

Of the 1,523 Medals of Honor awarded during the Civil War, twenty-three were awarded to Black soldiers and sailors. The Navy enlisted Blacks beginning in September 1861. By 1862, regular seaman ranks were opened to Blacks. By the war’s end 30,000 Blacks had served in the Navy, out of a total Naval enlisted strength of 118,000. By 1865, over 37,000 Black soldiers had died–almost 35 percent of all Blacks who had served in combat.

African-American Civil War Memorial

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