In preparation for our next case exhibition at the Keeney Memorial Cultural Center that will honor Wethersfield servicemen and women from all American wars, we reached out to Post Commander Larry Spellacy of the Bourne-Keeney American Legion CT Post 23, and he was kind enough to loan a few of the objects to Wethersfield Historical Society. One of the loan objects from the American Legion was a Purple Heart.
A Purple Heart is one of the most breathtaking medals, not because of its aesthetic value, but because of what it stands for. This military award was established by General George Washington in 1782 as a badge of military merit. Washington was commander of an army of patriotic volunteers who had pushed beyond what was expected of them and showed bravery in the face of the powerful British army. Due to serious financial constraints of the new country, officer commissions (and their increased pay scale) could no longer be granted to award men for their bravery in battle, resulting in a new way to appreciate soldiers’ heroism with awards of merit.
It is an honor for our small steady state to be the home of the first three soldiers to receive the Purple Heart during the Revolutionary War: Sergeant Elijah Churchill, Sergeant William Brown and Sergeant Daniel Bissell. Sergeant Elijah Churchill born in Newington Parish, a member of the 4th Troop of the Second Continental Light Dragoons was the first recipient for his daring bravery in the November 1780 raid on Fort St. George and October 1781 raid on Fort Slongo. Churchill mustered in at Wethersfield under Commander Major Benjamin Tallmadge, who resided in town and was Superintendent of Schools.
The second recipient of the Purple Heart was Sergeant William Brown of Stamford of the 5th Connecticut Regiment who earned his award for his bravery leading the advance as part of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton’s troops during the Battle of Yorktown. Brown led his fellow soldiers through obstacles and gunfire with unloaded muskets to attack the British inner defense line with bayonets.
The third recipient of this honor was Sergeant Daniel Bissell of East Windsor of the 2nd Connecticut Regiment and an American spy. Bissell served as a double agent for Washington and as Quartermaster Sergeant under Benedict Arnold gathering information about British movements and troop strength in New York City.
The Badge of Military Merit fell into disuse after the Continental Army disbanded in June 1783, and it was not until the Washington Bicentennial in 1932 that the Purple Heart was reestablished. One of the original Purple Hearts is a purple silk heart with silver lace edging on a wool background. The badge has the word “Merit” stitched into the fabric surrounded by leaves while the other surviving badge has silver braid with no words. The modern Purple Heart has a purple enamel center with a quarter inch bronze border. In the center of the purple field is a profile of General Washington in his uniform and above the heart is the Washington family coat of arms between two sprays of leaves. On the reverse side of the medal is a raised heart with the inscription “For Military Merit.” The name of the recipient may or may not be inscribed on the heart.
The Purple Heart is a medal to honor servicemen and women who have faced danger and forged ahead, regardless of self preservation, for the perpetuation of our country. We wholeheartedly thank the American Legion for sharing this medal with Wethersfield Historical Society and, more importantly, thank all servicemen and women past, present and future for your valiant service.