Last Saturday we offered a series of walks on the park examining the Medal of Honor on each of the three days during the Battle of Gettysburg to coincide with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society Convention which was held in Gettysburg last week. Part of what each of us discussed was the controversy associated with the Medal of Honor and the Civil War. The process for awarding a MOH in the 1860’s bore little resemblance to that of today, where a recommendation can take up to 18 months to move through the approval process because each recommendation receives intense scrutiny. The criteria for earning a MOH in 1863 were extremely vague. The language of the MOH legislation stated that the Medal could be awarded to soldiers who distinguished themselves “by their gallantry in action,” or by “other soldier-like qualities.” There was nothing that defined what was meant by “gallantry in action” or “soldier-like qualities.” This was left up to the officers in the field to interpret.
Most of the Gettysburg Medals of Honor were awarded in the 1890’s, not during the war. There were sixty-three medals of Honor awarded for the battle of Gettysburg of which nineteen were received during the war, three were issued in the late 1860’s, and forty-one were awarded in the 1890’s. It was possible for any veteran to apply for a MOH through the Adjutant General’s Office and many did. Fueling this quest for medals in the 1890’s was the Medal of Honor Legion, formed on April 23, 1890 by former army officers. The intent of the Legion was to protect the integrity of the Medal but it actually helped encourage a flood of nominations and requests from Civil War veterans. There was a review process for nominations but it was not rigorous and could be influenced by politics.
In this post we will examine one MOH to illustrate the problems associated with these medals issued three decades after the war. The case is Major Edmund Rice of the 19th
Massachusetts Infantry. Rice was an outstanding officer. He was wounded at Antietam, Gettysburg and Spotsylvania Court House, earned three brevets for bravery in combat and served in the U.S. Regular Army from 1866 to 1903, retiring as a brigadier general. Rice’s courage as a soldier is not in question here. Rice was awarded his MOH on October 6, 1891. An important side note about the medals awarded in the 1890’s is they were for the living, not for posthumous recognition of gallantry unrewarded during the war. Among the War Department records justifying Rice’s Medal is the following statement:
The conspicuous gallantry of Major Edmund Rice, of the 19th. Mass. Vols. Infantry, at the third day’s battle of Gettysburg, where he was severely wounded, did more than the single exertion of any other officer on our side to retrieve the day after the battle had been virtually won by the Confederates, who had broken our lines, and were cheering and swinging their hats on our captured guns. After the line was broken, the 19th dashed in and placed themselves in the rear of the break, and for twelve minutes received the enemy’s fire, at a distance of less than fifteen paces. In that time one man in every two of the whole regiment, and seven fell over, including Rice, who was shot in front of his men with his foot on the body of a fallen Confederate, he being at that moment the officer fighting nearest to the enemy in our whole line. He fought till he fell; his men fought till they fell. He held Pickett’s heavy column in check with the single thin line of his regiment, till reinforcements came from right and left.
Although as we have already established that Rice was a gallant and courageous officer, this account fairly drips with hyperbole. To claim that he “did more than the single exertion of any other officer on our side to retrieve the day after the battle had been virtually won by the Confederates” was both inaccurate and insulting to the memory of many others who gave as much or more to defeat the Confederate breakthrough at the Angle during the attack. It also does not square with the after-action report of Rice’s
commanding officer, Colonel Arthur F. Devereux. The colonel reported that the defeat of the Confederates in the Angle was due to the “extraordinary exertions of a few officers.” He named Lieutenant Frank Haskell, General John Gibbon’s aide, and Colonel James E. Mallon, commanding the 42nd New York, but not Rice. Rice’s brigade commander, Colonel Norman Hall, who always took special care in his after-action reports to note officers and men who displayed conspicuous bravery, mentioned that Rice was severely wounded, but nothing more. The only officers Hall singled out were Haskell, who nearly everyone mentioned in their reports, and Lieutenant Colonel Amos E. Steele, Jr., who was killed leading elements of his 7th Michigan against the breakthrough at the Angle. Had Rice’s actions been as extraordinary as the account above stated, surely his regimental or brigade commander would have mentioned them in their reports at the time.
It is not a question of whether Rice deserved a MOH or not. He was a brave soldier and probably well deserved a medal. What his case highlights is the problem with awarding medals three decades after the battle. Many officers who might have corroborated or refuted a soldier’s (or his comrades’) claim for a medal were dead, and because there was no rigorous standards or system for how Medals of Honor were to be awarded to veterans of the Civil War the 1890’s became something of a MOH free-for-all, with those who were the most insistent or persistent, or who had political clout or powerful friends within the army, standing the best chance of securing one. And since there was no rigorous review of nominations exaggerations and hyperbole could become part of the official record.
In 1897 the War Department brought the MOH free for all to an end when it published stricter guidance regarding the Medal. It was now necessary that the “service must have been performed in action of such gallantry and intrepidity above his comrades – service that involved extreme jeopardy of life or the performance of extraordinarily hazardous duty,” and the nomination had to be accompanied by “incontestable proof of performance of the service.”
There is a tendency for us today to sometimes feel obliged to right the wrongs of the past and fight for medals or monuments to those we think were overlooked during the war. But as I pointed out to my group on Saturday, history is often unfair in who is honored and who is not, with those deserving sometimes being left unrecognized and forgotten. We cannot now – 150 years later – pick and choose who deserves to be honored and who does not. We have already honored them all by preserving this battlefield. So long as we do so, their sacrifices, their story, and their memory will not be forgotten.
D. Scott Hartwig