Many Hudson Valley residents are probably aware that, for about a year-and-a-half in the waning days of the Revolutionary War, up until the signing of the Treaty of Paris, George Washington established his final military headquarters in the City of Newburgh, and that his restive troops were encamped nearby, at the New Windsor Cantonment. Some history buffs will even be familiar with the pair of crises known as the Newburgh Letter and the Newburgh Conspiracy, in which the general adamantly rejected efforts to make him a king or an autocrat, rather than the first president of a self-governing republic. But what’s this business with the Purple Heart? Why is there a museum dedicated to the medal’s history sharing the Historic Site of the New Windsor Cantonment?
The question arises now, because New York governor Andrew Cuomo has just announced a $17 million expansion of the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor. The 7,500-square-foot facility will close for a full year, as construction gets underway on 4,300 square feet of new and refurbished exhibit space, with an increased emphasis on stories of individual award recipients. Cuomo is touting the improvements as part of a multifaceted campaign to make New York State, home to nearly 750,000 military vets, “the most veteran-friendly state in America.”
The project will involve expanding the Hall of Honor to incorporate integrated audiovisual and media presentations. Once completed, the Hall will feature new exhibits that tell stories about joining the service, the day of the incident, field treatment and evacuation, the changing nature of warfare, the consequences of war, the road to recovery and the ultimate sacrifice.
During the November 2019-to-November 2020 construction period, the adjacent New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site galleries will also be closed, but the Cantonment grounds will continue to be open year-round. Outdoor site events will continue, including Presidents’ Day weekend and costumed living history from April through October. Work on compiling the Roll of Honor database of Purple Hearts recipients will also continue during the construction project.
Why here, though? The Purple Heart is the US military’s oldest medal, created by General Washington toward the end of the war in 1782 to recognize meritorious service – usually taking the form of bravery in combat (which might or might not have resulted in an injury). Perhaps motivated by a desire to avoid replicating the class-based British model of military advancement, the Continental Congress had forbidden the commander-in-chief from granting commissions and promotions in rank as rewards for merit. As an alternative, Washington ordered that a Badge of Military Merit be established, intended specifically to reward the valor of enlisted men. He decreed its design to be “the figure of a heart in purple cloth or silk edged with narrow lace or binding,” to be worn over the left breast. Wearing this insignia allowed recipients to pass all guards and sentinels as freely as a commissioned officer.
Only three names of recipients of the Badge of Military Merit have survived in our records of the Revolutionary War era: Sergeant Elijah Churchill, 2nd Continental Dragoons; Sergeant William Brown, 5th Connecticut Continental Line Infantry; and Sergeant Daniel Bissel, 2nd Connecticut Continental Line Infantry. Given the timing of its creation, it is presumed that the ceremonies awarding the Badge to these early heroes took place on Temple Hill, the site of the New Windsor Cantonment.
After the end of the war, the Badge of Merit fell into disuse. But in 1932, to honor the bicentennial of Washington’s birth, Douglas MacArthur, then Secretary of War, signed an order reinstating the Purple Heart. On May 28 of that year, 137 World War I veterans gathered at Temple Hill to receive their Purple Hearts. May 28 is still celebrated in New Windsor as Temple Hill Day.
At first, the revived Purple Heart was exclusively awarded to Army and Army Air Corps personnel, but in 1942, FDR extended eligibility for the medal to sailors, Marines and Coast Guard personnel. Currently, the Purple Heart is awarded in the name of the President of the US to any member of the armed forces after April 5, 1917 who has been wounded or killed in action. Controversies have arisen over the decades about whether certain types of injuries qualified: frostbite, heatstroke, friendly fire, acts of terrorism, “mild” traumatic brain injuries, PTSD. The only US president ever to have earned one was John F. Kennedy, in 1943. The largest number ever awarded to a single serviceman was eight, to Major General Robert T. Frederick. As of today, the military has awarded an estimated 1.8 million Purple Hearts to soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen.
It’s apparent that there’s a lot of history attached to this decoration, and the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor is the archive whose mission is to keep that history alive. A year or so from now, the public will be invited back through its doors for a more vividly immersive experience in what the medal means – especially to those who have earned it.
National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, 374 Temple Hill Road (Route 300), New Windsor; (845) 561-1765, (877) 28HONOR, www.thepurpleheart.com.