“No, seriously, you have to stop printing these like Thin Mints. What’s it gonna take, an actual major war to make you chill?”
~Smedley Butler, trying to turn down a Medal of Honor in the early 20th century
We’re going to start this one off with a disclaimer—any claims we make regarding the Medal of Honor is a reflection of how politicians and military leaders handed out the honor before we really had any intense modern wars under our belt. Our servicemen that fought in the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, or the many other excursions where they have put their lives on the line for their brothers and for their country have paid dearly for our benefit, and every single recipient of the Medal of Honor can, at worst, be called a hero (at best they can be called “basically Batman, if Batman could get free beer and deserved gratitude sex whenever they want”).
Even when we make fun of the skirmishes that resulted in Medals of honor being handed out during the time period of 1869 (when we had kind of forgotten what the Civil War was like) to 1917 (when we started World War I and realized, holy shit, this shit is super intense), we’re acknowledging that the soldiers who were awarded did show valor and a love of this country. They just happened to get an award that was handed out to pretty much anyone who asked for it up until recently. Let’s put it this way—Congress gave out 1522 Medal of Honors in the Civil War, of which 32 were posthumous. Now, the American Civil War was a bloody and bitterly fought war, but when you consider the fact that we awarded only 464 during the entirety of World War II (266 posthumously by the way), or that we’ve only given out 16 (7 of which were to fallen soldiers) of these awards in the Afghanistan and Iraqi War combined, you can see how we’ve increasingly made the honor harder and harder to get. The Congressional Medal of Honor, as we know it know, is the most prestigious and rare award for those who have gone above and beyond their duty to keep freedom within these borders—for those of you with a loose idea of what military action generally means, this is the award a soldier gets when doing something so brave and so intense that, if you saw it in a movie, you’d respond, “Oh, come on, the director’s really taking some liberties with this battle to make it seem more exciting.”
So currently, yes, the Medal of Honor is given out only in the most extraordinary and harrowing cases , but during the time period between the end of the Civil War and start of World War I? Well, at that point it was more…
The Medal of Honor from 1871-1917: The Military Honor America Couldn’t Seem To Give Away Fast Enough
First, some background. The Medal of Honor stands as our highest military honor, awarded for acts of valor “above and beyond the call of duty.” The President awards it in the name of the U.S. Congress to military personnel only. The Army, Air Force, and Navy each have their own version of it. Marines get the Navy version, and while exactly one member of the Coast Guard has won the Medal of Honor, which was awarded posthumously during World War II, he was given the Navy version, since a Coast Guard Medal of Honor wasn’t authorized until 1963, though they still have never designed or minted it because sometimes jokes write themselves.
It was created in 1861 during the Civil War to recognize the soldiers who distinguished themselves “conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity” during combat. Since then, 3,469 have been given out, with about half coming during the Civil War, and a whole bunch in the ensuing years before World War I, probably because we had all these medals lying around, and it seemed like as good of a reason to reward our soldiers for random skirmishes in imperialistic interests than anything else.
It’s presented by the President to the recipient, or their next of kin, in a ceremony, and can serve as a sobering reminder of the risk our military takes in the name of our freedom. All four Iraqi War recipients of the honor, for example, gave their lives in the act that they received recognition for, and three of them managed to save multiple lives by throwing themselves on a live grenade. However, presidents of the 19th and early 20th century didn’t really know how to give the Medal the weight it deserves, which is why you have frankly absurd amounts of Medal of Honor recipients for almost every small engagement from 1861 to 1917. And we’re going to go through each and every one for you, so you can truly appreciate how much this award has changed throughout the years in order to become the ultimate honor it is today.
Peacetime Medal of Honor Recipients (1866-1939): 194 Recipients, 5 Posthumously
This first entry technically bends the rules we’ve established in this article—about twenty or so of these were awarded after World War I helped us re-evaluate the military’s previous policy of Oprah-ing this award (“You get a medal, and you get a medal, AHHHHH!”) but we guess that during the peacetime between World War I (“the war to end all wars”) and World War II (“what the fuck, this bullshit again?”) we got a little medal happy again before finally kicking ourselves of the habit with World War II.
