Victoria Cross and US Army Medal of Honor
History

The Victoria Cross Versus The US Medal Of Honor – How Do They Compare?

A look at the histories of the highest medals for gallantry in the UK and US.

Victoria Cross and US Army Medal of Honor

While there are many ways in which Britain and the US honour their Armed Forces personnel, the most prestigious must be the awarding of two medals: the Victoria Cross (VC) and the Medal of Honor (MOH.)

These are the highest awards for gallantry displayed during combat and are therefore very close equivalents.

The VC can be awarded to those of any rank who display outstanding devotion to duty and/or courage whilst serving with British, or Commonwealth, forces.

Some Commonwealth nations have their own version of the VC, while some others still use the British honours system.

Technically, the VC may also be awarded to those in the Merchant Marine or civilians who display outstanding bravery whilst temporarily serving under British military or Merchant Marine command. 

The Ministry of Defence defines the VC as:

“The premier Operational Gallantry award given for ‘most conspicuous bravery, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy’.”

Likewise, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society (CMOHS) explains that the MOH "is authorized for any military service member who ‘distinguishes himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.

“’While engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States;

“’While engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or

“’While serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party’."

The CMOHS also points out that the standards for the Medal of Honor have changed over time, as have those for the VC. 

What follows is an examination of the present and historical similarities and differences between these two superlative awards.

When Were The VC And The MOH First Established?

The Victoria Cross was created first, being established in 1856 at the end of the Crimean War. It was meant to recognise the high gallantry displayed by British soldiers and sailors during that conflict. It could be awarded to those of any rank, as long as the recipient was said to have acted with extreme bravery in the face of the enemy, that is while under fire.

Since they were first made and awarded, Victoria Crosses have been made from bronze, which is said to have been derived from Russian artillery guns captured during the Crimean War. This may well be the case, though the National Army Museum suggests that the bronze might have come instead from a Chinese gun captured during the First China War of 1839 to 1842. 

Whatever the true story of its origin, the bronze used to make the medal has always been issued to the London jewellers Hancock & Co, who still make the VC today. When a new VC is called for, Hancock & Co request more bronze from the Central Ordnance Depot in Donnington.

While the medal itself has been the same for Britain’s services, the ribbon that was attached to it used to be different: dark blue for the Royal Navy and crimson for the Army. The crimson ribbon was later adopted for all three services in 1918.

Victoria Cross close up - MoD
A Victoria Cross (image: MoD)

According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, the Medal of Honor began life specifically as a naval medal thanks to the efforts of a US congressman: 

“It started as a simple idea from Iowa Senator James W. Grimes—a bill authorizing the production and distribution of ‘medals of honor’ to be presented to enlisted seamen and marines who ‘distinguish themselves by gallantry in action and other seamanlike qualities’ during the American Civil War.”

By the end of 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had signed a bill that created the first Medal of Honor for the US Navy, which at the time could only be awarded to those in the ranks. Naval officers would not be eligible to receive the award until after 1915. 

An Army version followed in the middle of 1862, though initially it too was only to be awarded to privates and NCOs, though US Army officers soon became eligible as well in 1863.

The MOH has also been awarded to Marine, US Coast Guard and US Air Force (USAF) personnel. When this has occurred, the Marines and the Coast Guard have received the naval version of the MOH. The Army version went to those in the Air Force until this branch got its own distinctive medal in 1965. US air forces had, after all, been a part of the Army until 1947, when the USAF was created.

The MOH is often referred to erroneously as the ‘Congressional Medal of Honor’, because it was created in the US Congress, but ‘Congressional’ is not actually a part of its name. The Congressional Medal of Honor Society (CMOHS) is so called because it is a group associated with the US Congress.

An illustration showing the three different versions of the Medal of Honor, one for each major branch of the US military (image: Public Domain)
An illustration showing the three different versions of the Medal of Honor, one for each major branch of the US military (image: Public Domain)

Who Were The VCs And Medals Of Honor First Awarded To?

The first 85 VCs were given together at a ceremony in Hyde Park in 1857, being awarded to men who had fought in the Crimean War. 

The first recipients of the Medal of Honor were those who served in the Civil War. Jacob Parrott was the first person to be presented with the award, in March 1863, in recognition of acts he had performed in April 1862. Parrott’s action was actually predated by that of Bernard J D Irwin, who won the MOH for his brave acts he performed in February 1861 – however, Irwin would not receive his award until 1894.

Robert Williams was the first naval recipient, receiving his medal in May 1863 for his actions the previous year.

John F MacKie was the first US Marine to receive the MOH, for brave conduct in 1862, and Douglas A Munroe became the first Coast Guard member to receive it for actions he performed at Guadalcanal in 1942. Bernard Fisher became the first US Air Force recipient, getting his award in 1967 for actions performed the previous year during the Vietnam War.

The CMOHS advises that those who have been given the award should be referred to as ‘recipients’ rather than ‘winners’, since they do not think of themselves as having ‘won’ the MOH. Rather, they see it as something that “was bestowed upon them to carry as a symbol of the sacrifices of all who have served”. 

How Many VCs And Medals Of Honor Have Been Awarded To Date?

The Medal of Honor has been awarded 3,527 times to 3,508 recipients, with 19 having been awarded twice, including to Thomas Custer, the brother of George Armstrong Custer who died during the Battle of Little Bighorn. Recipients have come from all three major branches of the US military, including the Marines and the US Coast Guard, though only one member of the Coast Guard has ever received the medal.

