America’s rarest military decoration, the Marine Corps Brevet Medal, (Only 21 were ever authorized) actually has its roots in the brevet system of promotions. A brevet promotion is, in its simplest terms, advancement in rank without an advance in pay or authority, which were used to reward Officers for bravery in combat or for outstanding service.
The Second Continental Congress authorized brevets for the US Army in 1775. This was followed on by a Resolution in 1778 stipulating that brevets would only be authorized “..to officers in the line or in case of very eminent services…”. In 1814, Congress authorized brevets for Marines, stipulating, “… That the President is hereby authorized to confer brevet rank on such officers of the Marine Corps as shall distinguish themselves by gallant actions and meritorious conduct or shall have served ten years in any one grade…”
For a period of 86 years following this authorization, 100 Marine officers were granted 121 brevet promotions. The first Marine to be subject to a brevet promotion was Anthony Gale in April 1814 to Major for having been a Captain for ten years.
This law was again changed by Act of Congress in 1834. The changes at this time in the law were twofold. A) it repealed the 10 year in grade provision, making the award an award for gallantry only, and making it the highest award a Marine officer could receive for the next 81 years. and, b) it repealed the granting of brevets for 10 years in grade.
During the Civil War, 2 separate events led to the end of the brevet. The first was the establishment of the Medal of Honor in 1862. In the Army both enlisted AND officers could receive the award, however in the Navy and Marine Corps the Medal of Honor was an enlisted award only. This would remain a standard until 1915. Regardless, the issuing of the Medal of Honor began a superior method of recognizing valor and achievement.
The second reason that occurred during the Civil War which led to the end of brevets was its abuse by the Army with many officers receiving brevets for administrative duties. In 1869 Congress passed an Act which restricted all future brevets to time of war and then only for distinguished conduct and public service in the presence of the enemy, AND it also removed all privileges of command based upon brevet rank except as directed by the President.
In 1870, a law passed by Congress mandating that no officer could wear brevet rank, nor be addressed by his brevet rank. This made the brevet promotion purely an honorary decoration. By the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 the Corps issued its last 9 brevet promotions.
In 1921, Commandant Lejeune recommended to the Secretary of the Navy that a medal be issued to denote the holder of a brevet commission. The Secretary of the Navy, on June 7, 1921 approved the Marine Corps’ suggestion and authorized design of an appropriate badge or ribbon. Sgt. J.A. Burnett, USMC under the supervision of BGen. Charles L. McCawley submitted the final design on June 10, 1921 which was subsequently approved by Sec’y Navy, and General Lejeune thereafter issued Marine Corps Order # 26 on June 27, 1921.Within a short period of time, the Quartermaster’s Dept, USMC was directed to have the medals manufactured. The precedence of the medal was originally such that it was to be worn immediately following the campaign decoration in which the brevet was earned. This was changed by reason of the theory behind the brevet, and it was directed that it be worn immediately after the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Medal, and Navy Cross or Army Distinguished Service Cross ( all of which were authorized during WWI except the Medal of Honor). The 1925 Uniform regulations indicate that the Brevet Medal would be worn after the Distinguished Flying Cross, however by May 1937 it was ranked only after the Medal of Honor. In September 1921 the Philadelphia Mint stated that they could strike the medals at $3.25 each, 24 were ordered. This was further decreased to 21 as they would only be awarded to living recipients of the Medal and not next of kin. Problems with the design and sourcing of the ribbon material delayed the striking and issue of the Medal until November 10th, 1921.
The following Marines are the known recipients of the Marine Corps Brevet Medal:
- Major Generals - Wendell C. Neville and Littleton. W. T. Waller
- Brigadier Generals – George Richards, Charles L. McCawley, Charles G. Long, Smedley D. Butler, and Percival C. Pope
- Colonels – John T. Myers, William N. McKelvy, Phillip M. Bannon, Newt H. Hall, George C. Thorpe, David D. Porter, Carl Gamborg-Andresen, William G. Powell, Allan C. Kelton, Paul St. Clair Murphy, James E. Mahoney, Melville J. Shaw
- Lt. Colonel – Lewis C. Lucas
Between the original striking of the Medal and today fewer then 20 have been officially struck and around 1973 the dies were retired and placed in the custody of the Marine Corps History and Museums Division, and no official restrike is contemplated. However, there are reproductions of varying quality circulating and entering private and public collections.