Listen, even in peacetime there are ample opportunities for America’s military to show exceptional bravery and poise worthy of awarding such an honor, but as you’ll find out with the rest of these engagements, that’s usually not the case. Normally it’s “someone did something pretty great, and we figured, hey, why not just give the highest honor for that then?” A surprising amount of these were handed out to people who performed act of heroism, but it’s the kind of heroism you normally see from everyday people. Call us sticklers, but we’d like to think the Medal of Honor should be harder to get than having your name listed as “Local Hero” on the nightly news.
Just to list off a few, we have John F. Auer, who was awarded for his November 20th, 1883 action of rescuing a drowning French boy who had fallen from a pier. In 1884, William H. Belpitt rescued a drowning Chinese man whose canoe had capsized. In 1872, James Benson attempted to save a naval recruit named John K. Smith (no, like, not successfully, so essentially he went for a really depressing swim). Michael Connolly in 1876 “rescued a citizen from drowning” while Thomas J. Ryan in 1923 saved a woman from a burning hotel in Japan after an Earthquake. We could go on and on—there are a dozen “tried and failed to save someone from drowning” awards alone, and we’re honestly a little surprised no one got one for rescuing a kitten that was stuck in a neighbor’s tree.
Besides that, we saw awards for Adolphus W. Greely in 1908 for “a lifetime of service” which, come on man, this is the fucking Medal of Honor, not a gold retirement watch. Charles Lindbergh (by far the top American when it comes to the category of “history kindly glossing over the fact that he was a huge Nazi sympathizer and had multiple secret families”) was given one in 1927 for crossing the Atlantic, which was a pretty historic event, but was it really something that the military should be giving awards out for? William H. Gowan in 1909 got one for “Bravery displayed by him during a fire” which literally sounds like he was on a boat where a fire broke out and just didn’t freak out, so they gave him a fucking Medal of Honor.
We get it—people were anxious to get some military awards when we weren’t fighting. But here’s the thing—even during this period? We were fighting all the time. Just take a look at the following engagements we had, because Manifest Destiny was a very real thing, and um, like, sorry about that, rest of the world?
The Indian Wars (1869-1898): 426 Medals Awarded, 13 Posthumously
Okay that’s legitimately embarrassing, America. We get it—the award was pretty brand new at this point, and we had no idea to handle it, but we need to point out, we awarded only 40 more Medals of Honor than this for all of World War II. We gave out 20 Medal of Honors for the Wounded Knee Massacre, and if you’re conflating that with Custard’s Last Stand, don’t do that, this is where we killed about 300 Native Americans, including 200 women and children, while suffering about 64 casualties on our end. That got more Medal of Honors than 14 years of fighting in Afghanistan! That’s actually gross, you guys.
Most of the awards were given for “Gallantry in Action” while a few were given out for “Voluntarily brought water to the wounded under fire” (multiple people were awarded for that), “Displayed conspicuously good conduct in assisting to drive away the Indians” (that soldier’s name was misspelled on the citation), “Ran down and killed an Indian” (umm), “Gallant manner in which he faced a desperate Indian” (ummmm guys, you guys?), and of course, who can forget the first of William Wilson’s two Medals of Honor, the highest military award in the United States, which was given for his work “in pursuit of a band of cattle thieves from New Mexico.”
Keep in mind, this award would eventually be given in, say, the Vietnam War, for such cattle-thief-pursuing actions as, “A Champlain who was killed while attempting to rescue a wounded corpsman” and “actions [resulting] in 14 confirmed Viet Cong killed in action and possibly 25 more, the capture of 20 prisoners, 15 weapons, and the rescue of 14 United States and free world civilians.” But no, why not just toss out a bunch of these for giving water out while fighting a greatly outnumbered and under-equipped enemy whose land we’re trying to steal? Can we just make a petition to rename like 90% of all the pre-World-War Medals of Honor and call them like, “Official US Gold Stickers”?
