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The History of Recognition Awards in America

Ever wonder where recognition awards started? Well, it was in America during the Revolutionary War! George Washington was the first person to recognize common soldiers for their service. These first awards for valor awarded to a soldier regardless of their class went to three soldiers who acted heroically at a crucial time during the Revolutionary War! With the Fourth of July right around the corner, let's take a look at the history of recognition awards and see how recognition is an American tradition!

American Awards Start with European Traditions

While European tradition did include awarding high ranking officers for victories, these recognition awards were reserved for the aristocracy. The idea of recognizing common soldiers was as foreign to them as a republican government with an elected leader.

The first person to award common soldiers for valor was George Washington. Americans were differentiating themselves on all levels from their monarchical predecessors, and recognizing individuals regardless of their status was another way to do that. Who knew recognition awards were so American?

American Award

The First Award for the Common Soldier

The First Medal of Valo

In 1780, the Revolutionary War was in full force. The French had signed the French Alliance in 1778, which began to tip the scales in American favor. However, on May 12, 1780, the Revolutionary army suffered what would become their worst defeat throughout the entirety of the Revolutionary War. The British captured Charleston, South Carolina. It was still anyone's war.

This leads us to September 23, 1780. Soldiers John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart, and David Williams were patrolling outside of Tarrytown, New York when they captured the British Major John Andre. Andre, the Deputy Adjutant General of British Forces in New York, disguised himself as an American patriot. The three American soldiers were disguised as British troops. Andre ordered who he thought were British soldiers to let him pass, but the disguised Americans captured him. When Paulding, Van Wart, and Williams searched Andre, they found what they thought were stolen American documents. Andre bribed the soldiers with $5,000 (worth over $93,000 today!) to try to escape. They refused, and Andre went to trial.

Soon after, it was discovered that Andre did not steal the confidential documents. The infamous traitor, Benedict Arnold, had given them to him! This discovery happened days before Benedict Arnold had planned to cede the American stronghold at West Point to the British. Paulding, Van Wart, and Williams had foiled Arnold's treasonous plan!

George Washington recognized Paulding, Van Wart, and Williams' heroism and chose to honor them with recognition awards. Washington presented each soldier with a medal at a ceremony held at the Army headquarters in 1780. This is the first known instance of awarding a medal to a common soldier!

New Tradition of Recognition

These inspired George Washington to establish more recognition awards, which would develop into what we now know as hash marks to recognize years of service in the military. These are the first medals that recognize service, not just an event or specific act of heroism like the historical first award for valor.

When celebrating this Fourth of July, keep in mind one of the first American traditions: recognition! This American tradition is a great way to boost morale, strengthen your team, and reward people for going that extra mile! Check out some of our patriotic awards for Independence Day recognition! For recognition year-round, see some of our best selling awards, or design your custom award today! Happy Fourth of July from all of us here at!