The Badge of Military Merit

The connection between the Purple Heart and Freemasonry

The late Brother Audie Murphy is arguably one of the most recognizable World War II veterans. Murphy allegedly falsified documents to get into the US military prior to his 18th birthday. During World War II, the Texas native became one of the most decorated service members, earning every military combat award for valor available from the US Army. These awards included the Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart with two Oak leaf clusters – indicating the award was given three times. Interestingly, of the awards earned by Brother Murphy, the Purple Heart has a connection to Brother George Washington and a connection to New York State and a Grand Lodge of New York property.

The Badge of Military Merit
While the Purple Heart was first awarded in 1932, it is inspired by a much older American award – The Badge of Military Merit. This award is “the figure of a heart in purple cloth, or silk, edged with narrow lace or binding,” sewn onto the left chest of the recipient’s uniform. On August 7, 1782, General George Washington issued a general order to establish The Badge of Military Merit.

The Badge of Military Merit is generally considered the first military decoration issued by the United States and one of the earliest like awards in modern militaries, only given to non-commissioned officers and enlisted men. Surviving records indicate that during the War for American Independence, only four men obtained this award. The first two men to have received this accommodation were honored by General Washington himself.

While the fighting on American soil generally ended with the Siege of Yorktown (September 28 – October 19, 1781), the Treaty of Paris was not signed until September 3, 1783. To ensure American interests were met at the negotiation table, Washington’s Army was kept intact, and he headquartered the post-conflict American Army at Newburgh, NY. While headquartered in Newburgh, Washington quelled the Newburgh Conspiracy and issued the very first Badge of Military Merit. This is why the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor is located in Newburgh today.

On the Third of May 1783, General George Washington presented The Badge of Military Merit to William Brown of the 5th Connecticut Regiment and Elijah Churchill of the 2nd Regiment of Light Dragoons (CT). Washington presented these awards at his headquarters in Newburgh, NY. The following day, General Washington arrived at a residence he had previously stayed for short periods prior — The DeWint House in Tappan. Most New York Masons should perk up when they hear of Washington in Tappan as the Grand Lodge of New York owns the Historic Site at Tappan — also known as the DeWint House.

The DeWint House is the oldest surviving structure in Rockland County and saw multiple visits from Brother George Washington. Washington’s first visit was August 8-24, 1780, while inspecting a redoubt on the Hudson River. Several months later, Washington again stayed at the house from September 28 – October 7, 1780, during the trial of British spy Major John André. He was captured after a meeting with Brother Benedict Arnold, where the two conspired to betray the fortifications at West Point.

Three years later, Washington returned to the home (May 4-8, 1783). This time, Washington stayed at the DeWint House while negotiating British troops’ final withdrawal from New York City. Washington made the house his headquarters the day after awarding the initial Badge of Military Merit to Elijah Churchill and William Brown. Washington’s final visit to the home came just six months later when a snowstorm forced him the seek refuge during his trek from West Point to New York City – on his way to tender his resignation from his position as General of the Army.

One may wonder how this property wound up in the position of the Grand Lodge of New York. In 1932 Grand Master Charles H. Johnson heard that the property was for sale and a potential buyer was likely to tear down the residence so closely connected with Brother George Washington. The Grand Lodge of New York has owned and maintained the property since. The Grand Lodge of New York restored the DeWint House, and in 1966 it was declared both a National Historic Landmark and added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Written by Bro. Nathan Tweedie
Senior Deacon and Historian, Ostego Lodge #138
Junior Warden, Delaware River Lodge #439
Central Leatherstocking District