The Korean Expedition (1871): 15 Medals Awarded, None Posthumously (Though One Was Awarded to a Deserter)
Oh come the fuck on. Alright, some background. In 1871, we embarked on our first ever military action in Korea, which we boringly refer to as the United States expedition to Korea, and which Korea refers to far more coolly as Shinmiyangyo. Essentially, America had sent some naval forces to Korea in support of a diplomatic delegation aiming to set up trade and political relations, among other goals. On June 1st of 1871, Korean shore batteries attacked two American ships, and after waiting for an apology (seriously) for ten days, we decided to attack them to teach them a lesson about manners or something. We landed on the island of Ganghwa with about 650 troops where we captured several forts, killing about 243 of the 300 Korean troops on the whole island, while suffering losses of 3 killed and 10 wounded. For some reason this kind of pissed off Korea, and they refused to negotiate with us for the following 11 years.
The Koreans were using outdated weapons such as matchlock muskets, and didn’t stand a chance. We captured several forts with little to no resistance before having to actually expel some effort in taking Gwangseong Garrison, a citadel. The attack on the citadel was led by Lieutenant Hugh McKee, who was the first to make it over the walls, where he almost immediately sustained a fatal wound to the groin. If you’re wondering, no, he did not receive a Medal of Honor for his efforts, which we’d say is like a gunshot to the dick except, well, you know. The Korean forces were outmatched and outnumbered, and fighting was over after fifteen minutes. Apart from the 243 dead we mentioned, we captured 20 more soldiers, hoping to use them as bargaining chips to meet with Korean officials, who refused by saying that the captives were cowards, which is fucking harsh, Korea, damn. Cold blooded.
In this battle that actively accomplished nothing, we handed out 15 Medals of Honor. While none were given out for “bravery in taking a bullet to the dick” there was one for Cyrus Hayden, who “[served] as [the] color bearer of the battalion, [where he] planted his flag and protected it under heavy fire.” Or who can forget William F. Lukes, who while “fighting the enemy inside the fort…received a severe cut over the head.” Finally, we have Charles Brown (yes, Charley Brown), a 22-year-old Marine who was accommodated because he “assisted in capturing the Korean flag from the citadel of the fort.” He grabbed a flag. Now, he never received his medal, because motherfucker deserted from the Marine Corp four months later. What the actual shit? Guys, that’s just embarrassing. You can’t be offering medals to people who aren’t even going to stick around to receive them. If you could get a medal for stealing a flag and running away, most teenage boys and just about every member of a fraternity at some point or another can claim to deserve one. God, what a disaster.
Spanish-American War (1898): 111 Medals Awarded, 1 Posthumously (Awarded To Teddy Roosevelt By Bill Clinton)
Yes, you read that correctly. There was one Medal of Honor awarded posthumously during the entire Spanish-American War, and that was when Bill Clinton was like, “You know who needs a Medal of Honor? Teddy Fucking Roosevelt” and the rest of America was like, “Wait, you mean that didn’t happen?” So yes, he has one, and yes, it took 100 years for him to get it, even though literally the only thing 90% of Americans know about the Spanish-American War is that it’s the one where Teddy Roosevelt joined for the fuck of it and led the charge up San Juan Hill.
For those of who you need a refresher on the Spanish-American War, it was kind of veiled imperialism in the form of a 109 day war that ended up with us taking Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam from Spain. Essentially, Cuba wanted independence from Spain, and American journalists were doing everything they could to get Americans to hate the way Spain was treating Cuba through Joseph Pulitzer and William Hearst’s classy use of yellow journalism. We were basically looking for an excuse to get in a war with Spain to take some of their colonies when all of a sudden the USS Maine “mysteriously” sunk after an explosion while it was docked in Havana and we, you know, used that as an excuse to get in a war with Spain to take some of their colonies. We won very decisively, taking the previously mentioned territories as ours, taking temporary control of Cuba, and essentially establishing the defeat and collapse of the Spanish Empire. It’s one of only five wars ever formerly declared by Congress, which we guess is something one of you might find interesting in a boring kind of way. About 2,910 US soldiers died in the effort, but only 345 died from combat (the rest were from disease, because war before modern medicine was gross and terrifying).
