National Treasure

Book of Merit


D.H.T.Shippey  &  Michael Burns

There are many National Treasures from the Revolutionary Era that have been lost to time. Martha Washington burned the personal correspondence between herself and George after his death. The American Turtle, first submarine ever to attempt an attack on an enemy warship, has itself vanished beneath the waves of time. One of these lost National treasures is the Book of Merit. This book held the names, regiments and actions of those soldiers who had earned the Badge of Military Merit, an award that was itself revolutionary.

    In the 18th century, countries gave ribbons, medals and awards to officers whose victories or valorous actions were recognized by their superiors. This was an era when only gentlemen who purchased their commissions could become officers. Private soldiers were given little thought and could achieve little distinction. In America there were very few people of genteel birth—certainly not enough to fill the military’s desperate need for officers. While many of the early New England officers were chosen by a vote of their men, this system was shown to be a dismal failure from the outset. Any officer who gave a difficult order might find himself voted out of power. Merit must be the new criteria for greatness in the American republic. General George Washington recognized this and encouraged it, raising some from obscurity to the rank of Generals in the course of the war. But in August of 1782 Washington saw the need to recognize regular soldiers who distinguished themselves in service or combat. To this end he gave orders establishing two decorations. The first of these awards was the Badge of Distinction, a white strip of cloth sewn above the cuff of a soldier’s coat denoting three years of service. This is a tradition that is carried on today in the form of hash marks. The second of these awards was The Military Badge Of Merit. This award was created to recognize both regular soldiers and officers for “Singularly meritorious service.” The order read as follows:

“The General ever desirous to cherish virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and encourage every species of Military merit, directs that whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear on his facings over the left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth, or silk, edged with narrow lace or binding. Not only instances of unusual gallantry, but also of extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way shall meet with a due reward. Before this favour can be conferred on any man, the particular fact, or facts, on which it is to be grounded must be set forth to the Commander in chief accompanied with certificates from the Commanding officers of the regiment and brigade to which the Candadate [sic] for reward belonged, or other incontestable proofs, and upon granting it, the name and regiment of the person with the action so certified are to be enrolled in the book of merit which will be kept at the orderly office. Men who have merited this last distinction to be suffered to pass all guards and sentinals [sic] which officers are permitted to do. The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all. This order is also to have retrospect to the earliest stages of the war, and to be considered as a permanent one.”

The words “The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all.” demonstrate that Washington was very aware that he was changing the rules. Men would be valued and rewarded for what they did, not by the circumstances of their birth.

     The Book of Merit was meant to chronicle the deeds of the new nation’s heroes. It disappeared sometime after the war came to an end. What happened to it? Is it mislabeled in a library or lost among government documents? Was it destroyed in some tragic fire or neglected and disintegrated with the passing of time? Was it put somewhere for safe keeping and today waits to be discovered in some descendant’s attic? Nobody knows. Right now The Book of Merit remains a lost national treasure that historians can only speculate on based on the information we still possess.  We know the names of the first three recipients of the badge of Merit, but researchers have diverging hypotheses as to whether these were the only recipients or just the first. There is no complete listing of their actions warranting such distinctions. Historians can theorize from the regiments and brigades and the date of the nomination what the deeds of the nominees were. Still, those details we want can only be guessed at.








The first two Badge of Merit recipients were Sergeant Elijah Churchill of the 2nd Regiment of Light Dragoons and Sergeant William Brown of the Fifth Regiment of Foot. We know from company logs and journals that these men were awarded their badges in a ceremony at Washington’s Newburgh headquarters May 3rd, 1783. It is believed that Elijah Churchill was awarded his badge for actions in one or both of two raids he led. The first was a raid on Fort George at Long Island (Nov 23 1780), where Churchill led a charge against the gates and main blockhouse. The British were completely surprised and the fort was won in minutes. The second raid that may have warranted such notice was against Fort Slongo, also on Long Island, on October 10 1781 in which the entire garrison was captured. The second badge, granted to Sergeant William Brown, was awarded at Yorktown. We are fairly confident it was given for his actions against British redoubt #10. Sergeant Brown lead a group of volunteers known as the “Forlorn Hope” because their assignment was so dangerous that none of the members expected to survive. They were to be the advance troops, cutting holes in the abatis (spiked barriers) and clearing the way for the regular troops to attack the fortifications. Brown led from the front and in the heat of battle jumped the abatis in an open spot and charged the redoubt with the bayonet of his unloaded musket. Seeing his bravery, other members of the Forlorn Hope followed, with groups of infantry behind them. The redoubt surrendered with amazingly few American casualties.

     The last of the known Badge of Merit Recipients might have been the most mysterious if all we had were the official military records. Those record read, “Sergeant Bissell of the 2d Connecticut Regt. having performed some important services within the immediate knowledge of the Commander-in-Chief in which the fidelity, perseverance and good sense of said Segt. Bissell were conspicuously manifested, it is therefore ordered that he be honored with the Badge of Merit."  Not a very telling passage in the logbooks, but after the war the story of Sergeant Bissel’s exploits became known. The then 28-year-old Bissel had volunteered for the disreputable (by 18th century standards) and dangerous work of spying. George Washington was almost obsessed with the idea of recapturing the important city of New York, which was the scene of arguably his worst defeat in 1776. In August of 1781, Bissell dressed as a civilian and secreted himself into the city. Once inside the Sergeant joined the British troops, ending up in Benedict Arnold’s Loyalist (British) Regiment. After almost a year Bissell made his escape from the British and was soon captured by American troops outside the city. As a prisoner he was brought to Washington, who personally acknowledged that he was in the General’s employ. Once he had the opportunity to clean up and recover his proper uniform, Daniel Bissell drew detailed maps of all the troop deployments and forts on Staten and Manhattan Island from memory. Invaluable intelligence gathered in a year living among his enemies.

       The Book of Merit may be gone, but a few of the badges have survived. Sergeant Bissel’s badge was lost in a house fire in 1813. Sergeant Brown’s was reportedly stolen from a descendant's home in 1924, but other accounts say it is the badge discovered in a barn in New Hampshire and currently in the possession of the Society of the Cincinnati. The badge of Elijah Churchill has been preserved and is held at New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site in New York. There are other soldiers whose discharge papers claim them to be recipients of the badge. John Sithens, Fife, 2nd New Jersey Regiment, discharged June 5, 1783. “14 October 1781 - On this date, at night, the Jersey Light Infantry under Lt. Colonel Francis Barber took part in the assault and capture of Redoubt Number 10. This was one of two important strongpoints taken, Redoubt Number 9 being captured by French troops.” Peter Shumway, Soldier, 4th Massachusetts Regiment, discharged June 9, 1783. Sergeant William Dutton, 7th Massachusetts Regiment, discharged June 10, 1783. Further details of these badges and possibly more, along with the deeds that inspired their presentation, are lost to us today. Heroic deeds held secret in the missing Book of Merit.

For past articles go to