Memorial Day, as the day has come to be known, traces its origins to the American Civil War. People observed the day, initially known as Decoration Day, by decorating the graves of Union soldiers who had fallen in battle. The Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, selected May 30 as the day to pay tribute to their fellow soldiers in part because of the availability of blooming flowers and for the fact that no major Civil War battle had been fought on that day. With the passage of time, the observance was expanded to include the dead from later wars and its name transformed into the more solemn Memorial Day.
In the early 20th Century, the United States Army gave greater recognition to the sacrifices of its soldiers by reviving the Badge of Military Merit, an award General George Washington originated during the Revolutionary War. Redesigned as the Purple Heart medal, it is awarded to those killed or wounded by actions of enemies of the United States. The medal was retroactively awarded to eligible soldiers from World War I.
The State Museum currently exhibits the Purple Heart medal of World War I veteran Edward Martin. An attorney in civilian life, Martin worked his way through the ranks by many years of service in the Pennsylvania National Guard. By 1918, he was a lieutenant colonel in command of a battalion of the 110th Infantry Regiment. On July 29, 1918, near Courmont, France, Martin was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism in action while leading an attack with “coolness under fire and utter disregard for personal danger” according to the award citation. The following day, “Although painfully wounded when regimental headquarters was destroyed by shell fire, he went with a battalion commander and directed the successful attack against a strong enemy position, remaining in command of the regiment until its relief.” Martin received a second Distinguished Service Cross for his actions that day and also a Purple Heart for his wound. On September 6, now in command of the 109th Infantry Regiment, Martin was exposed to mustard gas and received a second Purple Heart for that injury. The oak leaf cluster on the ribbons represents the second award of each medal.
Edward Martin’s service to Pennsylvania continued after World War I. During World War II, he commanded the Pennsylvania National Guard as a major general. He served as the state’s governor between 1943 and 1947 and was later elected to two terms in the United States Senate. His World War I medals, along with other artifacts from his lifetime of service to Pennsylvania, are on exhibit in Pennsylvania Icons at The State Museum.
This edition of Pennsylvania Treasures was written by Bob Hill, History Curator at The State Museum of Pennsylvania.
About Pennsylvania Icons:
Featuring a diverse array of artifacts from the collections of the State Museum of Pennsylvania and other Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission historic sites and museums, Pennsylvania Icons tells the story of our commonwealth, its people and the role they played in shaping the nation. The exhibit features historic artifacts ranging from a 1654 map of the Philadelphia region to pieces of the Walnut Street bridge in Harrisburg. Pennsylvania Icons opens to the public on Sunday, November 8, 2015.
About Pennsylvania Treasures:
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission houses artifacts hailing from all eras of the commonwealth’s past. These objects represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. PHMC curators continue to research the stories behind many of these rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.