In the short 3 months, 2 weeks and 4 days that we spent slapping Spain around saying “stop hitting yourself, stop hitting yourself” we handed out 111 Medals of Honor (though we guess that number was 110 at the time), which is only 8 fewer than all of World War I (you know, where 116,000 American troops died). While not as bad as the Indian Wars, many of these were awarded for ways that suspiciously feel like Congress was saying to themselves, “Hey, we’ve got all these medals here in storage, be a shame if they go to waste. Let’s just hand them out to whoever asks!” That’s why literally dozens were awarded for “setting an example of extraordinary bravery and coolness under fire” which, you’ll forgive us if we don’t wonder how that’s different than just being in a battle and not freaking out? There was also a Medal of Honor awarded to Thomas Cavanaugh because he was “on board the U.S.S. Potomac during the passage of that vessel from Cat Island to Nassau, 14 November 1898” which, wait, did he get a medal for simply being on a fucking boat as it went somewhere!?
That’s not the only “riding on a boat” Medal of Honor awarded during this war. There are literally six different sailors and marines that were awarded our nation’s highest military award for being “On board the U.S.S. Marblehead during the operation of cutting cable leading from Cienfuegos, Cuba.” Six! It’s almost fitting that, if we were to use the criteria we now employ for determining if your actions are worthy of the Medal of Honor that the only one out of 111 here that would come close to passing muster would be Teddy Roosevelt’s, and that was handed out in the fucking 1990’s.
But at least this was, technically, a war. It’s when we get trigger happy with pointless expeditions to meddle with other people’s shit that Congress and various Presidents really started getting blasé about what was required to get one of these nifty necklaces.
The Second Samoan Civil War (1898-1899): 4 Medals Awarded, None Posthumously
There were two of what the West referred to as the Samoan Civil War. The first occurred from 1886 and 1894, after reigning King of Samoa, Malietoa Laupepa, was usurped and exiled. Two rival chiefs, one supported by the United States, and the other supported by Germany, battled to take control of the archipelago. Hostilities cooled when all parties agreed to let Malietoa Laupepa return to power. When he died in 1989, the second Samoan Civil War broke out, this time with more active participation from America, Germany, and the United Kingdom, who joined forces with us. America and England wanted Prince Malietoa Tanumafili, the heir to the Samoan throne, in power, but the German backed Mata’afa Iosefo had already taken power. The extent of the conflict was two battles (the first won by the Allies, the latter won by the Germans) and a period of three US warships keeping three German warships at bay until a cyclone came through and wrecked all six of the bastards.
The whole event was pretty much the height of colonial land grabs by Europe and America—by the end, America was given control of American Samoa (the five eastern smaller Eastern islands) which remains, by choice, an unincorporated American territory to this date, and Germany took Savai’I and Upolu, the two much larger western islands, which became independent in 1962. Britain was given the Solomon Islands, which were held by Germany elsewhere, as a way to say “thank you for playing” we suppose. So despite very limited engagements (almost all the casualties occurred among the ranks of the Samoan fighters) we handed out four Medals of Honor, three to marine and one to a Navy Gunner’s Mate First Class. All of them were awarded “for distinguishing himself by his conduct in the presence of the enemy.” Their lasting legacy of course is the US control of some tiny islands with about 50,000 people living there that likes to catch tuna and ship it to us, so clearly this was a pivotal moment in America’s military history.
Philippine-American War (1899-1902): 86 Medals Awarded, 4 Posthumously
So remember that Spanish-American War giving us this fun little country made up of about 7,000 islands that we know as the Philippines? Yeah, about that—turns out that not everyone in the Philippines was happy to see us waltz in and say “we are the captain now” because, well, they kind of wanted to run their own country, and the resulting war saw twice as many American casualties as the Spanish-American War, along with a depressing 200,000 Filipino civilians perishing in the crossfire. We eventually won, and made the Philippines an unincorporated territory, and later a U.S. Commonwealth, until we finally let them go and do their own thing in 1946. We don’t talk about this war much, because frankly it was a pretty ugly part of our history. While a vast majority of the civilian casualties that were seen throughout the war were the result of disease and disrupted supply lines, we did some frankly horrific stuff in order to take control of an island group that wanted nothing to do with us, because Manifest Destiny, we guess.
