Design & Symbolism
The Original Navy Medal of Honor
The symbolism in the Medal of Honor has changed very little since the Navy created the first Medal, minted at the Philadelphia Mint at the request of Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. The Philadelphia firm of William Wilson & Sons produced the winning design.
The design included an inverted, 5-pointed star with a cluster of laurel leaves (for victory), mixed with oak (for strength), on each of the star’s five points. Thirty-four stars, equal to the number of states in the U.S. in 1862 (including the 11 Confederate states) surrounded the insignia. The stars are also symbolic of the "heavens and the divine goal which man has aspired to" according to Charles Thompson, Secretary of the Continental Congress in 1777.
Two images were engraved inside the circle of stars. Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and war, is on the right. The owl perched on her helmet represents wisdom. In the Roman tradition, her left hand holds rods and an ax blade, symbolic of authority. In her right hand is the shield of the Union of states (similar to our seal.)
A man clutching snakes in his hands, representing Discord, recoils from Minerva. The insignia came to be known as "Minerva Repulsing Discord," appropriate in the context of the Civil War’s discord.
The Medal’s ribbon was originally a blue bar with 13 red and white stripes running vertically, representing the original 13 colonies. White represents purity and innocence; red represents hardiness, valor and blood; blue signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice. The stripes also represent the rays of the sun.
Instead of an inverted star, the 1919 Tiffany Cross version had a Maltese Cross, with eight points to symbolize the eight virtues of a knight. The configuration of the cross itself represents the four cardinal directions and the sun. This unpopular design was discontinued in 1942.
The Army Medal
The Army MOH was created soon after the original Navy MOH in 1862. The eagle, a symbol of the United States, perched on a cannon, grasping a saber in its talons.
In 1904, a new version of the Medal appeared, called the Gillespie version for its designer, Medal recipient Gen. Gillespie. A simple portrait of a helmeted Goddess of War replaced "Minerva repelling Discord." The red, white and blue ribbon was replaced with light blue and 13 white stars.
The Air Force Medal
In 1965, the new Air Force Medal appeared. It replaced Minerva with the Statue of Liberty, wearing a pointed crown instead of a helmet. While she stands for liberty, she is derived from the imagery of Semiramis, wife of Nimrod, and Queen of Babylon. The mythical Semiramis, who may have been loosely based on a historical figure, was famed for beauty, strength, and wisdom and was said to have built the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon and reigned for 42 years.