The total count includes a number of Unknown Soldiers who honour the unidentified and unfound dead of the First World War. Four of these are US Unknown Soldiers who lie in Arlington National Cemetery in the state of Virginia, and five include the Unknown Soldiers of other nations who fought in the First World War: Britain, France, Italy, Belgium and Romania.

General John Pershing presented the Medal of Honor for the British Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey in 1921.

There have been 1,358 Victoria Crosses awarded – this includes three bars added to existing VCs (in other words, three people have received the VC twice.)

One of those VCs is also accounted for by having been awarded reciprocally to the American Unknown Soldier for the Medal of Honor awarded by General John Pershing to the British Unknown Soldier in 1921.

The total number of VCs also includes eight cases of forfeiture. The original warrant that established the medal allowed for removing the names of some of those who had received it from the official list under certain circumstances – which in practice meant criminal behaviour. Eight VCs were forfeited under this clause, but a 1931 royal warrant gave the king or queen the power to cancel a forfeiture. This is why the eight cases of forfeiture are still on the official list of VC recipients today.

A US Army Medal of Honor (image: Public Domain)
A US Army Medal of Honor (image: Public Domain)

How Have The Criteria For Wining The MOH And The VC Changed Over Time?

The criteria for both medals have varied over the years. To begin with, the US Navy and Army Medals of Honor had a significant difference in their awarding criteria: the Army required high valour whilst in combat, whereas the US Navy’s criteria also included gallant acts performed during military service, though it was not necessary for these to have been performed whilst in combat. 

In 1963, the criteria for the award were standardised across all three branches of the US military and, like today’s Victoria Cross, the Medal of Honor can now only be won for acts performed whilst under fire, such as in combat.

There have also been a number of other changes to the rules for awarding the MOH over the course of its life. According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, the way it was commonly done in the Civil War was for officers to recommend soldiers they noticed had been particularly high performing and gallant. Though after the war, standards began to slip during the 1870s to the 1890s and in some instances would-be recipients were recommending themselves for the award.

In 1897, the standards were updated so that an eyewitness had to be present and someone other than the prospective recipient of the medal had to make the recommendation. There was also a review in 1916 that was meant to ensure that medals awarded up to that point had been done so based on sufficient standards of bravery. This resulted in 911 medals being rescinded, though six were subsequently reinstated. 

In the case of the Victoria Cross, since the first ones were awarded retroactively after the Crimean War, there was a lot of lobbying that went on for those too, a lot of it unsuccessfully. Like Civil-War-era Medals of Honor, early VCs were normally recommended by an officer and sent up the chain of command to the Secretary of State for War and then to the Queen.

Changes and updates also impacted the VC. In 1858, a Royal warrant widened the criteria for awarding the medal so that it could be given to non-military members who had shown bravery serving with the British Armed Forces. It was prompted by efforts of British civilians during the Indian Mutiny that started the previous year. It has been awarded to seven civilians since the issuing of the warrant, including two members of the Mercantile Marine during World War 1.

There was also a rule that allowed for awarding the VC by ballot. For example, if groups such as the crew of a ship had all shown high valour in combat, several members might get the VC for the same action. 

In 1902, the medal was expanded to include posthumous awards, and in 1940 the George Cross was created, which has since been awarded for bravery whilst not under fire. 

Does The Larger Number Of Medals Of Honor That Have Been Awarded Mean They Are Easier To Receive Than The Victoria Cross?

The answer to this question is complex, though the short answer is that today the standards for being awarded the two medals are largely identical, though in the past criteria have varied.

Starting with today, an act of valour that may lead to a VC or an MOH must be witnessed by a number of people before a formal recommendation for either medal can be made. Victoria Cross recommendations are very carefully considered before being sent to the Queen. In the case of the Medal of Honor, a recommendation will likewise be carefully vetted, going through various committees before being sent to the President.

Up until the end of the First World War though, the Victoria Cross and Medal of Honor awards would have been less directly comparable. That is because the British had a number of other medals for gallantry both during and before World War 1, most notably the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal and the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The US, meanwhile, were reliant upon the Medal of Honor until more awards for gallantry were established in or after 1918, and the ‘Pyramid of Honor’ (or ‘Pyramid of Valor’) was set up to rank them. Beyond that point, the Medal of Honor was more clearly established as the highest ranking, and thereby a clearer equivalent of our VC.

Another very important point to bear in mind is that the much larger number of Medals of Honor can be largely explained by differences in the scale of conflicts rather than differences in standards. Just as the American military of today is much larger than the British military, the wars out of which the VC and MOH were establish – the Crimean and the American Civil War – involved very different overall numbers of soldiers. 

While a little over 100,000 British soldiers participated in the Crimean War, over two million men fought for the Union during the American Civil War. This meant many more people fighting and many more opportunities to perform actions that earnt medals. This is almost certainly why roughly half of the Medals of Honor that have been awarded were done so based on service in the Civil War.

In the end, both awards have travelled an interesting historical path and today’s VCs and Medals of Honor are quite clearly equally appreciative of similar acts of extreme valour or gallantry.

Thanks to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society for assistance with this article.

military ceremonial sword and Union Jack
A Victoria Cross shown on the left of a row of other medals (image: MoD)