Most of the awards were given out for specific action in battles, often while taking out unsettlingly high amounts of soldiers (God, we hope they were soldiers). A bunch were awarded because of soldiers who, along “with 21 other scouts completely routed 600 of the enemy” which is frankly some Rambo shit. But honestly, this whole war is a not too appealing stain on our history, so let’s just address that this was easily a war that didn’t need to be fought, and move on.
Boxer Rebellion (1900): 59 Medals Awarded, 1 Posthumously
You probably know something about the Boxer Rebellion, or at the very least hear it and go, “Oh right that’s like a thing with China or something?” For those of you who are sarcastically saying, “Heh, I didn’t pay attention to history in High School, I was too busy getting laid” well, we’re glad that Staples still lets you use your phone on smoke breaks, one of these days you’ll make assistant manager, we’re sure of it. But also, we can give you a real rudimentary idea of what was going on here—basically, it was an anti-imperialist uprising in China that occurred at the end of the Qing dynasty. A group called the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, who were referred to by Westerners as the “Boxers” because, seriously, they practice martial arts, so basically because of racism, decided they were sick of Imperialism, so they started wasting Westerners and Chinese Christians.
The Boxers were anti-foreign, anti-imperialist, and peasant-based, attacking foreigners before targeting Christians in general (they blamed Christianity for the domination of foreign powers over China). They invaded Beijing in 1900, killing 230 non-Chinese, while actively believing that they were immune to bullets. The government under Empress Dowager Cixi saw this go down and said, “Like, sure, why not” and gave them the okay to keep on doing what they were doing. Foreign citizens of a variety of nations retreated to the Beijing Legation Quarter, or basically the part of the city where all the legations (think one step below an embassy) were. At this point, a multinational coalition of 20,000 troops were sent to help rescue them, and those troops managed to successfully take Beijing and rescue those in hiding.
While most of the Boxers were killed either in the aftermath, or in legislation made by the Chinese government, they were actually responsible for about 100,000 civilian deaths, so they were kind of dicks. Apart from the imperialism background, this was probably a good place for us to lend a helping hand. Bigger picture, it lead to the eventual end of the Qing dynasty and the establishment of the modern Chinese Republic, so that was kind of cool until it got all communisted up. That said, U.S. involvement in the Boxer Rebellion lasted all of about two months, so 59 Medals of Honor is pretty nuts, and since almost all of them were for “distinguishing himself by meritorious conduct” they appeared to be, you know, the kind of actions you could just give a lesser medal for. All things considered, however, this is one of the more restrained military engagements we’re able to find from this period.
It would be another 14 years before our military was engaged on anything that might lead to battlefield heroics, and by that time, well, we’re guessing Congress was just getting really antsy to get rid of all these damn medals that were accumulating dust in the attic of the Capital (we’re assuming that’s where they’re kept) because when we got into hot water again, we ended up with…
United States Occupation of Veracruz (1914): 63 Medals Awarded, None Posthumously
So naturally, you’re all frighteningly familiar with the Tampico Affair…what’s that? You have no clue what the fuck we’re talking about? Damn, it’s really boring we hoped we…ugh, do we really have to go into it? Okay, so basically, a lot of Americans lived in an oil town called Tampico in Tamaulipas. We had a gun ship there to protect American interests or whatever, and due to a misunderstanding, and the fact that not one of the sailors on this ship (the Dolphin) knew how to speak fucking Spanish, eight sailors were arrested by Mexican authorities.
This is where things get really really stupid. We more or less said, apologize or we’ll take over Veracruz (a major port). But the de facto President of Mexico at the time, Victoriano Huerta, had to apologize in all the right ways. He needed to (God this is stupid) offer a 21-gun salute and send a formal apology to the government. Huerta ordered the release of the sailors within a day, sent a written apology, but refused to raise the U.S. flag on Mexican soil or to offer the 21-gun salute. So we invaded Veracruz, because we can be kind of dicks sometimes.
