Pullen's book gives a very detailed timeline of events leading up to and even past the Purge of 1917. It tells of the story of why the 27th were promised medals and the ultimate buffoonery that resulted in about 500 medals being made, engraved and sent off for distribution that were not authorized.
This was not corrected by the appropriate authorities and over time did much to downgrade the medal. Indeed it still does so today, despite the fact that those telling the story often do not know the whole story.
That aside, other matters also led to the unevitable Purge of 1917.
One of these was the constant pressure by powerful groups to have all of the 27th medals cancelled and to have a national roll of honor created to identify those who were actually legitimate recipients.
One of these groups was the Grand Army of the Republic, a most powerful fraternity of close to 500,000 veterans in its best days, and with posts in every state of the country and even outside, including a handfull in Canada. Many members were very senior officers and including Presidents past and future. When they talked folks usually listened.
But for all the good they did they also caused problems with the very badge they issued to membership.
Again with thousands of these being worn on a regular basis, this served to downgrade the Medal of Honor.,. though no doubt there was no such intention of this very honourable group.
In 1890 another group of veterans, but these being those who had been awarded the Medal of Honor, formed an association. It was called the Medal of Honor Legion. It also grew to be a most influentional group of heroes that would advocate on behave of veterans across the nation and work to preserve the integrity of the medal.
They and the GAR advocated numerous times in various ways to have all of the 27th Maine medals revoked. They felt firstly that about 500 of the medals should never have been issued and that further, the reasons for the issue to the remaining members of the unit were far below the standards of the deeds they performed to earn their own medals.
Ever pushing for higher and higher standards for the awarding of a medal is one thing, but the concept of applying new rules to old awards was unfair to the earlier recipients. In their day, as today it is the chose of the President who will be awaded a medal, granted he or she still having rules to follow in doing so. Rules today were not in force in the 1860's and to go back and throw out those not meeting today's standards is not fair... nor is it legal as you shall soon see.
When lists were finally produced, as any researcher will quickly admit, these were often riddled with ommissions or vagueness or other errors .
Regardless, by 1897 the President tightened up the requirements for the medal. The rules drastically changed from Civil War days. They reduced the problem the War Department was having by being bombarded for requests for medals from CW days till 1897. It now required services..."performed in action of such conspiculous character as to clearly distinguish the man for gallantry and intrepidity above his comrades. There needs to be statements from witnesses and recomendations from the commanding officer and from that day forth no further applications would be considered a year after the event took place. These were massive changes to the rules from CW days.
In 1896 a new ribbon was introduced for the medal. The following year a rosette or bow knot was designed and circulated to be worn in lieu of the medal on less formal ocassions. In 1903 a new medal was designed. In each of these events, more pressure was exerted to either cancel the 27th medals or at least at these new developments just not issue the new items to the 27th recipients. Efforts that failed.
In April of 1916 Congress passes an act that created the Medal of Honor Roll. This layed out further strict requirements for the awarding of the medal, created a small pension and also directed that those holding medals that did not meet the new requirements were to return them to the War Departments and their names were to be delisted from the roll.
In June of that year an act to reorganize the army was created called the National Defence Act. At section 122 it ordered the creation of a Board of retired Generals to examine all army (no mention of navy) Medals of Honor and strike from the list any that did not meet the current criteria for the award. It directed that the board be started within 6 months and to order the return of all medals failing to meet the new criteria. It added that those displaying or wearing it that did not meet the new rules would be committing a Misdemeanor.
The new board had a problem with the directives given. First, the bill passed by Congress created the new Honor Roll. It did not contain provisions for striking names or demandeing return of medals. The board asked that the bureaucrats that added the latter requirements take them back to Congress for approval before they moved forward. The request was not actioned. They then requested that Congress mellow the current requirements to such an extent that the 300 of the 27 and a few others would still qualify, but got no answers. They thus held meetings for a few hours every second week for several months and finally produced a report and later the names of over 900 were removed from the list. And today, when you ask how many medals were issued, these men who's names have been removed will probably not be in the numbers you get.
During the Board's deliberations it and others consulted several sources with regards to the legality of removing the names of these men and demanding the retund of medals.
A former President, a future President, several Ajudant General's, a Judge Ajudant General and the Supreme Court all gave the same opinions. You can not do what you are doing. One opinion said that..."an act done by one president of the US, vesting a right in a citizen is not subject to review by his successor." A supreme court ruling on a very similar matter issued the statement that.... No person shall be deprived...of property... without due process of law. (Constitution Amedment 5)
A Secretary of War, later a President, stated that ... the 27th medals had been legally awarded."
In recent years several of the rescinded medals have been restored. (But none from the 27th)
One might ask if it is not time to revist the 300 in the 27th who did there duty as asked, and have these medals returned to families. That said, this blog is not advocating the return of any of those medals that went to those who did not stay behind.
With the purge of 1917, the government created a new pyramid of honor so that today, there is no doubt an award most befitting to the type of bravery being considered. That in itself was a major breakthrough that resulted from this story that so unjustly has placed a cloud over the heads of the 27th Maine, many of which later went on to provide most distinguished services, some still laying on those battlefields and at least one coming away witrh a second Medal of Honor, as you read yesterday.