A Little Medal of Honor History

The Medal of Honor As a student of history, I recently read an article by Frank Winn that I found very interesting. It concerned the various military medals that this country has issued throughout its history. One of the best know is the Medal of Honor given as the highest decoration for valor in a military context. Unfortunately, 60% of these medals for bravery and self-sacrifice are awarded posthumously. Only 3,496 service people have received the Medal out of about 50 million Americans that have worn our country’s uniform. Just 77 recipients are alive today.
Technically, the Purple Heart is older (created by George Washington back in 1780), but the Medal of Honor was for a long time the country’s only medal that recognized heroism or gallantry “above and beyond”. Many United States wars were fought with any other decoration, probably because many of our early American military officers did not want to emulate the prolific decorations that the European militaries used. It reminded them of the aristocracy, which they were trying to avoid in our new county.

One of the biggest resisters of individual decorations was General-in-Chief of the Army Winfield Scott, but after his retirement in 1861 the way cleared to create a couple of new medal: the Navy “Medal of Valor” which was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in December of 1861 and the Army “Medal of Honor” in July of 1962. There were 1,522 awarded by the end of the Civil war, including one to civilian female surgeon Mary Walker (one of only eight women) and 25 to African-American soldiers and sailors. 

After the civil war, a large number of Easterners moved west of the Mississippi, which resulted in a different mission for the military and thus who received the Medal of Honor. As most people know, this westward migration brought increasing conflict with Native Americans, and long series of skirmishes alternating between failed treaties (which the US Government usual broke) and open warfare spanning 95 years—1823 to 1918. Many Civil War troops were sent west to protect settlers of every kind. Between 1858 and 1886, perhaps the most famous enemy of both Mexican and American expansion was Apache Chief Geronimo.  

Major General George Crook was sent west at the war’s end like many other officers and became one of the most capable Indian fighters and negotiators, pacifying the Snake and Paiute tribes in Oregon before being assigned to the Arizona Territory by President Ulysses S. Grant. Crook also became well known for his ability to recruit Native Americans as scouts and emissaries, believing that “the wilder the Apache was, the more likely he was to know the wiles and stratagems of those still out in the mountains.”

One of his recruits during the Winter Campaign of 1872-73 was 19-year-old William Alchesay, a White Mountain Apache. They were trying to convince the Chiricahua Apache to stop their raiding and surrender peacefully, and Alchesay was one of Crook’s primary envoys to Geronimo. From December through March, after both negotiation and battle (Salt River Canyon and Turret Peak), eventually most of the Apache warriors and their families surrendered at Camp Verde, Ariz. General Crook’s aid (and fellow Medal of Honor winner) Captain John G. Bourke described Sergeant Alchesay as “a perfect Adonis in figure, a mass of muscle and sinew of wonderful courage and great sagacity, and as faithful as a Irish hound.”

Alchesay served under General Crook again (1883 through the end of the Apache Wars in 1886) and later became an advisor to Indian agents throughout the west and, eventually, to three U.S. presidents (Cleveland in 1887, Roosevelt in 1909 and Harding in 1921) on Indian affairs. Also a successful rancher, farmer and family man, he served his people as chief of the White Mountain Apache until 1925.

Unfortunately, many early Medal of Honor citations, like Alchesay’s, are sparse, saying only “gallant conduct during campaigns and engagements with Apaches.” In fact, he was just one of 10 Indian Scouts cited by General Crook.

What I found especially interesting is that Indian Scouts continued on in the U.S. Army until the 1940s, when many of their traditions became those of early U.S. Special Forces.

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