So we seized the port on April 21st, and it took like, a day. We sent about 2,300 troops to take out about 200 military and an unspecified amount of militiamen, of whom we killed about 150, while US losses were limited to 22 killed in action and 70 wounded. Now, keep in mind, this was so we could basically hold onto this port for six months for no other reason than to prove we could (and also maybe to get President Huerta knocked out of power, which totally happened).
If you were every curious as to what one single battle resulted in the most Medals of Honor being awarded, you would reasonably toss out a few suggestions. You’d probably think, a long-drawn out World War I battle, or one of those World War II campaigns. Maybe D-Day? Yeah! D-Day had a lot of insane heroics going on, we’ve all seen Saving Private Ryan…but no, no, that does not hold the distinction of the most medals awarded. It’s this fucking battle. The fucking occupation of Veracruz, Mexico using an army that outnumbered the enemy ten to fucking one. What the actual shit is the deal there?
American badass, slash, your hero you didn’t know about until you read this Wikipedia page, Smedley Butler, was one of the marines taking part in this occupation to be awarded a Medal of Honor. Butler tried to return it because he wanted to prove the very thesis of this damn 5,000 word article. Well also, and we’ll let Wikipedia do the heavy lifting here, “[he] attempted to return his Medal, explaining he had done nothing to deserve it. The medal was returned with orders to keep it and wear it as well.” So there you have it, even the people getting Medals of Honor for this thing were calling bullshit.
Invasion of Haiti (1915-1919) and Occupation of the Dominican Republic: 8 Medals Awarded in Haiti, 3 in the Dominican Republic, None Posthumously
We decided to occupy Haiti because ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, though also because there was a lot of political assassinations and forced exiles causing instability in the area…for, you know, corporations with ties to the United States, so Woodrow Wilson was like, sure, do that, don’t worry about that World War going on in Europe, we can wait a few more years to do that, let’s get some boots on the ground in Haiti. So we sent about 300 marines, along with Smedly Butler, to take over Haiti’s forts. It was pretty easy—with the last of the battles resulting in only one American injury (which came from a rock knocking out someone’s teeth). We occupied the nation until 1934, but we also decided to toss out a few Medals of Honor along the way because, why not. Honestly, given how much they blew their wad with the Veracruz occupation, we’re amazed they kept it at 8. That seems downright reasonable. Well, until you consider how few Medals of Honor have been given out since, say, 1980.
Meanwhile, from 1916 to 1924, we decided to occupy the Dominican Republic, probably because once we got Haiti in our pocket we looked over and were like, “Come on guys, it’s right there!” We gradually sent some marines in, scared their Secretary of War, Desiderio Arias, who was running the country at the time into leaving, and were like “this is ours now, cool.” This occupation didn’t last long, because after World War I public sentiment began to turn against it. In our defense, after we took over we kinda helped them along a lot—we balanced the budget, diminished their debt and helped economic growth resume. But still, yeah, Manifest Destiny, good point. Anyway, three awards were given out during this occupation, which as far as we can tell had only one battle, which was so insignificant it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.
After this point, our mindset towards idle forays into foreign skirmishes changed forever, as did our willingness to hand out the Medal of Honor to anyone and everyone who asks for one, because in 1917, we entered World War I, and later, World War II. When faced with the carnage of modern warfare, the idea of “oh he gave someone water while killing a Native American” being the pinnacle of military achievement was given a swift burial. Now, the Medal of Honor stands as a testament to the best and bravest, those in our military who face an impossible situation and keep going. There’s really no award in the nation that’s more meaningful than the Medal of Honor, and the heroes who have given their lives and bodies to uphold that tradition.
Just remember, that tradition dates back to 1917. Anything before that…no man, totally different award. Don’t even compare the two, you don’t want to do that, trust us. Goddamn Occupation of Veracruz, are you shitting us?